A lot of people I know were stunned by the outcome of last November’s election. How could this happen? Why didn’t we see it coming? Why did they vote for him?
Therein lies a problem. Who, exactly, are “they”? The ballot box is secret. Unlike our neighbor who raised three Trump flags and planted a “Lock Her Up!” sign in his yard, many chose not to advertise their vote. Yet we know we must be running into his supporters every day at work, at church, in the grocery store.
In search of answers, thousands turned to Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, published last June when the very idea of Donald Trump running for president was only a late-night TV joke. Interviewers from both the left and right have besieged its author, J.D. Vance, for answers, since so many working-class whites seem to have discarded their Democratic loyalties to vote for an outlier. As a highly successful graduate of Yale law school, Vance is the exception, but he was born into a thoroughly hillbilly clan.
When I read his book, I expected to learn about a mysterious enclave of Americans completely unlike me. In some ways, this is true. Hillbillies, Vance reports, are out of work (often by choice), gun-toting, promiscuous, disrespectful, illiterate, hooked on fast food and drugs, neglectful of their kids, suspicious of outsiders, and sunk in poverty.
I’m nothing like that. I earned three master’s degrees and had a professional career. I eat well, and drink annually. My house is clean; my kids are doing well. I’ve had just two husbands and one divorce. I try to solve arguments with words, not shotguns. I travel; I celebrate other cultures.
But wait. My father worked at a factory, just like the men in Vance’s Kentucky hometown. Aside from a modest savings account, my family lived from paycheck to paycheck. When his union went on strike at Alcoa, Mom paid for groceries with food stamps. I’ve worked since I was sixteen. We lived frugally, eating the cheapest cuts of meat (beef heart, chicken backs and necks), wearing clothes Mom sewed herself, rarely going out to eat, buying cars Dad could fix himself. We had a nice house, but my dad helped build it. Mom cooked the squirrels, rabbits, and deer Dad hunted.
Hillbillies, Vance notes, “can go from zero to murderous in seconds.” I lived with a man like that, and so did my cousin Nancy. Her husband solved his marriage problems by shooting her, and the man he thought she was having an affair with, and then himself, leaving five children orphaned and sent to foster care. How was this different from the way hillbillies take “justice” into their own hands?
My grandparents grew up on farms, and talked like country folk. They said “ain’t,” and caught “crawdads” in the “crick.” Both of my parents dropped out of high school, Dad to work and Mom to marry him and raise a family. While none of my relations, to my knowledge, made meth at home or cooked crack in a family spoon, we had our share of alcoholics and tokers. Some of my kin had hair-trigger tempers, made fools of themselves in public, bore children out of wedlock, got married over and over, came back from the war calling all Vietnamese “gooks,” had abortions, went on welfare, caught catfish and frogs for supper, and refused to drive foreign cars.
Vance labels hillbillies “working-class,” and college grads “elites.” Those labels trouble me. They sound like walls when we need bridges.
As the first in my family to go to college, I was both nervous and thrilled. Looking back, I see that my mind was cracked open, ready or not. I met New Yorkers, read poetry, and stayed up late philosophizing. I fell in love with a darling Jewish sophomore.
That first semester, we didn’t have a break until Thanksgiving. I missed my family, my house, and my cat, and was overjoyed to open Aunt Ethel’s door to our holiday feast. What happened next was a surprise. I found myself looking at these well-loved people as an outsider, as if I were encountering a foreign culture for the first time. I was taken aback by the judgments running through my mind. At Coe, I had grown used to big thoughts and open minds. They were focused on the quotidian – daily chores, old arguments, mundane worries about the price of gas or the noise the old car was making. I viewed my parents’ magazines – Ladies’ Home Journal, Outdoor Life – with embarrassment. I was bored. I felt like I was speaking another language when they asked how I was doing in school.
Later, I was ashamed of myself for judging my family so condescendingly. It scared me to feel so removed from my tribe. After that visit, it never happened again. I found my footing, as I straddled the two worlds of college and home, of the blue collar community I came from and the wider world of learning and culture that was initially so alien to me. I entered that wider world, and I would not go back for anything, but I have kept the door open to my “working-class” wellspring.
My folks voted Republican, except when Nixon ran a second time. I’m sure many of my cousins canceled my vote last November. I understand, even if I don’t agree. If I feel like judging, I remind myself of our childhood together, and of all the times we’ve cried together at funerals. I don’t feel like any kind of elite, and they don’t seem like lower-class citizens to me. Their hearts are big, and I know where they’re coming from. After all, we come from the same place.