What explains the appeal of Donald Trump? Many pundits have tried to answer this question and fallen short. But J.D. Vance nails it. His stunning new book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of A Family and Culture in Crisis, doesn't even mention Mr. Trump. Yet it explains more about the people who form the core of his support than everything else I've read. It is an intimate portrait of the white working class by a man who knows this world in his bones, because they are his people.
"Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash," he writes. "I call them friends and family."
Mr. Vance calls himself a cultural emigrant. The world he grew up in had almost nothing in common with yours and mine. Nobody he knew went to college. None of their parents expected them to. His grandparents, like many others, had moved from the poverty-stricken hills of Appalachia to the booming factory towns of Ohio. They made a good living, for a while. But then the factories closed down and communities fragmented. Family breakdown and drug addiction became the norm. People deserted organized religion. They became increasingly isolated, angry and distrustful. Much of their identity derives from love of country – but less and less unites them with their fellow citizens. Meantime, the main message they get from the rest of the culture is that they're not good enough.
It's misleading to describe the problems of the white working class as an economic crisis. Above all, it is a cultural, spiritual and psychological crisis. The real challenge is not so much the loss of jobs as the loss of values, order and meaning. The yawning chasm between the working and the middle class isn't about money. It's about habits and attitudes and a sense of powerlessness.
Mr. Vance has a deep and abiding affection for the people he comes from. But he is also unsparing. American working-class families, he maintains, "experience a level of instability unseen elsewhere in the world." Divorce and family breakdown are endemic. People's homes are a "chaotic mess. … We scream and yell at each other like we're spectators at a football game. At least one member of the family uses drugs – sometimes the father, sometimes the mother, sometimes both." Too many young men are averse to hard work. They'd rather lie around getting stoned. Yet their sense of grievance is acute. They tend to blame their problems on large, malevolent forces outside of themselves.
For most of J.D.'s childhood, his father wasn't in the picture. His mother had a series of boyfriends and husbands who came and went. Mom was an off-and-on hardcore drug addict. "The constant moving, and fighting, the seemingly endless carousel of new people I had to meet, learn to love, and then forget – this, and not my subpar public school, was the real barrier to opportunity," he writes.
It was J.D.'s hillbilly grandparents who saved him. They were rough, uneducated and abusive (although not toward him). But they were also a crucial constant in his life. His grandfather tutored him at math. His foul-mouthed, chain-smoking grandma told him, "Never be like those losers who think the deck is stacked against them. You can do anything you want to."
Miraculously, J.D. made it through high school. He joined the Marines, where he learned the structure and discipline that life had not provided. Improbably, he wound up being accepted at Yale Law School. He felt like an alien from outer space. And he began to learn the meaning of "social capital" – that web of connections and institutions and knowledge that working-class kids don't have and privileged kids take for granted.
His story has a happy ending. Most people from the working class do not. White working-class lifespans are actually falling.
Mr. Trump gives these people an outlet for their rage, their pain and their frustration. His solutions won't work. But at least he's talking to them. As Mr. Vance, writing in the Atlantic, puts it, Mr. Trump is "cultural heroin" – the newest opioid of the masses. He, too, offers an easy escape from problems that seem overwhelming and hopeless.
The issues described in Hillbilly Elegy – low social mobility, the yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots, the waning prospects and social decay experienced by people at the bottom of the ladder – are among the greatest challenges of our times. They can't be fixed with technocratic or government solutions. And they promise to shake politics and American society for a long time to come – long after Mr. Trump has left the stage.