In retrospect, that interview in the summer was a seismic warning of the election earthquake to come in the fall.
In late June last year, Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s memoir of his tumultuous childhood lived on the border between Appalachia and the Rust Belt, appeared in bookstores, attracting little notice. A month later, an interview Vance did about the book with The American Conservative went viral, melting down this magazine’s internet server three times and propelling the book to the No. 1 slot on the New York Times bestseller list.
Vance, 31, became an overnight media star, the go-to guy to explain Donald J. Trump’s appeal to the white working class. As a Yale Law School graduate now working in finance in San Francisco, Vance straddled the sharp cultural and experiential divide between deepest Blue and deepest Red America. Given Trump’s stunning victory, and the fact that the Rust Belt delivered the win, Hillbilly Elegy was undoubtedly the most important political book of 2016.
What does the accidental hillbilly prophet see in Trump Nation’s future? Vance forecasts a great deal of instability ahead with challenges that he is not sure either party is capable of meeting. Come what may, though, the Hillbilly Elegy experience convinced its author that he has a calling to leave the world of high finance to take a hands-on role in helping to solve the social crisis his bestselling book so powerfully describes.
Though a Republican, Vance was not a Trump supporter. Throughout the election season, he made it clear in interviews that he believed Trump to be a false messiah bound to break the hearts of his supporters.
Nevertheless, the Trump phenomenon was an apocalypse in the strict sense of the word—that is, an unveiling that revealed some startling truths about economic class and culture in America. In the aftermath of this historical election, Vance says the vote showed most of all how staggeringly out of touch elites—both liberals and conservatives—are with an enormous number of their fellow Americans.
“They couldn’t imagine that anyone would vote for Trump, couldn’t imagine that a person might not even love Trump but would vote for him anyway,” says Vance. “Something analogous happened with the book. So many readers have told me that they had no idea that people grew up like I did. They didn’t understand where so many of us came from, so they didn’t understand Trump.”
As the national media’s premier explainer of the Trump phenomenon, Vance says journalists searching themselves to see how they got so much wrong should get out of their coastal bubbles, choked with the acrid, blinding smoke of confirmation bias, and spend serious, sustained time among ordinary Americans—both those who voted for Trump, and those who hate him.
After all, identity is a complicated, many-layered thing. Hispanic voters were expected to despise Trump and turn out in record numbers to vote for Hillary Clinton. In the end, exit polling showed that Trump won 29 percent of the Hispanic vote. One working-class Hispanic immigrant told me after the election that it shouldn’t surprise me that so many Americans like him share Trump’s view that immigration ought to be lawful and orderly.
“It’s remarkable how diverse even the most devotedly pro-Trump areas like my hometown can be,” says Vance, a native of Middletown, Ohio. “And the only way to really understand people is to spend time. Journalists have to get back to the qualitative side of things. Too many people are willing to draw very sweeping conclusions by parsing data and discussing the quantitative side of the equation. Anyone who really knew these areas would have appreciated that Trump had a very high floor.”
Even so, Vance was as surprised as anybody else that Trump won. He underestimated his own observations about the potent anger of alienated white working class voters, and the ability of Trump to channel it into a win. He was in New York City on election night, making the rounds of network interviews. In the ABC News studio, it finally hit him that Trump was really going to win.
“I mostly felt humbled: I should have seen this coming before anyone,” he confesses. “In the week leading up to the election, I had focused too much on the data component of the election—the polls and the forecasts—and not enough on the real people who were powering Trump’s success.”
Though Vance had resigned himself to the inevitability of a Clinton presidency, he’s not particularly happy that Trump will occupy the White House for the next four years. Sure, he’s pleased that “all the good people who voted for him even though the media told them he didn’t have a chance” have been vindicated, but Vance foresees years of volatility ahead for the nation. The Trumpified GOP cannot take the Rust Belt for granted, he says.
“My guess is that the white working class is going to continue swinging between two political poles until something really begins to improve,” says Vance. “That doesn’t mean people want to see overnight economic turnarounds. But they do want some of these problems—the opioid crisis, stagnating wages, low social mobility, foreign policy failures—to show consistent signs of improvement.”
That makes sense. However, one of the things that made Hillbilly Elegy such a compelling read was Vance’s unsentimental insistence that politics and public policy cannot solve all the problems that have immiserated the white working class.
In the book, Vance said that as a younger man, he “very desperately” wanted to believe that an abundance of good jobs would fix what was broken in the Rust Belt. Experience taught him otherwise. In the summer between completing his Marine Corps service and enrolling in law school, he took a job working in a floor-tile distribution business. It was hard physical labor, but the pay and benefits were good.
Even so, the warehouse had trouble keeping workers. Far too many young men in Vance’s hometown are averse to hard work, and quick to see themselves as society’s victims. Vance wrote that he comes from “a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”
Does Vance believe, then, that the white working class has the cultural wherewithal to bootstrap itself out of the mire? It’s not an either-or question, he says. Politics can’t solve these problems, but it can create the conditions that allow people and their local institutions to solve them.
“We need a better leadership class to set the tone for the discussion,” Vance tells TAC. “The most depressing part of the 2016 election is that the candidates often failed to show any cultural leadership: any recognition that the world of public policy was important but hardly the only good and necessary part of our shared society. They don’t talk about the church, about local community organizations, about businesses as anything more than providers of jobs.
“We’re very good at talking about the individual in American politics, and excellent at talking about the government,” he continues. “But we have little ability to even acknowledge everything that exists in the middle, and given how influential politics is on every other part of our life, I think that failure of discourse is pretty corrosive to our overall culture.”
The stakes are very high now. Vance expects the Rust Belt working-class vote to be up for grabs for the next few political cycles, with struggling blue-collar voters siding with whichever candidate, Republican or Democrat, promises the greatest change. This is a prescription for instability.
“We could see the emergence of someone from the Left, a Bernie Sanders-type figure who captures the populist rage of the moment,” says Vance. “It could be someone else from the Right. It could be a relatively innocuous figure—or it could be someone really dangerous.”
Whatever becomes of the new administration, there will be no return to the pre-Trump status quo for the GOP. This is no bad thing, argues Vance, who was only three years old when Ronald Reagan left office. There were as many years between Reagan’s 1980 election and Trump’s 2016 victory as there were between the waning months of World War II and Reagan’s win. It was time for something new politically, something more relevant, a Republican politics that prioritizes Main Street over Wall Street. Vance gets that, though he does worry that classical conservative principles could be lost in the stampede toward populism now remaking the Republican Party.
“I like Yuval Levin’s framing that conservatism’s modern approach must contain an element of nationalism,” he says. “At its core, conservatism should recognize the excesses of a given political moment, and the excesses of the past 20 years trended toward finance-centric globalism: too little concern for the communal and the local in our politics, a failure to recognize that the finance-centered American economy produced decent growth (until recently) but very little real wage growth, a preoccupation with consumption rather than dignified, stable work. The new conservatism has to incorporate within it a significant degree of economic nationalism.”
Given his class background, sympathies, and convictions, Vance is uniquely positioned to be the face of the next generation of American conservatives. He came from a broken family within a hardscrabble culture populated by what Donald Trump has described as the “forgotten people.” Thanks to his late grandmother and the United States Marine Corps, he was able to work his way from the “hollers’’ of Appalachia, so to speak, to the pinnacle of the American elite. This year, Vance has used that access and the platform it gives him to explain, and advocate for, the forgotten people.
Now, though, speaking from his present home in San Francisco, Vance has a message for Red America: as depressing as the post-election liberal meltdown has been, don’t write off the Blues and their fears.
“If it’s hard for Blue America to see Red America as anything other than a bunch of dumb, racist rednecks, it’s hard for Red America to recognize that many minorities are legitimately worried about what a Trump presidency means for their family,” he says. “You can believe that many of the election protesters are hysterical and irrational while also accepting that many of your fellow citizens have legitimate concerns with a Trump presidency.”
Consider, says Vance, how unfair and inaccurate it is for the left to call all 60 million Trump voters racist. By the same token, he says, “Republicans have got to show a little compassion” to Clinton voters anxious about their future.
“It sounds trite, but compassion and empathy are remarkable weapons against the hysteria of the moment,” he says. “Republicans have won the right to govern, but if Trump approaches that task with a little bit of humility and graciousness, I think it would have a remarkably positive effect on our political conversation.”
In fact, the hillbilly millennial who has been living off and on as a resident alien in Blue America for the past six years says Red America ought to have the grace and humility to learn from Blue successes.
“The truth is that on some of the things that matter most to us—like the marriage rate, for instance—parts of Blue America do better than Red America,” Vance points out. “Some of these people are beating us at our own damned game. That should worry us, but also give us reason to think that we can learn some things from those coastal elitists.”
Though he is doing very well professionally working at Mithril Capital, the venture-capital firm co-founded by tech billionaire and Trump backer Peter Thiel, Vance cannot resist the tug of home. He and his wife Usha are planning to move to Ohio next year.
In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance writes that he “was one of those kids with a grim future. I almost failed out of high school. I nearly gave in to the deep anger and resentment harbored by everyone around me. … Whatever talents I have, I almost squandered until a handful of loving people rescued me.”
Now, Vance wants to be someone like that for other struggling Rust Belt kids. His book’s success filled Vance with a sense of gratitude and mission. As detailed in Hillbilly Elegy, loyalty is both a signature virtue and vice of the Scots-Irish Appalachians from whom he is descended. Vance can’t shake the sense that he owes it to his people to go back home and do what he can to help.
The fresh-faced, Yale-educated hillbilly lawyer is the second most unlikely political star to emerge from this bizarre year. More than a few people have speculated that Vance has a political career ahead of him. For now, J.D. Vance is focused on bringing hope and change to the Rust Belt through the means of civil society.
“The idea of a political career strikes me as a little odd, simply because I think politicians should have at least the prospect of gainful employment outside of government,” he says. “For now, the plan is to move home and try to give back a little. I’m going to start with a little nonprofit that will focus on this dreadful opioid epidemic, and maybe a couple of other issues.”
It’s a modest start, perhaps, but the man who wrote a lament for the fall of his people and their culture is determined to write the story of their rebirth and rise—even if, this time, he doesn’t use words.
Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative.
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