Poor White Trash! Hillbillies! Rural poverty! It cannot have escaped your notice that we’re having a rash of stuff on this topic right now. Books, columns, thumb-sucking op-eds, talking-head concern-trolls nattering away on PBS NewsHour and Sunday morning chat-fests.
So far as I can tell, the genre first reared its head back in March of this year with a long-winded, digressive piece by Kevin Williamson in National Review (“Chaos in the Family, Chaos in the State: The White Working Class’s Dysfunction“). It was windy and disjointed because Williamson was answering a piece by Michael Brendan Dougherty that accused “conservatism” of having abandoned the working class; while at the same time trying to say something smart about Donald Trump and the losers who support him. Williamson did not quite succeed with the Trump part, but he did enrage millions (thousands?) with his summation, which went in part:
The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.
The article caused a furore that went on for weeks, as one might assume. The author drew many dividends from this, expanding his theme in a rebuttal-to-critics and later essays. But already, in the snippet above, you can see the main elements of the emerging Poor White narrative: they are losers, they are unmotivated, they are unemployed, they need to move, they turn to Trump as to a drug. Although the essay was mainly about family dysfunction among poor small-town whites, it bore a caricature of Donald Trump as header graphic and was widely received as a commentary on his supporters.
So when a book called White Trash (subtitle: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America) was published in June, reviewers were primed and ready to tie it to the Trump campaign—even though there is nary a mention of Candidate Trump in the entire book! The Washington Post reviewer turned much of his notice into a critique of the Trump campaign, as did the person at Slate.
The New Republic actually titled its review “The White Trash Theory of Donald Trump,” and made the whole article about Trump, starting off by citing a NYTimes piece which noted
that counties most likely to contain Trump supporters were also likely to be populated by mobile home residents who had no high school diplomas, worked “old economy” jobs, and listed their ancestry as “American” on the U.S. census.
. (Ancestry “American”! What’s that?)
To reiterate, White Trash does not even mention mention Donald Trump (except as an example of a rich celebrity). Another funny sidelight to all this is that few of the reviewers actually read the damn thing cover to cover. It was painfully clear to me, looking at the reviews, who had actually plowed through the book and who hadn’t.
One of the few who had was the NYTimes reviewer, Thomas J. Shugrue. Shugrue pointed out an obvious peculiarity that escaped other reviewers, namely, that Isenberg’s treatment of Class in America is almost entirely about poor rural whites in the South. No swamp yankees, coolies, blacks or Mexicans in Isenberg’s world; perhaps because they don’t elide with her vision of white-trash Bubba culture. Shugrue also deserves applause for never once mentioning Donald Trump or the presidential campaign.
Most reviewers, alas, apparently read only the cover blurb and the Preface, and maybe the Epilogue as well; and described the book accordingly, finding it lively and readable. This does the reader a disservice, for lively and readable it is not. White Trash is overlong, badly organized, and tedious for long stretches. A Very Bad Book indeed.
However, parts of it are excellent, as the curate said. I commend to you the first couple of paragraphs in the Preface. Most of the reviewers did get that far. That’s where the author draws us in by talking about the white-trash Ewell family in To Kill a Mockingbird, and entices us into believing she’s going to give us the full skinny on the tarpaper-shack set. Alas, Isenberg never does so. So it’s probably best to skip right to the Epilogue, where we get the news that our national dream of an egalitarian democracy is pretty much a sham. Because there will always be poor people, and always a privileged class, and it’s all too sad, but we should just pull up our socks (if we have socks) and look reality square in the face.
In between are a few hundred pages of research notes (apparently there were poor people even in Colonial America, and rich toffs regarded them as lazy and shiftless), and meanderings on pop culture. White Trash folks, Isenberg informs us, have long been a vital part of the national culture. When the author arrives here she has found her métier at last, randomly and rhapsodically skipping through breezy critiques of TV’s Andy Griffith Show, and Gomer Pyle, and The Dukes of Hazzard.
Isenberg keeps looking for special significance in the 1960s #1 show, The Beverly Hillbillies, a low farce that in its heyday was regarded as a black hole of meaning. At one point she suggests it could be taken as an allegory about real hillbillies moving to Chicago and Detroit in the 50s and 60s, and the difficulty attendant in learning big-city ways. Earlier in the book she sifted The Grapes of Wrath for class markers; now she disparages Granny Clampett as a “camp Ma Joad.”
Actually Isenberg is blind to the whole premise of The Beverly Hillbillies. The program’s whole setup is a an extended gag, a farcical inversion of the Steinbeck novel and Ford film. In other words: What if a family of Okies went to California in their jalopy, but had more money than anyone else? (Nor does Isenberg seem to be familiar with the show’s low-concept predecessor, The Real McCoys, written by Hillbillies creator Paul Henning. This was about a family from West Virginia who move out west and struggle with hip California ways. Sort of, What if a family of hillbillies moved to California and nobody died and everything was pretty much normal?)
If The Grapes of Wrath has a logical place in a discussion of white trash in pop culture, Isenberg’s own favorite film, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, does not. “A grim and devastating exposé of the degraded South,” Isenberg calls it, though it is nothing of the sort. The chain gang itself is in Georgia, but most of the film is set in Chicago. It’s the Depression setting, rather, and the theme of The Forgotten Man, that really attract the author. Another movie she keeps coming back to is Deliverance, a tale which again has a Georgia setting but has little to do with poor-white culture, being rather an exploration of the inchoate fears felt by spoiled city people when they contemplate the wilderness and inbred mutants who dwell there.
To say it a third time: none of the foregoing book is about Donald Trump. However, when its author is interviewed, on PBS NewsHour or C-SPAN or Salon or wherever, she always gets asked something along the lines of, “And how does Donald Trump position himself to appeal to the white trash Voter? What do they see in him?” Because the association between Donald Trump and poor, backward whites is now a given, so far as much of the media is concerned.
The author of White Trash may not have the answer, but a new young writer, a self-proclaimed hillbilly and ex-Marine from Yale Law School, has stepped forward to fill the breach. By accident or design, J.D. Vance, author of the new book Hillbilly Elegy, echoes the same complaints Kevin Williamson made about the “white underclass,” and takes them to a new level. Lately he’s been all over the place, in National Review, The Atlantic, The American Conservative, and elsewhere. His exegesis of Trump is insistent, unworldly, bot-like. From The Atlantic:
During this election season, it appears that many Americans have reached for a new pain reliever. It too, promises a quick escape from life’s cares, an easy solution to the mounting social problems of U.S. communities and culture. It demands nothing and requires little more than a modest presence and maybe a few enablers. It enters minds, not through lungs or veins, but through eyes and ears, and its name is Donald Trump.
Trump: opioid of the masses.
Vance’s latest article in National Review is a full-on attack on the Trump campaign and his supporters, and his complaint is race. For the first time in anyone’s memory, a national campaign has brought racial issues to the forefront. J. D. Vance doesn’t like that. He is particularly alarmed about Steve King’s remarks on MSNBC in July:
During the Republican National Convention, on an MSNBC show, a commentator suggested that “dissatisfied white people” drove the convention agenda. One of the show’s guests, Republican representative Steve King of Iowa, immediately grew defensive, questioning the historical contributions of “non-white” groups to our shared civilization. It was an astonishingly candid and troubling display of racial resentment, the sort of thing that would have ended a career in a more diverse party. But it was also revealing: The commentator offered a straightforward, if intemperate, remark about the composition of the RNC delegation, and King viewed it as an attack on the white race.
From here, Vance jumps to an attack on Breitbart News, painting a scenario in which a poor, non-college youth finds salvation in an online article that attacks the notion of “white privilege.” Through Breitbart and social networks, our youth next discovers that there are other whites out there who feel similarly aggrieved.
But these whites are wrong, Vance explains, because blacks are continually being harassed by police. He offers an example from personal experience:
In law school, the police regularly harassed one of my best friends, who is black, even though he attended Yale just as I did.
What Vance means by “harassed” is presumably not that the black friend was “regularly” beaten to the ground and cuffed—Yale campus police don’t do that—but that the cops kept asking him to show his ID when entering campus buildings. Not really remarkable, when you have a vast black ghetto in New Haven a few blocks from the Yale campus, and violent crimes in the vicinity are hardly unknown.
Is this annoying and humiliating for a black student at Yale Law? Undoubtedly it is. But any sympathy you might feel is immediately deflated when Vance goes back to his Breitbart boy and makes this frivolous comparison:
Getting whipped into a frenzy on conspiracy websites, or feeling that distant, faceless elites dislike you because of your white skin, doesn’t compare. But the great advantages of whiteness in America are invisible to the white poor, or are completely swallowed by the disadvantages of their class.
Poor whites reading “conspiracy websites” may think have it bad, but they mustn’t feel aggrieved, Nanny Vance lectures; they need to realize that some black people may be having it worse!
Thus whites, at least poor whites in West Virginia, do not have a right to complain. That is Vance’s frivolous, empty conclusion. One imagines him dutifully typing it in and then glancing behind, looking for a pat on the shoulder.
Of course Vance has stacked the argument-deck from the outset, by turning the problem into a grievance-contest between (undeserving) poor whites and blacks in general. The white boy getting angry on the internet, and the black boy being stopped by the campus police—these are not substantive problems. We do not need to weigh them for equivalent hurt. Substantive issues are things like survival, the threat of race-replacement, and the question of whether or not Euroamericans are permitted to recover the country they built.
Vance avoids these issues entirely. He would be horrified (wow just wow) to think that people who discuss them could even exist.
Donald Trump is fond of claiming that “the blacks” — just like “the Hispanics” — love him. Like so much of what he says, this is utterly unsupported by the evidence. But the Republican party’s problem is bigger than Trump, and will outlast him: It is increasingly the party of a white population cut off from its fellow citizens.
That last clause is true. We are indeed increasingly cut off from your “fellow citizens,” J. D. Vance. Because we have come to be increasingly convinced that your “fellow citizens” will never have our best interests in mind.