Claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

There were about 10 books about Don­ald Trump pub­lished in the lead-up to the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. There will be lots more now. To­day I want to rec­om­mend one that came out a few months ago: JD Vance’s Hill­billy El­egy: A Mem­oir of a Fam­ily and Cul­ture in Cri­sis (HarperCollins, $32.99). Like you, I have read a lot about Trump and his defin­ing win on Novem­ber 8, but this book is the best so far. It’s a se­ri­ous, fas­ci­nat­ing, hu­man — with all the good and bad that word in­volves — in­sight into the lives of peo­ple from the white work­ing class of rust-belt Amer­ica, part of the pop­u­la­tion that re-ten­anted the White House.

I cov­ered some im­por­tant sto­ries when I was this news­pa­per’s New York cor­re­spon­dent, in­clud­ing the Septem­ber 11 at­tacks and the sub­se­quent an­thrax at­tacks. I went to Florida when hang­ing chads sep­a­rated Ge­orge W. Bush and Al Gore. I re­ported on ex­e­cu­tions, in­clud­ing that of Ok­la­homa City bomber Ti­mothy McVeigh. Trump be­com­ing US pres­i­dent is up there with the most im­por­tant sto­ries I’ve seen, for the ob­vi­ous rea­son that it may change the US and the world. In a nar­rower sense, I have been dis­ap­pointed by re­sponses to Trump’s win, in­clud­ing in the me­dia. There seems to be a dis­con­nec­tion be­tween re­port­ing and re­al­ity. I would not have voted for Trump, but when he won my re­ac­tion was to won­der how he did and why. I wanted to find out more about his sup­port­ers. I don’t know any­one in Penn­syl­va­nia, say, but I don’t be­lieve ev­ery­one there who voted Repub­li­can is an an­gry, racist misog­y­nist. Or a man. Men and women voted for Trump, and I sus­pect most of them had their rea­sons, ones that I don’t pre­sume to know.

This is a com­plex is­sue that needs thought­ful con­sid­er­a­tion, not scream­ing. Trump may be gone in four years, or even sooner. But who will re­place him? After read­ing Vance’s book about “the lives of real peo­ple when the in­dus­trial econ­omy goes south”, I read Ja­maican nov­el­ist Mar­lon James, on Face­book, declar­ing he “couldn’t give two shakes of a rat’s ass about em­pathis­ing with the strug­gle of the white work­ing class”. He crit­i­cises the “priv­i­leg­ing of white main­stream pain over ev­ery­body else’s” and asks “what about the black work­ing class?” Then I read Bren­dan O’Neill in The Spec­ta­tor ar­gu­ing Trump won be­cause the peo­ple who run US pol­i­tics, in­clud­ing the me­dia, showed only con­tempt for the blob of “low in­for­ma­tion Amer­i­cans”. Both James and O’Neill make valid points, but is this the way to go about it?

Vance, 31, was born in Ken­tucky and grew up in an Ohio steel town. He is a white Amer­i­can but does not re­late “the WASPs of the North­east”. He re­mem­bers his grand­fa­ther cast­ing his first and only Repub­li­can vote in 1984 be­cause, while he didn’t like Ron­ald Rea­gan, “I hated that son of a bitch [Wal­ter] Mon­dale”. He’s con­nected to Ap­palachian Moun­tains and iden­ti­fies “with the mil­lions of work­ing-class white Amer­i­cans of Scots-Ir­ish de­scent who have no col­lege de­gree”. The last no longer in­cludes the author. Due to the love and kind­ness of a few peo­ple, mainly his grand­par­ents, he made it to Yale Law School. A stint in the marines also re­formed his life. He de­scribes the peo­ple he grew up with: “Amer­i­cans call them hill­bil­lies, red­necks or white trash. I call them neigh­bours, friends and fam­ily.” He ad­mits they are “deeply flawed”, have han­dled the change in their lot badly and em­pha­sises “this is not a story about why white peo­ple have more to com­plain about than black peo­ple or any other group”. It’s worth read­ing. In email cor­re­spon­dence this week a lot of peo­ple signed off with harsh words about Trump. The quote of the week goes to writer Louis Nowra. He too was harsh, and made me laugh. “Your email came at the right time. It means I can think about books rather than mope about our woe­ful, ter­ri­ble, hideous, shame­ful Test team.”

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