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22 January, 2017

HILLYBILLY WRITER'S BOOK INFLUENCED U.S. PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

"I don’t know if J. D. Vance attended Friday’s Inauguration (in Washington). I don’t even know if this best-selling author even voted for the 45th American President. I do know his recent book, Hillbilly Elegy (HarperCollins, 2016) is purported to explain one major reason why Donald Trump is now making himself at home this weekend in the White House," writes Bob Johnston in the Saugeen Times.

Rev. Bob always impresses me with the amount of reading and research that he does and I found his reference to Vance and Trump to be particularly fascinating.

You can justifiably say a lot of negative things about Donald Trump, but he is no dummy.  He secured unexpectedly strong Presidential support among the so-called forgotten Americans, those most affected by the loss of well-paying factory jobs right across the “Rust Belt” states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio. He shoots from the hip; he’s not constantly afraid of offending someone; he’ll get angry; he’ll call someone a liar or a fraud. This is how a lot of people in the white working class actually talk about politics and politicians. Trump set himself up as a champion of the underdog, got their attention and eventually their vote.
J.D. Vance is the man of the hour,
maybe the year. His memoir 

Hillbilly Elegy  is a New York
Times bestseller, acclaimed for
its colorful and at times moving
account of life in a dysfunctional
clan of eastern Kentucky natives.
It has received positive reviews
across the board, with The Times
calling it “a compassionate and
discerning sociological analysis
of the white underclass.” In the
rise of Donald Trump, it has
become a kind of Rosetta Stone
for blue America to interpret that
most mysterious of species: the
economically precarious white
voter.

To her peril, in taking the high road, Hillary Clinton did not listen, or chose to ignore, this under-estimated and forgotten segment of the American population.

It should be explained that J.D. Vance is a self-described “hillbilly” whose grandparents migrated from Kentucky Appalachia country to Middletown, Ohio. Their goal was to secure a better economic future for children and grandchildren. These were the descendants of the millions of Scots-Irish immigrants who came to the United States in the eighteenth century and, finding the seaboard already occupied by earlier immigrants, pushed on to the vast backwoods, that mountainous hinterland from Georgia and Alabama and northward to New York State and Ohio.

Vance defines this sub-culture as fiercely loyal to family, faith and country. They are the “poor whites,” lacking a college degree and mostly left behind by massive manufacturing job losses in today’s American economy.

Vance’s grandparents, his beloved Papaw and Mamaw, escaped the poverty of Jackson, Kentucky, in 1946 to find better-paying work in the industrial town of Middletown, Ohio. Papaw was 16 and his new bride was 13 and pregnant.

Hill people like the Vance family were actively recruited by Ohio factories and the young father quickly found work at Armco, a thriving steel company, one of four major local factory employers. Gaining employment proved easier than finding social acceptance among the urban, more educated, already established white population. These reluctant 'now-neighbours' looked askance at the unsophisticated thousands of newcomers descending into their cities and towns.

Two generations later, the transplanted 'hillbillies' have fallen on hard times. Drug use is rampant. (The exciting new reality show, Southern Justice, documents this widespread use of meth, heroin and other illegal chemicals. On camera, the local police spend most of their shifts chasing drug dealers.) Family life has become fractured. Those good jobs in Middletown have moved off shore. The “blue collar economy” has never recovered following the recent Great recession, leaving Vance’s sub-culture pessimistic but also angry.

Vance outlines two options for America’s forgotten Appalachian workers: education or government-dependent welfare. He chose the former path, encouraged by his indomitable Mamaw who pushed school success as the ticket out of poverty and despair. After a stint in the Marines, Vance went on to study law at Yale. He has little sympathy for those able-bodied employables who have chosen the welfare route rather than work, describing how many have learned to scam the food stamp handouts.

One seeming purpose of Hillbilly Elegy is to provide a cathartic journal for Vance to publicly ventilate a mix of love, resentment, fears, sense of loss, anger and other deeply-held, troubling emotions. Emanating from his dysfunctional culture and disrupted family life---five “father figures,” Vance had carried these memories into adulthood.

A second thesis of Hillbilly Elegy is to explain how these “forgotten working class white Americans” gradually shifted their political allegiance, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s presidency, from Democrat to Republican. The Scots-Irish have always been fiercely independent, patriotic, pro-military and anti-establishment—a natural voting base harvest for Trump as it turned out.

Vance as an author is far more successful in achieving his former goal of catharsis than the latter one of socio-political interpretation. In Bob Johnston's view, a far better depiction of the Scots-Irish influence on the shaping of American culture is Born To Fight (Broadway Publisher, 2004), written by the former Virginia senator, Jim Webb. He illustrates how such diverse characters as Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Teddy Roosevelt and general George Patton were each from Scots-Irish stock.

With Trump’s presidency comes the revived hopes of those “hillbillies” whom Vance has described in his poignant and informative bestseller. In his inaugural address, the new president once again decried those closed American “factories scattered like tombstones across the land.” To the millions of forgotten ones, he thundered: “You will never be ignored again.”

Time will determine whether Donald Trump’s promises will be kept. He may not listen but his advisors will surely and gently remind him that many of those disappeared jobs were lost, not to China or Mexico, but to robots and better industrial technology. The Kentucky coal miner’s “enemy” was not Obama or the EPA. If and when off-shore jobs do return to the United States, it may happen not as a frightened response to Trumpian threats, but as a reaction to Chinese pollution, endemic corruption and frustrating red tape in many off-shore countries, rising wage demands by off-shore workers and escalating transportation costs to ship finished manufactured goods back to the USA.

In the interim, along with J. D. Vance’s transplanted Appalachians, the world anxiously awaits the dawning of this unprecedented new chapter in American history.

What my friend Rev. Bob did not realize when he wrote his piece for the Saugeen Times is that, surprise of all surprises, Vance did not vote for Trump (he voted for Evan McMullin, an independent candidate supported by anti-Trump conservatives) and he has a couple of reasons why..."He (Trump) used rhetoric that's not in the best interest of the party or country. I happen to think that conservatism, when properly applied to the 21st Century, could actually help everybody. And the message of Trump's campaign was obviously not super-appealing to Latino Americans, black Americans and so forth. That really bothered me," he explained in a recent interview. "In some ways even more importantly than that, while I think Trump had clearly diagnosed very real problems, I didn't see any real evidence that he had much in the way of positive solutions that would address a lot of these concerns...I'm sort of taking a wait-and-see approach, but if he doesn't [provide solutions], that's going to leave people in an even worse position than they were four years ago," he added.

I could not agree more, but isn't it ionic that a writer who undoubtedly strongly influenced Donald Trump's controversial election victory, is not convinced about the new president's ability to deliver on out-spoken election campaign rhetoric and chose not to vote for him?

Indeed a crazy time in American politics.  It will undoubtedly get crazier in the next four years and that is a frightening prospect even for those of us watching from a vantage point ever so close to the Canada-U.S. border.

I'm not sure I'm up for it!  Are you?

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