Compassion, and Criticism, for the White Working Class

A conversation with Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance.

J.D. Vance.

J.D. Vance.

Yahoo News

For the past year, no question has captivated journalists and pundits more than this one: Why do the people supporting Donald Trump support Donald Trump? In his new best-selling book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J.D. Vance tells a personal story about his family’s struggles in Appalachia and a political one about the white Americans who make up a strong base of support for the Republican nominee.

Vance, who graduated from Yale Law School and now works in Silicon Valley, has transcended the substance abuse problems and familial strife that afflicted so many of his relatives. (His grandparents were born to poverty in rural Kentucky, and moved to industrializing Ohio seeking opportunity; his mother—the most powerful character in the book—wrestled with drug addiction.) The book, he says, is about “what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” As Vance sees it, neither party has done much to address this decay, although Trump (whom he strongly opposes, and considers dangerous) has at least tried to rhetorically.

I spoke with Vance by phone. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed Trump’s appeal to Vance’s kinsmen, the role of racism in the campaign, and why the media is failing Trump supporters.

Was your decision to write this book more about facing-up to family issues or capturing our current political moment?

I started writing the book as a third-year law school student at Yale. I was plagued by this question of why there weren’t more kids like me at places like Yale. When I say kids like me, I mean lower-class Americans, and working-class white Americans. I was this outsider, and all the conversations that people were having about upward mobility and the American Dream and equality seemed to touch on my story because I was theoretically [living] this upwardly mobile life. But I was very concerned that there weren’t more people living that life and I wanted to understand why. I decided to focus on white working class Americans. As I went through the literature and some of the academic studies to try to understand what was going on, I realized there wasn’t a really personal exploration of what was actually happening.

And what do you think is happening?

I think it’s a combination of things. One is that the community that I grew up in had really become disconnected from institutions of work and family and in the process had become extraordinarily pessimistic. They had become disconnected, but they also became very pessimistic about whether their own agency could actually influence their life decisions. That was one side of it. There was also obviously this pretty significant economic problem that affected blue-collar communities and that was part of the story too. This macroeconomic thing was happening but there was also this cultural and communal disconnect that was happening. To understand the problem you had to understand both sides of it.

Your book really focuses on the idea that people need to take a certain amount of personal responsibility.

What had been written, I felt, was not especially compassionate or understanding. It was maybe a little bit judgmental or superficial. I obviously think that the macroeconomic stuff is important but as I write in the book, I don’t think that it’s the only part of the story. The idea that working a blue-collar job and living in a working-class community provides barriers that are unique to your circumstances—that’s not a very controversial subject anymore. I think it’s something that people on both the left and the right probably accept. What I do think is controversial is this idea that community plays a role in these problems. If it’s talked about at all, I don’t think that it’s done especially well.

We do hear it about black culture and black communities though, right? Doesn’t that seem like a more familiar narrative?

It is a more familiar narrative and people certainly talk about these problems in the black community, but I think it often comes from a place of judgment and a place of criticism as opposed to a place of real legitimate understanding and compassion.

The way that the problem has been discussed with the black community is this sort of weaponized sociology and it often ends a conversation instead of beginning a conversation.* It’s typically used in such a way that, oh well it’s their culture, all these problems are related to their culture and that is basically an excuse to stop really thinking seriously about the issues and how we might address them. The flip side of having that conversation about black people is that it’s very easy for white people to ignore the very legitimate problems that exist in their own communities. Frankly, I think that if white people recognized that and were a little bit introspective about it, they may be a little bit more compassionate about what’s perceived as the problems of a pathological black community.

Some people have said your book has a libertarian bent, but I was wondering if part of the impetus in writing it was anti-libertarian, because you resist blaming government.

I think that there are obviously conservative elements to what I’m writing, but there are elements that don’t fit clearly within a conservative narrative. I think the right has trended in the direction of blaming the government for every problem that exists in the country. They just come at it from a different angle from the left. The kind of standard left argument or progressive argument is that the government isn’t doing enough to help a lot of these communities. The standard right argument is that the government is causing a lot of problems in these communities and if you just change the government in one way or another whether you’re a conservative or a liberal, you think these problems will largely go away.

I think that both sides are short-sighted because it’s not just the government that’s an actor in these communities, it’s also individuals, it’s also culture and families and neighborhoods.

I think the criticism of the book as this sort of libertarian manifesto is unfair for a couple of reasons. One, because I think I’m criticizing a lot of libertarian arguments for why these problems exist and two, I’m frankly not a libertarian in the sense that I think government has no role in fixing these problems. I just think that the government’s role has been overemphasized so I decided to emphasize something else.

Where do you think your book fits into the debate about whether, broadly and simplistically speaking, racism or economic insecurity is behind Trump’s rise?

I think both the economic and the racial arguments have elements of truth. I also think that they’re missing something much bigger. I don’t think that economic anxiety or racial anxiety is really what’s driving the Trump phenomenon. What I think is driving the Trump phenomenon is this social and cultural anxiety that I write about in the book. It’s the sense that the world around you is falling apart. It’s not just that you can’t find a good job; it’s that your kids are dying of opioid overdoses. It’s that your families are breaking part. It’s that churches are not really present in your community. It’s that you can’t trust the media, you can’t trust the political elites, you can’t trust anybody. It’s just this broad sense that the entire world is sort of conspiring against you.

I think we also have to be a little introspective about the fact that that’s not all that’s going on. When people read Breitbart every single day and convince themselves that Barack Obama is a foreign terrorist, that is not a problem of government. That is a problem of community failure and we have to recognize that.

But the opinion you just described is essentially bigotry, and bigotry existed well before Breitbart.

The institutions of conservative media have existed for a long time but they haven’t taken quite the conspiratorial tone that they have over the past four or five or maybe 10 years. This willingness, for example, to believe that 9/11 is an inside job, to even give credibility to somebody like Alex Jones, to believe that Barack is a foreign alien—I don’t think that has as much to do with racism, especially the 9/11 inside-job talk, as it does with a fundamental mistrust of institutions that people used to believe in. Is there a racial element to it? Absolutely, but there’s something about, Why don’t people believe what the media tells them anymore?

But how much of this perceived failure of institutions is itself racialized? You have a black president; you have a minority population that is growing every day. To what degree is this sense of siege, psychologically, about losing control of white America?

It’s complex and that’s certainly part of it but I don’t think that’s the whole part of it. If you ask people, the people I know for example who are supporting Trump, what the biggest problem in their community is, it’s something very, very real and it’s something noneconomic, it’s something nonracial: It’s that every single time that they open up their local newspaper, they see kids dying of heroin overdoses. The parents are so ashamed to list the cause of death that it doesn’t say anything about cause of death even though it’s a 22- or a 25- or a 20-year-old kid dying. I don’t think it’s possible to reduce that into anything other than a very legitimate sense that something is wrong. I think that breeds cynicism, I think that breeds fear, and I think that breeds a lot of frustration.

There are certainly people out there who don’t like the sense that they’re falling behind while racial minorities—or that people who don’t look or act like them—are getting ahead. But I don’t think that’s the majority attitude. I think that there’s obviously a certain amount of bidirectionality to this. What I mean is that people will follow political leadership. People listen to what their political leaders are telling them, and my view is both that Trump is tapping into some racially ugly attitudes, but also that he is leading people to racially ugly attitudes. I don’t think that 60-70 percent of working-class white voters would have supported a Muslim ban before Donald Trump said something about a Muslim ban. I think that all you have to do is go back to the most recent Republican president and the way that George W. Bush encouraged us to think openly and supportively about our Muslim citizens. There is an element here where I think it’s not just that Trump is exploiting something but he’s also leading the white working class to a very dark place.

What’s fascinating though is that Trump embodies so many features of the elite that people profess to hate and in fact that his supporters profess to hate. He’s arrogant about money, he talks down to people, he gets up at his rallies and he says things like, “I don’t need to be here.” Why hasn’t this hurt him?

There are a couple of answers. One is that I think his tone is in some ways very appealing to people who feel that the modern political conversation is too filtered and too constrained by political correctness or whatever you want to call it. There’s a sense that Trump is off the cuff. He’s sometimes willing to be offensive, he’s unfiltered and he’s unscripted and they relate to that because for so long the political conversation has been dominated by people who seem to be reading off the teleprompter or who are coached by some political consultant on what to say.

I also don’t know that people resent the rich as much as the feeling that rich people or people with political power look down on white working-class voters. Trump, whatever his other faults, doesn’t seem to do that. He certainly is condescending and he’s mean-spirited but he’s mean-spirited toward the people that a lot of white working-class voters wish they could be mean-spirited to but they just lack the platform to be able to do it.

OK, but could the Trump package work with these voters if he weren’t so racist?

I see what you’re saying. There are people who are drawn to Trump because he says racially insensitive things. I think the majority of people who are drawn to Trump are drawn to him because he’s a little outrageous, he’s a little relatable, and fundamentally he is angry and spiteful and critical of the things that people feel anger and spite toward. Most of the Trump supporters I talk to I think that’s not racial minorities; it’s people who are perceived to be powerful. It’s the Hillary Clintons of the world, the Barack Obamas of the world, the Wall Street executives of the world. There just isn’t anyone out there who will talk about the system like it’s completely rigged like Donald Trump does. It’s certainly not something you’re going to hear from Hillary Clinton. It’s certainly not something you’re going to hear from any other Republican candidate. It’s something you maybe heard a bit of from Bernie Sanders and frankly a lot of people, as ideologically bizarre as it sounds, were attracted to Bernie Sanders even if they weren’t going to vote for him.

You’re currently working in Silicon Valley at Peter Thiel’s firm, right?

Yeah, I’m at one of the firms he co-founded.

Are you worried about falling out of touch with the people you write about?

I definitely fear being disconnected from the community that I grew up in and I try to self-consciously fight that in various ways. I go home as frequently as I can. I try to think about the issues that are facing the country through the perspective of the kid I was when I was 14 and not the 32-year-old Silicon Valley investor that I am now. I’m not naïve enough to think that I don’t lose a little bit of something being in this bubble and being away from the people I love and relate to the most, but I do think that with a little bit of effort and a little bit of compassion it’s possible to maintain at least some ties to the place where you grew up.

What does being in Silicon Valley make you think about these subjects? Has it changed your perspective?

The thing that occurs to me most, or the strongest impression that I have in Silicon Valley is that people are even more optimistic about the future here than I possibly imagined.

More than any sane person could possibly imagine.

Absolutely. I remember in 2010 when I was in law school and I was getting ready to leave, I just felt this incredible sense of momentum in my life, this sense that everything was going to work out in my favor and Silicon Valley is that optimism taken to a cultural scale and then magnified by 10. People have no real sense of how frustrated and how destitute a lot of people outside of Silicon Valley are. It’s just this incredible bubble. It’s more of a bubble than D.C.; it’s more of a bubble than New York. I think that that extends across racial and class groups too. I think that a lot of people here, maybe because of their politics or maybe just because they’re good people, might be very sympathetic and compassionate to the black working class, but it seems to me that very few people actually know anyone from the black working class. That really bothered me, that disconnect, the sense that people actually don’t know anyone who is really struggling makes me feel especially odd about my life.

Speaking of divides, I have Republican friends who voted for Romney and McCain, but none of them are voting for Trump.

Absolutely. There really is this incredible divide and I think the fact that it exists in some ways explains Donald Trump. I don’t think that a country that was a little bit more integrated along education and class lines could have produced a candidate like Donald Trump, because a lot of Republican Party elites would have seen this coming much, much sooner than they did. I’m a relatively conservative guy and I run in Republican circles, and it’s amazing how even in November and December, I would talk to my Republican friends, people who were working on campaigns, and they’re like, Trump is going to fall away, there’s nothing that’s going to be happen, it’s going to be the same standard. It’s going to be Rubio or Jeb or maybe Scott Walker.

It’s like you guys have no idea the groundswell of support this guy has and it makes me very sad for my country, because as someone who thinks that Donald Trump is frankly dangerous, I don’t want the lesson that everyone should learn from 2016 to not take. We may just be in a worse situation four years down the road or eight years down the road unless there is some recognition of what’s going on on the other side of the country.

Do you have any optimism, then, about how to bridge this divide?

My sort of optimism comes from a belief that the Republican Party may have some reckoning and may push political leadership and a political narrative that isn’t so isolating for a large segment of its base. I think there are two ways that Donald Trump’s inevitable defeat could go. I think one is that the conservative media complex says, OK this wasn’t working, we need to get behind a new brand of leadership. We need to participate in politics in a different way. I am hopeful that that will happen though I think it’ll be messy. I’m hopeful that the party and the entire conservative movement move in a direction of encouraging a little bit of self-reflection, and a more economically popular set of policies.

Option two is that after Trump loses, Breitbart and the worst impulses of the conservative media will gain even more power and the white working class will become more racially resentful. I think it leads us to a permanently angry white underclass and I obviously don’t want that to happen.

I think that the left has a role to play here because I think if you look at these communities and you say, the only thing that’s going on here is that they’re racially resentful and they’re finally getting the candidate who reflects their racism, I think you’re going to push people further away. I think you’re going to take the people in my community who don’t have a racist bone in their body and you’re going to continue to push them toward the Breitbarts of the world. Yes, there is some racial anxiety, yes there is some explicit racism, but there’s also some very real cultural and social isolation going on. Those people we can appeal to, those people we can bring back into the fold. That’s going to produce a much better political conversation than the one we’re having now.

I’ve been very frustrated professionally at the lot of the stuff I’ve seen from Vox because I really respect Ezra Klein and I respect Matt Yglesias, but the way that they’re talking about politics right now is going to make a racialized white working class even angrier, even more racialized, and I think that takes our politics to a really, really dark place four years from now and eight years from now.

Whatever good can happen, though, seems conditioned on Trump being soundly, badly defeated. If this election is close, aside from insane claims of fraud and rigging, people will not draw the lessons you want.

I think that’s probably true and that’s why I hope that he is soundly defeated. I worry that this situation is only going to get worse before it gets better. The way I feel about this is that probably 50-60 percent of Donald Trump supporters don’t have attitudes that are actively racist but also don’t have attitudes that completely conform with modern notions of equality. I think those people can be won or lost to the cause of more social integration and more social involvement. It just depends a lot on the political media conversation. I really feel that that conversation is failing that very large group of voters.

*Correction, Aug. 25, 2016: This article originally misquoted Vance as referring to a “recognized sociology.” He said a “weaponized sociology.” (Return.)

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.