I Thought Hillbilly Elegy Was Just about Kentucky

I Thought Hillbilly Elegy Was Just about Kentucky November 9, 2016

My university—located on a relatively conservative campus in the very red state of Kentucky—was subdued this morning. In the run-up to the election, there was little to no public support for Trump. And today numerous students, looking a bit traumatized, are walking into classes with puffy eyes jarred by the unexpected result.

None of the models predicted this. Polls suggested an easy Clinton win. The New York Times said that Clinton’s chances of losing were about the same as the probability of an NFL kicker missing a 38-yard field goal. That is, not high at all—about 16%. And yet Trump was swept to victory in an election that could transform the political landscape.

Image result for trumpHow do we make sense of this stunning result? One key, I think, can be found in Hillbilly Elegy. In this book J.D. Vance of Breathitt County, Kentucky, tells a depressing narrative of economic deprivation, cultural collapse, and isolation. Appalachia is riddled with family dysfunction, pervasive drug use, and a sense of hopelessness. Five of America’s most depressed counties surround Vance’s birthplace.

Appalachia and the Rust Belt have been left behind. Global capitalism has fantastically enriched certain social classes, but it has reduced blue-collar workers to poverty and dependency, according to Vance. The desperation has reached such levels that many in Kentucky supported a campaign that legitimized racism and xenophobia.

But Kentucky didn’t tip the election. Across the country shocking numbers voted for Trump. Some were suburbanites, suggesting that the story is more complicated than Vance’s narrative (I’d suggest that there anxiety over the end of a white Christian America and the specter of a minority-majority nation as well). But it does seem clear that the economically and culturally disenfranchised in rural areas drove Trump’s run through the primaries and his victory last night. The result perhaps teaches us that Hillbilly Elegy is not just a regional story. It is a national story, even a global story. The revolt of those left out of the spoils of globalization can be seen in Brexit too.

The real scandal may not be that Trump was elected, but that it seemed to come out of nowhere. Everyone thought that these views represented a small minority. That so many misread the situation shows just how hidden the rural poor are—and how insulated the educated elite are.

I live two miles from the Kentucky River, which is the unofficial border between Appalachia and the Bluegrass region of Kentucky. But I don’t cross the river much. My children go to elementary school with some very enthusiastic Trump supporters. But their parents are not in my social circles. I read J.D. Vance, Robert Putnam, and Charles Murray. But I don’t know the characters in their books.

It’s scandalous that my campus didn’t see the Trump Revolution coming. Polls suggest that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. That’s hard to believe; I only know a few who voted with a heavy heart for Trump because of abortion. If a white Christian in Kentucky like myself is so segregated from other classes, I can’t imagine how hidden the rural poor are for elites on the coasts. None of this is incarnational. It doesn’t build community. Nor is it healthy for democracy.

By contrast, Trump listened—or at least pretended to listen. “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,” he declared at 3 a.m. this morning in his victory speech. There is much to despise about Trump, but he did what the educated elite didn’t. It’s time for the rest of us to listen to the forgotten and try to understand their despair.

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