The Parts of America Where Whites Don’t Feel Privileged

Two new books take on the culture and history of rural, low-income communities

Winter’s Bone

The appeal of Donald Trump took the media by surprise; in fact, it is still somehow taking the media by surprise, even now, a year after his popularity as a Presidential contender began to soar and after an estimated 50 quadrillion words have been written about everything from the man’s little hands to his outsized tax plan. And two new non-fiction books are well-positioned to explain, if not Trump himself, then his base: the history White Trash, by Nancy Isenberg, and the memoir Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance.

Alec MacGillis at ProPublica / the Atlantic has put together an absorbing and thoughtful #longread about both of them. Of Vance’s book, at least, MacGillis says it “couldn’t be better timed.”

The Despair of Poor White Americans

The picture painted by both books is bleaker than a Todd Solondz movie. Here’s Vance in an interview with the American Conservative, talking about where he grew up:

Heroin addiction is rampant. In my medium-sized Ohio county last year, deaths from drug addiction outnumbered deaths from natural causes. The average kid will live in multiple homes over the course of her life, experience a constant cycle of growing close to a “stepdad” only to see him walk out on the family, know multiple drug users personally, maybe live in a foster home for a bit (or at least in the home of an unofficial foster like an aunt or grandparent), watch friends and family get arrested, and on and on. And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops. …

Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears. He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas. His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground. He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.

It may also seem familiar to anyone who remembers Obama’s much criticized comment about white working class Midwesterners from 2008: “it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” It’s not clear that either Vance or Isenberg would say the President was wrong, exactly, only tactless. Anti-immigrant, anti-trade? That’s Trump in a thimble. Vance and Isenberg themselves make similar points using slightly different language: Vance opts for “hostile” over “bitter,” for example. But MacGillis, in his summation, also uses the word “bitterness” and frankly, after everything he’s recounted, it feels apt.

Vance also says, though, that the people he comes from are proud — some of them have nothing left but their pride — and they hate feeling disrespected.

Each time someone talks like [Obama did], I’m reminded of Mamaw’s feeling that hillbillies are the one group you don’t have to be ashamed to look down upon. The people back home carry that condescension like a badge of honor, but it also hurts, and they’ve been looking for someone for a while who will declare war on the condescenders. If nothing else, Trump does that.

For context, Isenberg describes how all of this came to be:

For England, the New World beckoned as more than a vast store of natural resources, Isenberg argues. It was also a place to dispose of the dregs of its own society. In the late 16th century, the geographer Richard Hakluyt argued that America could serve as a giant workhouse where the “fry [young children] of wandering beggars that grow up idly and hurtfully and burdenous to the Realm, might be unladen and better bred up.” The exportable poor, he wrote, were the “offals of our people.” In 1619, King James I was so fed up with vagrant boys milling around his Newmarket palace that he asked the Virginia Company to ship them overseas. Three years later, John Donne — yes, that John Donne — wrote about the colony of Virginia as if it were England’s spleen and liver, Isenberg writes, draining the “ill humours of the body … to breed good bloud.” Thus it was, she goes on, that the early settlers included so many “roguish highwaymen, mean vagrants, Irish rebels, known whores, and an assortment of convicts,” including one Elizabeth “Little Bess” Armstrong, sent to Virginia for stealing two spoons.


Vance is critical of the way both political parties respond to poverty: the Democrats are too quick to assume people don’t have agency and need help while the GOP is overly fixated on an individual and his bootstraps. And he acknowledges that there are no easy, obvious answers. The situation is a complicated one. What could, potentially, help?

Interestingly, both in my conversations with poor blacks and whites, there’s a recognition of the role of better choices in addressing these problems. The refusal to talk about individual agency is in some ways a consequence of a very detached elite, one too afraid to judge and consequently too handicapped to really understand. At the same time, poor people don’t like to be judged, and a little bit of recognition that life has been unfair to them goes a long way. Since Hillbilly Elegy came out, I’ve gotten so many messages along the lines of: “Thank you for being sympathetic but also honest.”

I think that’s the only way to have this conversation and to make the necessary changes: sympathy and honesty. It’s not easy, especially in our politically polarized world, to recognize both the structural and the cultural barriers that so many poor kids face. But I think that if you don’t recognize both, you risk being heartless or condescending, and often both.

MacGillis also points out, though, that there are structural forces making matters worse:

The elite economy is more concentrated than ever in a handful of winner-take-all cities — as Phillip Longman recently noted in the Washington Monthly, the per capita income of Washington, D.C., in 1980 was 29 percent above the average for Americans as a whole; in 2013, that figure was 68 percent. …

The clustering is intensifying within regions, too. Since 1980, the share of upper-income households living in census tracts that are majority upper-income, rather than scattered throughout more mixed-income neighborhoods, has doubled. The upper echelon has increasingly sought comfort in prosperous insularity, withdrawing its abundant social capital from communities that relied on that capital’s overflow, and consolidating it in oversaturated enclaves.

So structural changes may need to be made, too. The problem, as MacGillis diagnoses it, is that there is “no future” in many of these small towns and rural enclaves. Sympathy, honesty, and better choices may help on an individual level, sure, but broadly speaking, if there’s no industry, there may be no hope, either. Unless government puts either a finger on the scale or, as he suggests, even perhaps a whole hand.

One of the most compelling parts of Isenberg’s history is her account of the help delivered to struggling rural whites as part of the New Deal. Projects like the Resettlement Administration, led by Rexford Tugwell, which moved tenants to better land and provided loans for farm improvements, brought real progress. So did the Tennessee Valley Authority, which not only spurred development of much of the South but created training centers and entire planned towns — towns where hill children went to school with engineers’ kids. The New Deal had its flops. But men like Tugwell recognized that citizens in some places were slipping badly behind, and that their plight represented a powerful threat to the country’s founding ideals of individual self-determination and advancement.

Time for a new New Deal? Perhaps! Ironically, the candidate least likely to make that happen is Donald J. Trump.

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