The Hillbilly Elegy – Understanding the Election

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I have a theory about Trump voters. First and foremost, there is the party voter. They follow blindly, just like an old woman in Ohio stated. “I am committed to supporting the conservative party, even if it’s being led by the “Jackass” Donald Trump.” 

Then there are the haters, the ones who dislike everything that is different from them. They don’t want immigrants or refugees in the country their forefathers migrated to. In their world there is no room for other religions, in their world there is not much room for liberal nonsense like women’s rights or environmental protection.

And last but not least, there are the low-income voters in the rural areas. They are nice people, not very well educated. They feel they have been left behind when technology changed our everyday living. They don’t want to change their way, the want the world to change back the way it has been. They hope to get jobs back that will never come back. They hold on to a dream, that can’t come true.

Trump baited them with promises he won’t be able to keep and they grasped the last straw in the hope of a better life…and who could blame them.

I will never understand the party voters or people who hate, but I wanted to understand the third category. They rural voter, the ones we so often call Hillbillies.

hill·bil·ly = An unsophisticated country person, associated originally with the remote regions of the Appalachians.

We have more words for them. We call them ‘white trash’ or ‘rednecks, ‘ and we use these words openly, almost like a form of endearment, even though we are knowingly offending them.

I am a farm girl, was born and raised in a rural mountain area right between Austria and Italy and perhaps that’s the reason why I wanted to know more about the hillbillies here. Something -anything- please, help me understand!

I found a book online called “The Hillbilly Elegy” written by J. D. Vance, and I ordered it after I read some of the reviews.

The book came and it rested on my side table for quite some time. I moved it further and further back on my reading list. Somehow I had the feeling it would be a dramatic read; I was afraid the book would make me angry.

Then I started reading it and finished in two days. It’s one of those books one should not start reading late at night.

If you want to understand the 2016 election and Trump’s win, then it’s a must read. 

It’s a great book that helped me to understand the complexity of white poverty. It gave me an insight of the poor, white working class and their family structures. The author takes you through his childhood growing up in hillbilly country, in white working-class sections of Kentucky and Ohio. He describes the collapse of the once-vibrant but fragile economy in these parts and the resulting resentment that led to family breakups and dependence on alcohol and drugs.

Vance speaks of the deep family loyalty and loving ties that permeate the people of the region but also speaks of how these ties also sadly make them turn inward and harbor an almost hostile suspicion of ‘outsiders’. The author is blunt when it comes to assigning blame. While it is true that offshoring and outsourcing have led to a significant decline in the quality of life in the rural areas because of no fault of theirs, the raging drug and alcohol dependency and single-parent households also show a lack of personal responsibility. They rather blame everything on every other factor except themselves.

The book introduces you to Vance’s grandmother, a woman who mouthed profanities and would scare off strangers with a shotgun, but who also urged her grandson to get out and make a life for himself. So many similarities to my own upbringing. “Don’t take over the farm, go out and see the world.”

I think it is an important book that explains a lot, without excusing it. Every politician, every teacher, everybody in a leading position should read it. It should be on the reading list in high schools. That’s at least my humble opinion.

From the Back Cover

From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class through the author’s own story of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town

Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of poor, white Americans. The disintegration of this group, a process that has been slowly occurring now for over forty years, has been reported with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck.

The Vance family story began with hope in postwar America. J.D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually one of their grandchildren would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of success in achieving generational upward mobility. But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that J.D.’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, never fully escaping the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. With piercing honesty, Vance shows how he himself still carries around the demons of his chaotic family history.

A deeply moving memoir, with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.

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16 thoughts on “The Hillbilly Elegy – Understanding the Election

  1. I have just finished this book, which I would not have read without your recommendation. It is very, very helpful in understanding the culture and how this group of people came to see themselves as so disenfranchised and why they swallowed so much of the anti-Obama conspiracy nonsense and bought into the D T version of patriotism. The Scots-Irish heritage still has its echoes here in the UK. J D Vance writes with such clarity and his love for his flawed family shines through all the descriptions of their self-destructive behaviour. The result – admiration for their best qualities, and a greater understanding of how they the have painted themselves into such a dark corner. I hope someone in power finds a positive and effective way to put their thumb on the scales.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bridget (I think that’s your IRL name) – I live near Southern Appalachia, where I think the culture is not exactly the same as it is in Northern Appalachia i.e. the states that Vance wrote about. Down here they didn’t have as much industrialization but they are as insular in their social relations and have the same problems with drug and alcohol addiction. A comment I gave you earlier, comparing northern and southern history and some of the differences, was based on the same differences i.e. rural South vs. industrial North, and I guess this book, which is on my future reading list, explains how the shared Appalachian society has more specifically effected the northern Mountaineers. The Glass Caslte, which I have already purchased at discount, is also on my list of future reading but, bottom line, I contend, as many Democrats and Progressives do, that Republicans and Conservatives have conveniently forgotten that they (or their ancestors) received a hand up, usually from “big” government, to reach their current state of economic comfort, but now believe that the same assistance should not be offered to those who can and want to help themselves (or their children) to attain the same (future) status. They fear that the funding for this (new) assistance would come from their pockets, when, in a more fair and equitable country with a more progressive tax system, it would and should come from the top 1%, who already have more than they will ever need to continue to live comfortably in perpetuity, rather than the more nouveau riche middle class i.e. the brainwashed and/or ignorant Trump voter.

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  3. I think I would find this story deeply disturbing, like when I read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. I just don’t understand the existence of such profound poverty of a country as wealthy as the US. It is a contradiction that just doesn’t compute.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is very similar to The Glass Castle I assume. (I haven’t read it yet.)

      Poverty is existing and disturbing and I often wonder about it myself. Why don’t people just leave and make a living somewhere else, where there are jobs and opportunities?

      Many young ones do, but many stay in the areas that they call home. It’s not easy to leave everything behind.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent review It sounds like one I need to read. Growing up in Idaho in the 30’s-50’s. I understand a lot of problems for the middle class. I understand where conservative is coming from. To me you must depend on yourself if you want it done your way. It doesn’t mean you dislike others that are different from you. Some how conservative meaning has changed since I was taught it.

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  5. I’ve read this book and appreciated your comments. I also sensed a resentment of the elites, as represented by Obama, who never seem to bother to understand the rural people. I did see that Vance also realized the contradictions inherent in their own worldview, including the lack of a work ethic by some. Perhaps this observation gets projected onto others in society who for whatever reason are unemployed or underemployed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I came to the same conclusion, especially when it comes to the work ethic (of some).
      Every time I need a helper I put an add online and the response is always good, mostly people reply who receive government help and then they ask me to pay them under the table. They don’t want to give up the free money and this mentality bothers me so much.
      Honestly I believe education is the key. The people in the rural areas won’t stand a chance otherwise.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for sharing your wonderful impressions of this book, Bridget. I live in a conservative part of my liberal state – my county voted for Trump for all the reasons you listed – the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s pretty clear that the “government” has let many down and some of them voted for a knee-jerk shake-up more than they did for the man. I hope the pendulum swings the other way once his term ends and we really do get a government that cares for the common people. Thanks for the reading recommendation 🙂

    Like

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