Hillbilly Elegy and Trump supporters | WORLD
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Hillbilly Elegy and Trump supporters

J.D. Vance’s story of growing up in Appalachia sheds light on what drives angry voters

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The book I positively reviewed in the Aug. 20 issue of WORLD Magazine, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, is getting a lot of press attention now, and I understand why. Since journalists who live in the liberal echo chamber often don’t know anyone who’s voting for Donald Trump, they’re trying to understand how some smart people can be, in big media estimation, so stupid.

Vance’s analysis of his beloved grandmother’s voting pattern explains the headlines: “Depending on her mood, Mamaw was a radical conservative or a European-style social Democrat.” She and many of her neighbors believed that everything is rigged against the poor white guy, and they’d vote for someone who seemed equally angry.

Vance became a social realist out of personal experience. In high school he worked as a cashier in a grocery store and saw how people gamed the welfare system by buying soda with food stamps, selling it at a discount for cash, and then buying liquor and cigarettes with the cash. “Every two weeks I’d get a small paycheck and notice the line where federal and state income taxes were deducted from my wages,” he writes. “At least as often, our drug-addict neighbor would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else.”

I spent my childhood in working-class Massachusetts neighborhoods rather than Appalachia, but my college experience was similar to Vance’s: “I have never felt out of place in my entire life. But I did at Yale. … I felt like my spaceship had crashed in Oz.” For instance, “Poor people don’t wear pajamas. We fall asleep in our underwear or blue jeans. To this day, I find the very notion of pajamas an unnecessary elite indulgence, like caviar.”

God blessed Vance by putting him in contact with some people who cared about his mind.

So much of what is taken for granted among the upper class seems silly to others, and vice versa. Although Trump’s dad became rich, Trump’s mannerisms and speech patterns are working class. Urban working-class whites haven’t had one of their own as a major presidential candidate since Al Smith 88 years ago.

God blessed Vance by putting him in contact with some people who cared about his mind. When in the first grade, another child knew about “multiplication” and Vance felt stupid for never having heard of such a thing. His grandfather explained the mystery. For the next two years Grandpa had him practice increasingly complex math once a week, awarding him with an ice cream cone for solid performance. In high school, Vance “found a couple of teachers who inspired me to love learning”—but he could only exercise that love when his home life wasn’t chaotic.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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