A Senior Moment
'Hillbilly Elegy'
by Rev. Bob Johnston

January 21, 2017

New Perspectives

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I don’t know if J. D. Vance attended Friday’s Inauguration. I don’t even know if this best-selling author even voted for the 45th American President. I do know his recent book, Hillbilly Elegy (HarperCollins, 2016) is purported to explain one major reason why Donald Trump is now making himself at home this weekend in the White House.

Trump secured unexpectedly strong support among the so-called forgotten Americans, those most affected by the loss of well-paying factory jobs right across the “Rust Belt” states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

J.D. Vance is a self-described “hillbilly” whose grandparents migrated from Kentucky Appalachia country to Middletown, Ohio. Their goal was to secure a better economic future for children and grandchildren. These were the descendants of the millions of Scots-Irish immigrants who came to the United States in the eighteenth century and, finding the seaboard already occupied by earlier immigrants, pushed on to the vast backwoods, that mountainous hinterland from Georgia and Alabama and northward to New York State and Ohio.

Vance defines this sub-culture as fiercely loyal to family, faith and country. They are the “poor whites,” lacking a college degree and mostly left behind by massive manufacturing job losses in today’s American economy.

Vance’s grandparents, his beloved Papaw and Mamaw, escaped the poverty of Jackson, Kentucky, in 1946 to find better-paying work in the industrial town of Middletown, Ohio. Papaw was 16 and his new bride was 13 and pregnant.

Hill people like the Vance family were actively recruited by Ohio factories and the young father quickly found work at Armco, a thriving steel company, one of four major local factory employers. Gaining employment proved easier than finding social acceptance among the urban, more educated, already established white population. These reluctant 'now-neighbours' looked askance at the unsophisticated thousands of newcomers descending into their cities and towns.

Two generations later, the transplanted 'hillbillies' have fallen on hard times. Drug use is rampant. (The exciting new reality show, Southern Justice, documents this widespread use of meth, heroin and other illegal chemicals. On camera, the local police spend most of their shifts chasing drug dealers.) Family life has become fractured. Those good jobs in Middletown have moved off shore. The “blue collar economy” has never recovered following the recent Great recession, leaving Vance’s sub-culture pessimistic but also angry.

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Vance outlines two options for America’s forgotten Appalachian workers: education or government-dependent welfare. He chose the former path, encouraged by his indomitable Mamaw who pushed school success as the ticket out of poverty and despair. After a stint in the Marines, Vance went on to study law at Yale. He has little sympathy for those able-bodied employables who have chosen the welfare route rather than work, describing how many have learned to scam the food stamp handouts.

One seeming purpose of Hillbilly Elegy is to provide a cathartic journal for Vance to publicly ventilate a mix of love, resentment, fears, sense of loss, anger and other deeply-held, troubling emotions. Emanating from his dysfunctional culture and disrupted family life---five “father figures,” Vance had carried these memories into adulthood.

A second thesis of Hillbilly Elegy is to explain how these “forgotten working class white Americans” gradually shifted their political allegiance, beginning with Reagan’s presidency, from Democrat to Republican. The Scots-Irish have always been fiercely independent, patriotic, pro-military and anti-establishment—a natural voting base harvest for Trump as it turned out.

In my opinion, Vance as an author is far more successful in achieving his former goal of catharsis than the latter one of socio-political interpretation. A far better depiction of the Scots-Irish influence on the shaping of American culture is Born To Fight (Broadway Publisher, 2004), written by the former Virginia senator, Jim Webb. He illustrates how such diverse characters as Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Teddy Roosevelt and general George Patton were each from Scots-Irish stock.

With Trump’s presidency comes the revived hopes of those “hillbillies” whom Vance has described in his poignant and informative bestseller. The President decried those closed American “factories scattered like tombstones across the land.” To the millions of forgotten ones, he thundered “---you will never be ignored again.”

Time will determine whether Donald Trump’s promises will be kept. I suspect his advisors will gently remind him many of those disappeared jobs were lost, not to China or Mexico, but to robots and better industrial technology. The Kentucky coal miner’s “enemy” was not Obama or the EPA, but fracking. If and when off-shore jobs do return to the United States , it may happen not as a frightened response to Trumpian threats, but as a reaction to Chinese pollution, endemic corruption and frustrating red tape in many off-shore countries, rising wage demands by off-shore workers and escalating transportation costs to ship finished manufactured goods back to the USA.

In the interim, along with J. D. Vance’s transplanted Appalachians, the world anxiously awaits the dawning of this unprecedented new chapter in American history.
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Saturday, January 21, 2017