Hillbilly Elegy, Trump’s Rhetoric
In the 2016 election the United States of America witnessed one of the strangest phenomenon in recent political history. More than one in ten far-left Bernie Sanders supporters jumped the democratic boat after the primaries and found themselves on the complete opposite end of the political spectrum, electing Donald Trump. How did people hop from the far left to the far right? JD Vance may have provided us with an answer.
Since June 2016, J.D. Vance’s first novel Hillbilly Elegy has been feverishly consumed by bookworms the world over. The book gives a riveting and depressing account of Vance’s upbringing in impoverished white America. For his family, from the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky, “poverty is the family tradition.”
JD Vance offers an equal parts rare, honest and disheartening characterization of life as a hillbilly. He provides a sociological exploration of a social class whose existence is arguably largely neglected by our current society. From his heroin and narcotics addicted mother to his extended family’s code of “shoot before arguing” his childhood is far removed from the modern middle class’s conception of life. I read this book, jaw dangling, aghast at the reality he had existed in. A reality I had thought was consigned strictly to less developed societies in the modern era. It reinforced first and foremost that there was an entire subsect of society where, at the most basic level, the system simply did not work.
JD refers to a psychological concept known as ‘Learned Helplessness’ to explain the way his hillbilly community viewed social mobility, and more broadly, a chance at a better life. Learned Helplessness is a psychological phenomenon where someone, through experience, comes to view their actions as incapable of effecting outcomes. They learn that no matter what they do their actions cannot change their reality. It is a depressing outlook on life, but one Vance strongly believes strongly reverberates in his community.
The story as a whole is an intriguing one. However, it is not the story alone that had it in the top ten most popular books on Amazon for months. It was its timing. Released just before the most controversial election in American history, the book offers a different explanation for why we have Trump in the oval office. Vance’s book describes a class neglected by society as a whole, a class where in every respect the system has failed them so horribly they no longer believe they can do anything. Through Vance one can understand why hillbilly constituents lost their political vigor. They had given up because they didn’t think it mattered what they did, it wouldn’t change anything. And then, directly from their cable T.V. show Celebrity Apprentice emerges something so polar to the political norm that it is an emblem of hope. At its highest level of abstraction these constituents wanted to see one thing, change.
Two candidates represented this change, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Perhaps that is why in the 2016 election we saw one of the hardest to explain tectonic shifts in political direction ever. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump could not have represented more contradictory positions on the political spectrum. Bernie was a hard-left advocate for regulation and social support earning himself titles like socialist. Trump was a strong rebirth of the worst of the neoclassical school of economics, advocating Thatcher-level deregulation, trickle-down economics and promising to deconstruct social benefits such as Obamacare. And yet, through the mist, we witnessed a boggling 12% of Bernie supporters shifted to Trump following Clinton’s victory in the primaries.
JD Vance offers a tangible explanation. Hillary was as representative of the old guard as one could get, she was more of the same. These voters, normally inactive, were inspired by the potential for extreme change. Voters lacking the political education to meticulously analyze each candidate saw a beacon of hope from both the extremist right and left. Voters who until now had relinquished the American Dream, felt empowered. It was no longer republican versus democrat, it was establishment versus change. And change won, even it was the wrong change.