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.”