The Mythical Whiteness of Trump Country
J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy has been held up as a guidebook for understanding the 2016 election, but his logic is rooted in an enduring and dangerous myth about race in Appalachia.
Nov 7, 2017
16 Min read time
J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy has been held up as a guidebook for understanding the 2016 election, but his logic is rooted in an enduring and dangerous myth about race in Appalachia.
Editor's Note: This essay is adapted with permission from What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte, Belt Press, 2018.
Routinely, McDowell County, West Virginia, has been depicted as ground zero for “Trump Country.” One year ago, for instance, the Huffington Post used gritty black-and-white photographs of McDowell County to offer readers a “Glimpse At The America That Voted Trump Into Office.”
Indeed, one year ago today, McDowell County gave Donald Trump 4,614 votes and Hillary Clinton 1,429—a victory of over 74 percent. But as a native of Appalachia—a region that includes thirteen states, including West Virginia—it is not immaterial to me that Trump won McDowell County during an election that had a historically low voter turnout for the county. With 17,508 registered voters, only 27 percent of McDowell County voters supported Trump.
Yet stories such as the Huffington Post’s proliferated at an alarming rate last year. Theories about a culture of poverty in Appalachia, which were originally honed in the 1960s, had become popular once more thanks to J. D. Vance’s bestselling book, Hillbilly Elegy (2016). The “memoir of a family and culture in crisis,” now set to be turned into a film by Ron Howard, had become our political moment’s favorite text for understanding the lives of disaffected Donald Trump voters and had set “hillbillies” apart as a unique specimen of white woe. Using the template of his harrowing childhood, Vance remade Appalachia in his own image as a place of alarming social decline, smoldering and misplaced resentment, and poor life choices.
According to Hillbilly Elegy, nonwhite people, anyone with progressive politics, those who care about the environment, LGBTQ individuals, young folks, and a host of others do not exist in Appalachia.
In the media, Vance quickly became the chief analyzer of the white working class, and Appalachia was cast as a uniquely tragic and toxic region. The press attempted to analyze what it presented as the extraordinary and singular pathologies of Appalachians, scolding audiences to get out of their bubbles and embrace empathy with the “forgotten America” before its residents elected Trump.
Cataloguing these pieces about the “Appalachia problem” became something of a hobby for me, and the most telling aspect wasn’t what they said about Appalachia, but what they didn’t say. According to the bulk of coverage, including in Hillbilly Elegy, nonwhite people, anyone with progressive politics, those who care about the environment, LGBTQ individuals, young folks, and a host of others do not exist in Appalachia.
The intentional omission of these voices fits a long tradition of casting Appalachia as a monolithic “other America.” In the Huffington Post headline, for instance, the use of the phrase “the America” sets McDowell County apart from the country inhabited by the article’s presumed audience. While many regional groups experience this treatment, as scholar Elizabeth Engelhardt recently wrote in the journal Southern Cultures, “Appalachia stands out . . . in the sheer length of time that people have believed it could be explained simply, pithily, and concisely. . . . Again and again Appalachia is relegated to the past tense: ‘out of time’ and out of step with any contemporary present, much less a progressive future.”
This impulse to create imaginary Appalachias snowballed during Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, for instance, when images of lurid white poverty were intended to shock middle-class audiences. For white people uncomfortable with images of the civil rights struggles and the realities of black life, these images offered a more recognizable world of suffering, and their creators often claimed they were a necessary catalyst for social change.
Using Appalachians to fill made-to-order constituencies, anchored by race, is thus a tired game. In the age of Hillbilly Elegy—a book applauded by the National Review for proving that signs of white distress “have gone neglected as LGBTQ identity politics and Black Lives Matter antics have monopolized” the nation’s attention— we’re told to be grateful that Vance has returned Appalachia to the nation’s conscience.
The implication is that J. D. Vance is baggage-free in a way that Charles Murray is not. Let us give him some baggage, then.
But in Hillbilly Elegy, white Appalachians take on the qualities of an oppressed minority much in the same way that conservative individuals view African Americans: as people who have suffered hardships but ultimately are only holding themselves back. This construction allows conservative intellectuals to talk around stale stereotypes of African Americans and other nonwhite individuals while holding up the exaggerated degradations of a white group thought to defy evidence of white privilege.
Vance makes no secret of his conservative leanings, but thanks to a carefully crafted persona, he has managed to escape explicit associations with some of his more controversial predecessors. When protesters at Middlebury College, for instance, prevented the conservative intellectual and white supremacist Charles Murray from speaking on campus, columnist Louis Shucker wrote in the Reading Eagle that, “Perhaps a better selection would have been J. D. Vance, author of the bestselling Hillbilly Elegy.”
The implication is that while the two share similar beliefs about poverty and race, Vance is baggage-free in a way that Murray is not.
Let us give him some baggage, then.
Men who shirk employment and women who lack the appropriate amount of shame for their illegitimate children populate the world of Hillbilly Elegy. Instead of attending church, the people of Hillbilly Elegy worship material desires beyond their means and use welfare fraud in the service of their doomed pursuits.
“This is the reality of our community,” Vance writes. “Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other like we are spectators at a football game. At least one member of the family uses drugs—sometimes the father, sometimes the mother, sometimes both.”
The only way to truly understand Hillbilly Elegy is through a racial prism—one that centers on a mythical form of whiteness that has a dangerous history.
Vance’s use of the word “we” transforms the personal reality of his difficult childhood into a universal experience. The broadest point made by Hillbilly Elegy on the basis of this experience is that “public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us. These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, only we can fix them.”
The argument that corporations did not help create the problems of Appalachia is stunningly ahistorical—while coal is no longer a significant employment sector in Appalachia, we are still dealing with the industry’s economic exploitation and extractive logic—but it is not even the most problematic claim Vance makes.
As the National Review, which employed Vance as an occasional contributor, asserted in its gleeful review of the book, Hillbilly Elegy had at long last proved that white Appalachians have “followed the black underclass and Native Americans not just into family disintegration, addiction, and other pathologies, but also perhaps into the most important self-sabotage of all, the crippling delusion that they cannot improve their lot by their own effort.”
For many conservatives, the beauty of Hillbilly Elegy was not just what it said about the lot of poor white Americans, but what it implied about black Americans as well. Conservatives believed that Hillbilly Elegy would make their intellectual platforming about the moral failures of the poor colorblind in a way that would retroactively vindicate them for viciously deploying the same stereotypes against nonwhite people for decades.
Vance uses an enduring myth about race in Appalachia to give Hillbilly Elegy its organizational logic. It is, in essence, the magic that transforms Hillbilly Elegy from a memoir of a person to the memoir of a culture. Central to it is Vance’s belief that both historic and modern white Appalachian people share a common ethnic ancestry in the form of Scots-Irish heritage. He connects this belief, in turn, to his claim that shared ethnic heritage has endowed contemporary white Appalachians with certain innate characteristics that hold the key to understanding why their home is, as he puts it, a “hub of misery.” (It is worth noting that my distinction—“white Appalachians”—is not one that Vance uses. In the world of Hillbilly Elegy, all Appalachians are white.)
“This distinctive embrace of cultural tradition,” Vance continues, “comes along with many good traits—an intense sense of loyalty, a fierce dedication to family and country—but also many bad ones. We do not like outsiders or people who are different from us . . .” This shared Scots-Irish ancestry and the traits that it endows, Vance argues, means “the culture of Greater Appalachia is remarkably cohesive.” This cohesion, in turn, has caused white Appalachians to reproduce, almost literally, negative social outcomes in isolation.
“We pass that isolation down to our children,” he writes, invoking visions of genetic heredity. He points out that “Our men suffer from a peculiar crisis of masculinity in which some of the traits that our culture inculcates make it difficult to succeed in a changing world.” He concludes his introduction with the hope that readers might gain from his memoir an appreciation for “how class and family affect the poor without filtering their views through a racial prism.”
This is a remarkable statement because the only way to truly understand Hillbilly Elegy is through a racial prism—one that centers on a mythical form of whiteness that has a dangerous history.
In his willingness to present white Appalachians as a distinct ethnic entity, Vance has placed himself in a disturbing lineage of intellectuals who relished what they presumed to be the malleable whiteness of Appalachia for its ability to either prove or disprove cultural beliefs about race. This belief manifests in two ways. The first is the modern conservative impulse to discount the links between structural racism and inequality. Why can’t poor black people get ahead? It’s not racism or the structural inequality caused by racism, many conservatives argue, because then what would explain the realities of poor white people?
It turns out that if you create and sell a version of Appalachia as a place filled with defective people, eugenicists—yes, eugenicists—start paying attention to your work.
The lives of poor white people, especially those with the additional burdens of addiction or legal issues, become the empirical proof for conservatives that we have based our attention to racism on fractured logic. The irony, of course, is that even as we become the ambassadors of this colorblind worldview, poor white people can’t escape the generic moralizing of their betters, who got a head start honing their brand of arrogant tough love and hard truths on black communities.
The second manifestation of this belief is more complicated and requires us to go back in time to discover how white Appalachians were transformed, in some intellectual circles, as a race or “stock” unto their own and the consequences that followed. Vance didn’t invent this particular fiction; he simply exploits it to provide his narrative with a cohesiveness and cultural weight that wouldn’t otherwise exist.
Why does that matter? It turns out that if you create and sell a version of Appalachia as a place filled with defective people, eugenicists—yes, eugenicists—start paying attention to your work. And the esteem, as you’ll learn, isn’t unilateral.
• • •
But first, is it true that white Appalachians share a common Scots-Irish heritage and does this heritage inform our social position in the modern world? The answer to both questions is an emphatic “no.”
The myth that Vance draws upon, borrowed from books such as American Nations (2012) and Born Fighting (2004), often goes something like this. Once upon a time, during some indeterminate period usually in the eighteenth century, white people who weren’t pilgrims came to the United States. Those of Irish or Scottish origins were attracted to the eastern mountains because mountains were in their blood or some other romantic nonsense. The mountains, in turn, provided powerful insulation against the forces of the modern world and allowed the Scots-Irish to retain “old world” characteristics such as a clannish or tribal family structure, peculiar forms of speech, and the general traits of an “honor” or “warrior” culture that included a propensity for violence. Over time, this shared heritage became the presumed basis for certain ethnocultural deficiencies due to over and interbreeding.
The work of modern Appalachian historian Wilma Dunaway provides a sharp corrective to the myth, which she calls the “ethnic homogeneity thesis.” Her scholarly work is filled with insight, drawn from primary sources of the Appalachian frontier and archaeological evidence, that eighteenth-century Appalachia was a fusion of a variety of European ethnic groups and other groups that reflected African and indigenous descent.
In constructing the Scots-Irish as a race unto their own, Vance can argue that it is simply their innate characteristics that have set them on this destructive path that culminated in the election of Donald Trump, not their racism.
As archaeologist Audrey Horning writes in her work on migration, “The southern upland region attracted settlers not only from the British borderlands . . . but from all over North American colonial regions as well as from France, the Palatinate and West Africa, while later drawing from eastern and southern Europe.”
Scots-Irish heritage in Appalachia is real, but Vance exaggerates its influence in the region for a specific purpose. As John Thomason observed in the New Inquiry, “Even as Vance wags his finger at the vices of his fellow hillbillies, he cannot help but insist on the innocence of their whiteness.” In constructing the Scots-Irish—the hillbillies in Hillbilly Elegy—as a race unto their own, Vance can argue that it is simply their innate characteristics that have set them on this destructive path that culminated in the election of Donald Trump, not their racism. This is highly alarming and, as Thomason argues, makes racial determinism “more palatable to audiences that might normally be on guard against explicit white nationalism.”
Vance appears to take particular relish in using inaccurate constructions of Appalachian whiteness to complicate universal notions of white privilege. As he told Ezra Klein from Vox, “The problem, as I see it, is that we haven’t necessarily developed a great vocabulary to describe disadvantage in a newer, much more culturally diverse country. . . . It’s not just that talking to [a young person from West Virginia] about white privilege is not an especially useful way to understand his real disadvantage. It’s that it actually makes it harder for him to see the disadvantages that other people face.”
The idea that confronting racism risks irrevocably alienating individuals of all races is both a common and predictable strain of thought among conservatives, but it becomes more sinister when it is propped up by the belief that the white individuals in question represent a disadvantaged race unto themselves.
And this is where we pick up the story of eugenicists again.
Charles Murray is best known for his co-authored 1994 work The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, in which he peddled what New York Times columnist Bob Herbert called “racial pornography.” His belief that African Americans are genetically predisposed to lower intelligence became part of the lexicon of the culture of poverty through his suggestion that many forms of government assistance harmed society by encouraging the overpopulation of the intellectually undesirable. “For women near the poverty line in most countries in the contemporary West, a baby is either free or even profitable, depending on the specific terms of the welfare system in her country,” he wrote.
Vance appears to take particular relish in using inaccurate constructions of Appalachian whiteness to complicate universal notions of white privilege.
His 2012 book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, proved to be less controversial than The Bell Curve, although Murray frequently uses the success of the former to re-affirm the latter. He recently told author and podcaster Sam Harris that he not only stands by The Bell Curve’s conclusion, he feels that his evidence is stronger and more relevant than ever.
Vance cited Murray’s Coming Apart approvingly in Hillbilly Elegy, and Murray, who also claims Scots-Irish ancestry, apparently found Hillbilly Elegy riveting as well.
At a talk at the American Enterprise Institute in October 2016, the pair showed off their camaraderie, laughing and joking on stage together. They discussed their “pretty clean Scots-Irish blood” while getting to the heart of what “hillbilly culture” actually is.
“There’s something to be said for the fact that Scots-Irish culture is both unique and regionally distinct, but it’s also spread pretty far and wide,” Vance offered. Murray, who in the darkest corners of his brain still likes to believe he’s a social scientist, nodded and smiled at this conflicting package of attributes that wouldn’t pass a freshman essay—regionally distinct but spread far and wide!—as if it was the truest fact he’d ever heard.
He was then quick to point out, “and our leading characteristics though, which I learned long before I read Hillbilly Elegy, is being drunk and violent.”
It is not possible, in my view, to separate Hillbilly Elegy from the public persona crafted by Vance and on display at events like these. It is one of overperformed humility.
Despite graduating from Yale Law School, authoring a bestselling book about the region, and commanding what he calls a “preposterous amount of money” for public speaking engagements, Vance consistently denies claims that he is acting as an “expert” about Appalachia.
“It’s an indictment of our media culture that a group that includes tens of millions of people is effectively represented by one guy. I feel sort of uncomfortable being the guy,” he told the Washington Post. He bemoans this trend as he appears on major news networks analyzing the region’s white working class, and as he delivers TED talks about Appalachia.
There are many authors, of course, who have written about the people and problems of Appalachia who don’t have eugenicists for pen-pals and mentors. Some of them even anchor frank discussions of social problems within moving personal stories. Otis Trotter’s Keeping Heart (2015), a memoir about growing up poor, sick, and black in Appalachian Ohio springs to mind, as does Rick Bragg’s All Over but the Shoutin’ (1991).
A neutral observer might say to simply ignore Hillbilly Elegy as best we can. But that isn’t possible. Vance is in our schools, our libraries. He is at our graduations and in our newspaper. He’s like the monster from It Follows.
A neutral observer might say to simply ignore the Hillbilly Elegy phenomenon as best we can. But that isn’t possible. Vance is in our schools, our libraries. He is at our graduations and in our newspaper. He’s like the monster from It Follows.
Living with Vance fatigue is real.
The support for Trump is real too, and it remains too strong for my comfort. But it is also true that there are many who hoped and still hope for a different outcome. As someone who wishes to achieve specific progress, it is not immaterial to me that, similar to McDowell County, a “landslide” victory of 90 percent of the vote represents, in some places, fewer than one thousand people. It is not immaterial to me that many saw a different way forward.
And it is not immaterial to me that individuals with power and capital still subject us, in our pain, to the sense of entitlement that allows even the most ambiguous of outcomes to be presented as a concise narrative, richly rewarding, satisfying to everyone but us.
Entitlement. It is, I think, the perfect word to bear in mind as the next chapter unfolds. Elegy is another. In a former life, I used to be a translator, which allowed me to spend several years reading poetry. While reading Greek poetry, my professors warned us to be careful of the double meaning of elegies; they were, it seems, often written as political propaganda.
November 07, 2017
16 Min read time