Insider: JDVance, whose rags-to-riches memoir has seen him co-opted as the oracle on Trump’s attraction. Picture: SUPPLIED
Insider: JDVance, whose rags-to-riches memoir has seen him co-opted as the oracle on Trump’s attraction. Picture: SUPPLIED

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

JD Vance

William Collins

President Donald Trump’s inauguration speech has been called by many, most of them Democrats, the bleakest yet in the US.

"A different reality exists … rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape … crime, drugs," Trump said, before the speech’s defining moment: "This American carnage stops right here and stops right now."

Most liberals did not know what he was talking about.

But JD Vance did; his book Hillbilly Elegy is all about the reality described by Trump, the reality in which Vance was raised and, through his extraordinary grandmother ("Mamaw") and personal grit, a reality he managed to leave.

Hillbilly Elegy.
Hillbilly Elegy.

Hillbilly Elegy is first and foremost a personal memoir; the excited shout-outs on the book’s cover of it being "A great insight into Trump and Brexit" are a bit of a stretch.

Vance — now a principal at a Silicon Valley investment firm cofounded by Peter Thiel, a member of Trump’s transition team — does not mention Trump in the book, but since its success he has been co-opted as the oracle on "the attraction of Trump", a role he politely accepts.

But Vance is no blind Trump adherent; he is a product of the ravaged rust belt whose cultural identity is that of the Appalachia his grandparents moved from in the 1940s.

Back then, entire counties moved en masse looking for work and a better life, so Appalachian emigrants settled as neighbours in Middletown, Ohio, where Vance was raised — but Jackson, Kentucky, is always "home" to him.

"I loved Ohio, but it was full of painful memories.

"In Jackson, I was the grandson of the toughest woman anyone knew," he writes.

His alcohol-fuelled and fragmented childhood, like that of his mother’s and grandparents’ before him, "was a chaotic mess", he writes. His mother was mentally unstable, aided by addiction, and occasionally violent, but always terrifying.

It was Mamaw who pushed Vance to complete his education, stay out of trouble and avoid drugs, always offering him a safe haven and unconditional love.

But Mamaw was no walkover. No hillbilly is.

When her husband Papaw’s drinking got too much, one night when he was passed out on the couch, she did as she had promised: poured petrol over him and dropped the match. He survived, moved out, got sober, and they lived happily ever after as neighbours.

Spending three consecutive, consistent years with her during his late schooling ensured Vance would go on to get a degree from Ohio State University and graduate from the esteemed Yale Law School.

Before that though, Vance knew that he knew nothing, and so joined the Marine Corps.

He entered "a pudgy, long-haired kid" and — after tours of Iraq and time in Haiti — started at Ohio State.

His drive to succeed saw him complete a degree in less than two years, working two jobs while he studied.

Vance is only 31, yet his descriptions of a town eroding around him — through the 1990s and early 2000s — are like a time-lapse montage of Middle America’s decay.

He describes how Armco — the company that guaranteed everyone in town, and their offspring, work for decades — eventually was bought out, then closed down.

As a child, he watched the town’s only park crack and wither; now it is where you get drugs. He sees people buying food and goods on welfare stamps and then selling them around the corner, calling in buyers on their cellphones, which few of his ilk have.

He does not blame a Democratic government for this — though many believe he should — he acknowledges that it is a complex situation in which public policy should and must play a part, but that it is the cultural and economic breakdown of white working-class people and their, oftentimes, inability to hold down a job that has as much to do with the decay.

Despite not being about blame, the book has its detractors, but only because Vance has been proclaimed, post facto, the Trump whisperer.

In a PBS interview, when asked to explain Trump, he said: "He simplifies these problems — less immigration means more and better jobs for Americans [is a simple message] … he is relatable, he talks about politics the way people would around a dinner table … but there is also a sense that people feel ignored by the political classes.

"Their communities have been struggling for 20 or 30 years and nobody has really cared, and Trump is the first person to really see these communities, even if you think, as I do, that Trump doesn’t have all the solutions."

The problem with "moving out and up" is that everywhere you go, you always take your class system with you.

You may be the only person in the room who can smell it on yourself, but the dread that is being exposed as an imposter lingers a lifetime.

At a Yale cocktail party, Vance learns that "sparkling" water does not mean the water is fabulous, but that it is carbonated. He orders chardonnay because it is easier to pronounce than sauvignon blanc.

He learns that pleather and leather are different substances.

He will forever feel on the outside: "This cultural alienation breeds a sense of mistrust in everything that’s perceived to be of the elites, so you ultimately don’t believe the people who seem to have control and power over the news," he said to PBS of Trump’s allure.

As to Hillary Clinton’s fatal error of calling not Trump but his voters, a "basket of deplorables", he said, quietly and without rancour: "That went directly to the core of those who felt she, and all of the liberal elites, did not and never would speak for them – or even see them. People can be pushed or pulled, and when Hillary Clinton says something like that, it strikes me that she is pushing people away … if you think, as I do, that Donald Trump doesn’t necessarily have a good message either … when you push them towards someone like Trump, it’s only going to make things worse."

When you have seen your mother with a needle full of heroin in her arm; lied to child services so you can stay with your Mamaw — who, in her youth, had to be physically restrained from blowing a man’s head off; seen at least half a dozen stepfathers come then run away as fast as they could, it is unlikely a Trump administration could be much worse.

And while Vance is aware of the irony of an indulged billionaire being the working-class pick, he says voters related to his message, not his life.

Speaking to Yahoo News, he finished with a slow, southern drawl: "It shows that the bar can be really low because of the failure of other politicians."

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