If one wants to see some of the most dysfunctional and at times downright ugly elements of white society in America, look no farther than the base of Donald Trump's support. The core of Trump's base is relatively uneducated working class whites who see their future going down the drain, at least according to their perspective because of the rising status of others, in particular, blacks, Hispanics and other immigrants. Stated another way, they perceive their white privilege being diminished and rather than do some soul searching and looking in the mirror to see one of the roots of their problem, it's easier to blame others. A column in the Washington Post looks at this phenomenon and references a book I have mentioned before, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” by J.D. Vance who I heard interviewed on a talk radio show some weeks back. The column agrees with much of what Vance sees as the problem: poor choices, dropping out of school, drug abuse, single parenthood, among others, it also targets the spark that has ignited the rage so many of Trump's supporters evidence: race and racism. It is no coincidence that the mere existence of America's first black president has helped exacerbate this rage. Here are op-ed highlights:
In other words, who are Trump’s voters and why do they stick with him? Sometimes a good writer with a keen eye can provide more insight than a dozen polls. J.D. Vance has done just that in his lovely book “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” The book has rocketed up the best-seller lists — deservedly so. But it has some interesting and important gaps.
We all now know that Trump’s rise has been fueled by the alienation and anger of the country’s white working class. That cohort has seen its incomes stagnate, cities crumble and dreams vanish. But Vance gets underneath the data and shows us what these impersonal forces mean to actual people. He describes the abandoned children, the poor work habits, the drug abuse, the violence, the rage. But he does it with sympathy and love.
For Vance, the problem is ultimately cultural, one of values, attitudes and mores. “We hillbillies must wake the hell up,” he writes, and “stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what can we do to make things better.” His own life story — coming from low expectations, dysfunctional relationships and persistent poverty to end up a graduate of Yale Law School and a Silicon Valley executive — demonstrates that grit can conquer all.
But Vance got some help along the way. He tells us that his public schools were decent enough and, when he got motivated, his teachers helped him succeed. He notes that his trajectory changed when he was admitted to Ohio State University, which he was able to attend because of generous federal loans and grants. And the turning point in the book and his life takes place when he decides to enlist in the Marine Corps. He describes how the armed forces taught him discipline, hard work, high expectations and good values.
This is federal bureaucracy engaged in shaping mores and morals, the ultimate example of government as nanny. When so much of what government does is under siege, it is odd that Vance seems to minimize the role that government can play in providing opportunities for others like him.
The other, larger gap in Vance’s book is race. He speaks about the causes of the anxiety and pain of the white working class, but he describes the causes almost entirely in economic terms. Their jobs have disappeared, their wages have stagnated, their lives have become more unstable. But there is surely something else at work here — the sense that people who look and sound very different are rising up. Surveys, polls and other research confirm that racial identity and anxiety are at the heart of support for Trump.
Vance touches on this sideways, when speaking about the almost pathological suspicion his hillbillies have for Barack Obama. Vance explains that it is because of the president’s accent — “clean, perfect, neutral” — his urban background, his success in the meritocracy, his reliability as a father. “And,” one wants to whisper to Vance, “because he’s black .” After all, over the years the white working class has voted for plenty of Republican and Democratic candidates with fancy degrees and neutral accents. That’s not what makes Obama different.
The white working class has always derived some of its status because there was a minority underclass below it. . . . Edmund Morgan argues that even before the revolution, the introduction of slavery helped dampen class conflict within the white population. No matter how poor you were, there was security in knowing there was someone beneath you.
The rage that is fueling the Trump phenomenon is not just about stagnant wages. It is about a way of life under siege, and it risks producing a “politics of cultural despair.” That phrase was coined by Fritz Stern to describe Germany a century ago. The key to avoiding that fate is not a series of public policies — whether tariffs or tax credits — but enlightened politics, meaning leadership that does not prey on people’s fears and phobias.
Added to the racism of Trump's base is a heavy dose of religious extremism flowing from the Christofascists who are close to hysteria over the decline of Christianity in America and their growing inability to inflict their beliefs on all of society (and make a plush living, if one is a member of the professional Christian class). Both the working class whites of Appalachia and elsewhere need to take a look at themselves and realize that they themselves are a major part of their perceived problem. Years ago a family member worked at a government funded medical clinic in the nearly all white coal mining regions of Southwest Virginia and was appalled at the level of dysfunction in much of the low income white society there. Squandering ones paycheck on alcohol and/or drugs, dropping out of high school, and/or making ridiculous purchases that actively kept them back financially and inflicted harm and even hunger on their children is not the fault of the government or other races. Likewise, if the Christofascists lament the decline of Christianity, it is they themselves and their hatred of others that have in large part made younger generations walk away form religion entirely. It's not blacks, Hispanics or Muslims who are to blame, it is they themselves. The GOP loves to talk about personal responsibility, yet its core base is all about playing the blame game and rejecting personal accountability.
Perhaps I sound harsh in my chastisement, but my father, the son of Austrian immigrants, was orphaned at 3 years of age (he was the youngest of four children), lived in an orphanage until age 16 when he was basically put out on the street, yet managed to graduate from high school, got into college - he was drafted in 1942 and the GI bill paid the balance of his tuition - and was successful in life. As were all three of his siblings who had likewise lived in the same orphanage until age 16 and joined the working world while still in high school. My big issue with Trump is that the rage he evokes from his supporters ultimately does nothing to improve their prospects or change some of their dysfunctional and racist lifestyles.