Sometimes a book becomes famous because it accidentally explains what’s going on in the world. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy isn’t the kind of book publishers usually expect to be a breakout hit: it’s a memoir by a young business executive and ex-Marine about his family in Kentucky and rural Ohio, and the good and bad points of modern “hillbilly” culture. But this seemingly small-scale story has been hailed as one of the most important books of the year, discussed in think-pieces and major media outlets, and for one big reason: people think it helps explain the Donald Trump phenomenon.
“It’s a mechanism for understanding what so many of us are trying to wrap our heads around—the rise of Trump,” says Leila Moshref-Danesh, who wrote an early review of the book for The Huffington Post. “Because it’s not so much about what Trump says, it’s more about who his rhetoric is appealing to. And why.” Vance’s story, which contrasts the dysfunction and bad habits of some of his relatives with the steady values of his grandmother (who once set her husband on fire to get him to stop drinking), has been seized on as a sort of oracle that provides a window into the revolt of the white working class.
Every headline about the book seems to be about the current Republican nominee for president, from CNN’s “New book gives insight into Donald Trump fervor” to the New York Times‘ “In Hillbilly Elegy, a Tough Love Analysis of the Poor Who Back Trump” to the New York Post’s more pugnacious “Why ‘White Trash’ Americans are Flocking to Donald Trump.” Vance was invited onto ABC’s This Week to talk about Trump’s appeal to the people he writes about, saying that the candidate speaks to those who “feel like the institutions that enable success are closed off to them.”
Rod Dreher, a blogger for The American Conservative whose interview with Vance helped bring Hillbilly Elegy to wider attention, spent much of the interview asking about Trump. “Within a day, the interview had gone viral,” Dreher says. “It crashed the magazine’s server three times that weekend. J.D. hit a nerve, bigtime.” Vance isn’t a Trump supporter, but Trump has accidentally made him famous.
Why are so many people convinced that Hillbilly Elegy unlocks the mystery of Trump? Some of it may have to do with the book’s reintroduction to a people—the proud Scots-Irish of Appalachia, with what Vance calls its “honour culture”—whose existence was almost forgotten until Trump started doing well with them. “I was very interested to learn about this population of folks that I, quite frankly, had not given much thought to, and had sort of written off as a group not worth understanding,” says Moshref-Danesh, who knew Vance for several years before he wrote the book. “President Obama’s generalization of a people ‘clinging to their guns and their religion’ kind of summed up my mentality.”
Even before the disproportionate white working class support for Trump, there had been signs that this class had been overlooked. Vance’s book follows on the heels of a series of widely-reported academic studies, which revealed that in the last 15 years, the mortality rate for middle-aged white people has been rising in the U.S. while most other groups have seen improvements; The Atlantic summed the situation up by saying that middle-aged white people are “drinking more, using more opioids, and killing themselves at higher rates.” This came as a shock to many people, both on the left and the right.
“It’s interesting because you have this population of white folk who haven’t had to deal with overt or institutionalized racism like the black community, for example, and yet they are certainly marginalized, and arguably disenfranchised,” Moshref-Danesh notes.
Vance doesn’t try to offer solutions, but his moderate conservative perspective—that many people suffer from “learned helplessness” about the prospect of improving their lives—at least offers something that people can grab onto about a problem that isn’t fully understood yet. “He speaks of both the structural reasons for the poverty and abuse he endured, but also he speaks uncompromisingly about the sense of agency people have, but don’t use,” Dreher adds. “J.D. says that yes, to a certain extent, his people are victims, but it’s also true that they are victims of their own self-destructive beliefs and practices.”
Another reason for the book’s success may be that it deals with a class that isn’t well-represented in elite journalism—or almost any other elite institution. Vance told the Wall Street Journal that one of the reasons he wrote the book was that he felt out of place at Yale University, as one of the few people there from a white working-class background: “Why is it,” he recalled thinking, “that there aren’t many people—or any people—from a background like mine at places like Yale?” As journalists realize that they don’t know many people like Vance, a book like Hillbilly Elegy helps get them in touch with a world they rarely see.
Yet there’s always a danger of projecting current events onto the book, or assuming that one story can be the key to everything that’s going on in the world. Trump’s voters aren’t all, or even mostly, the people Vance talks about. Reporting on a recent study by Gallup, the Washington Post pointed out that while the candidate’s supporters tend to be blue-collar whites, they are often “comparatively well off themselves,” and “come from places where their neighbours endure other forms of hardship.” Many of the people who back Trump may not be the most dysfunctional figures in Hillbilly Elegy, but those who fear they’ll wind up that way.
Whether or not Vance holds the answer to why people support Trump, the media can’t resist his book—perhaps not just for the substance, but the reasonable, moderate way he portrays the people he writes about, neither glorifying or condemning them. “I think we would do well to not only pay attention to the substance of what Vance says, but also how he conveys it,” Moshref-Danesh says. “Words and tone have power, and a calm, thoughtful, introspective voice like Vance’s seems, these days, to be few and far between.”
In an era of shouting and extreme polarization a book like Hillbilly Elegy has been embraced not just as an explanation for Trump, but his antithesis. “I hope I live long enough to cast my vote for J.D. Vance for president,” Dreher says. “I’m dead serious.”