J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy has nothing to do with Donald Trump and everything to do with Donald Trump.
Vance’s memoir has taken the country by storm, in part because many middle- to upper-class Americans want to know why Trump appeals to a large, often forgotten segment of the population.
Elitists with condescending perspectives can be found on both the Right and the Left. Some liberals sneer at the “deplorables” (in Clinton’s words) and consider disadvantaged whites as racist, bigoted, and fearful—”clinging to guns and religion” (in Obama’s words). Meanwhile, some conservatives dismiss the challenges of black communities or consider the inner cities to be full of “takers” who don’t respect “law and order.”
Neither of these stereotypes paints an accurate picture of the situation, but the Left/Right divide does show that class is as much a factor in our country’s problems as race. And that’s where Vance comes in. His work shows Americans how class distinctions and prejudices can be just as strong as racial bias, and yet often go unnoticed.
Woes of the White Working Class
Vance’s memoir introduces us to the “millions of white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree.” He describes his familial upbringing this way:
“To these folks, poverty is the family tradition—their ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and millworkers during more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.” (3)
Why write a book about hillbillies? Because Vance wants people to know “what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children” (2).
Hillbilly Elegy is powerful because Vance shows that it is not only material poverty that has a psychological effect, but spiritual impoverishment, too. It’s not just economic opportunity that is missing, but long-term hope.
“Working class whites are the most pessimistic group in America,” Vance writes (4). “There is a lack of agency here—a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself” (7).
Christian Virtues Gone Mad
What do we get when this hopelessness in the present meets the inherited values of the past? A hodgepodge of destructive virtues and vices.
Take honor for example. For working class whites, honor matters. You show loyalty to your class and family. You defend your sister’s honor. You make sure a criminal pays for a crime. Yet the same man who beats up the neighbor who dares to utter an unkind word about his family may turn his fists against his wife.
“Despite their virtues, or perhaps because of them, the Blanton men were full of vice,” (17) Vance writes about the men he knew as a child.
That line reminds me of G. K. Chesterton’s description of modern world as “full of wild and wasted virtues.” In the wake of Christianity’s demise,
“…it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.”
Hillbilly Elegy paints a picture of Christian virtues gone mad, where honor and loyalty run wild without other virtues that keep those in check. In the end, loyalty to your kin means you accept your situation without any attempt to improve the prospects for you or your family. Hopelessness becomes a mark of honor, not shame. And thus, “you can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness,” Vance writes (59). “We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness. . . . These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance—the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach” (147).
Nowhere is this broken connection seen more prominently than in the breakdown of family relationships. Cultural observers have long elevated the problem of fatherlessness in the African-American community as one of the primary sources of societal unrest, from Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the 1960s to Barack Obama in recent years.
But fatherlessness is not just a “black problem.” Vance’s family situation was common in his community, and who can read this paragraph without sensing the psychological toll a fractured family takes?
“I had a biological half brother and half sister whom I never saw because my biological father had given me up for adoption. I had many stepbrothers and stepsisters by one measure, but only two if you limited the tally to the offspring of Mom’s husband of the moment. Then there was my biological dad’s wife, and she had at least one kid, so maybe I should count him, too. Sometimes I’d wax philosophical about the meaning of the word ‘sibling’: Are the children of your mom’s previous husbands still related to you? If so, what about the future children of your mom’s previous husbands?” (81)
Vance also describes his family’s tangled web of last names, and the parade of potential father figures who came in and out of his life. Bob, Steve, Chip, Matt, Ken, “a long line of failed paternal candidates.” Vance confesses:
“Of all the things that I hated about my childhood, nothing compared to the revolving door of father figures.” (88)
Family breakdown is not as common in other parts of the world. In France, for example, the percentage of children exposed to three or more maternal partners is 0.5 percent. In Sweden, the number is 2.6 percent. In the United States, it’s 8.2 percent, or one in twelve.
Grasping for Hope
So what is the solution?
Some might immediately say “religion.” But that term needs defining. According to Vance, religion is a short-term patch, not a long-term solution. The mishmash of Christian theology and moralistic patriotism he experienced didn’t leave much room for organized religion. The hillbillies have two gods, he writes, “Jesus Christ and the United States of America” (189). And despite their reputation as “God-fearing,” the church attendance rates mirror that of San Francisco.
Jeff Robinson’s excellent review of this book, which appeared earlier this week at TGC, offers some hopeful and redemptive suggestions. The gospel and the church, not mere “religiosity” must be the source of hope.
Unfortunately, most will assume that political engagement is the solution. Vance is skeptical, as he should be.
“Powerful people sometimes do things to help people like me without really understanding people like me” (186).
True. Lawmakers have implemented political plans to improve the lives of the lower class, and yet in the black community, LBJ’s “war on poverty” gave rise to the welfare state, where a drug culture flourished, and then Reagan’s “war on drugs” resulted in mass incarceration that left more broken families and fatherless homes. Sometimes the politician’s “cure” only exacerbates the social disease.
Our country has suffered under the weight of increased racial tensions in the last few years, and polarization keeps various tribes in corners, with dueling narratives and examples, heroes and martyrs. The question of policing is only the tip of the iceberg. Social breakdown is on display in several major cities, and we are reaping the whirlwind of what can happen when the causes of social pathologies are never addressed.
But the mix of vice and virtue, of sin and salvation, often take place in contexts that are affected as much by class as by race. In my suburban neighborhood, my kids have more in common with the African-American kids who live across the street than they do with the white children who live in a trailer park down by the river. Yet the class divide often goes unnoticed in our national discourse.
I’m grateful for the evangelical movement toward multi-ethnic churches, but we shouldn’t assume that a diversity of races makes a congregation as multi-cultural as it could be. A group of white collar, upper-middle-class Asians, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Caucasians may actually be more monocultural in some ways than a majority white congregation that crosses barriers by including people from all ends of the class spectrum.
Hillbilly Elegy tells a tragic story but doesn’t offer much hope. Still, I’m grateful for Vance’s work because it opens our eyes to the class divisions we too often ignore.
And I hope it will open hearts to the plight of the white working class, so that redeemed imaginations can consider new ways we can love these neighbors, too.