This One Book Explains Donald Trump’s Surprising Popularity

Hillbilly Elegy was published in June 2016 (Amazon)
Hillbilly Elegy was published in June 2016. (Amazon)

EspañolDonald Trump’s success is so unexpected and illogical that it almost seems lifted out of a storybook.

And if it were, that book would be “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” which sets out in part to explain how Trump’s brand of populist rhetoric appeals to so many Americans.


Los Montes Apalaches recorren el área desde el estado de Nueva York hasta Alabama. (Wikipedia)
The Appalachian Mountains go from the state of New York to Alabama. (Wikipedia)

Author J.D. Vance, a graduate of Yale Law School, grew up a self-identified hillbilly. His father abandoned the family and at 12, he was threatened by his mother, who ultimately ended up in jail.

The book, then, is a look into this world — a way for Americans living other types of lifestyles to understand what it means to be a “redneck.”

Hillbilly culture lies to itself

In the book, we meet Vance’s family, including his paternal grandparents and close neighbors. It’s a pilgrimage between houses and boyfriends of his mother, revealing the economic and cultural poverty that characterizes the hillbilly.

Vance criticizes without contempt the mistakes and paradigms that he perceived in that social environment. He points directly to the poverty in which many hillbillies live as a result of their anger problems, lack of work ethic and discipline, alcoholism and drug addiction.

Vance claims that no government program can cure such an unstable environment.

Consider the case of a co-worker whose girlfriend was pregnant, who often missed work, spent hours on breaks and, upon getting fired, felt that an injustice had been carried out against her.

Hillbillies like that have a “learned uselessness,” meaning that whatever they do, they can not change themselves or their living conditions. This attitude, he explains, makes hillbillies unable to recognize the importance of personal decisions on the future of an individual.

Hillbillies blame their situation on everyone but themselves, feeling that society, private companies and the government have failed them. Their two strongest values are family honor and the honor of the United States. Listening to Donald Trump, then, use the slogan “Make America Great Again” feels spot on — as if the businessman finally understands them. Mass deportations and building a wall along the Mexican border are music to their ears: finally, justice will be done and everything will go back to “the way it was.”

Marine and Yale, foreigner in his own country

During his years in the Marines, part of which was spent in Iraq, Vance came in contact with new cultures. He learned discipline and how to manage personal finances — lessons he never got during his upbringing.

Upon his return, he stopped feeling comfortable in his own house. Determined to move on, Vance went to Ohio University and then, thanks to a scholarship, joined the Yale Law School. The culture shock was strong, Vance writes, because he had to learn social habits of the middle- and upper-middle class.

 Amy Chua (su mentora), la tía Wee, Tom Brokaw, el autor y Lakshmi, su suegra. (J.D. Vance)
Left to right: Amy Chua (his mentor), Aunt Wee, Tom Brokaw, Vance and his mother in law (J.D. Vance)

With the help of Amy Chua, his mentor, Vance sailed into the unknown world of job interviews and networking. He learned that to get a good job, it is just as necessary to have intellectual knowledge as it is to possess social graces.

Vance does not feel at all like a hillbilly now, he writes, but also makes no effort to hide his origins. He also does not claim to have a clear solution to the problems plaguing poor whites.

“I know that the solution begins when we stop blaming Obama or Bush and nameless companies and begin to ask ourselves what we can do to build something better,” he said.

Trump and the hillbilly

But Trump has support from the world outside of the hillbilly as well. For Ian Vasquez, Director of the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the Cato Institute, Trump is also the result of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.

In his article, Trump and Latin America, Vasquez notes that Trump is the product of deteriorating institutions in the United States.

The war against terrorism and the wars in the Middle East fought by Bush helped focus the power in the presidency. Obama promised to end imperial presidencies and political polarization. He achieved the opposite. The presidency is stronger than ever, as is party polarization. Trump’s demagogic campaign has received support from citizens that no longer feel represented by the traditional system.

Public policies on immigration, trade and drugs are the issues Trump would influence the most in Latin America, according to Vasquez. Whether he wins or not, Trump’s populism has already had a major impact on American politics.

TV starring the hillbilly

On television, the lifestyle of the hillbilly is pervasive. Reality shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Toddlers and Tiaras, 16 and pregnant, The Biggest Loser and My Big Red Neck Wedding expose the lives of low-income whites.

Scholar Anthony Harkins said during times of crisis, pop culture focuses on the lifestyle of hillbilly, so people can feel better about their own lives.

The hillbilly, until now, had been a population largely ignored by the political world. Campaign promises in the past have been focused on other demographics. In this election, a candidate speaks to them directly — and they have responded.

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