Critics of the ‘deplorables’ dispatch diatribes against the downtrodden to assuage their impotence
The 20th century gave us a good many new literary genres. Modernism, Futurism, Dadaism. Later on there was Post-modernism, Structuralism, Deconstruction. And now there’s a new literary genre: Redneck Porn. That’s where newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post send their reporters to the benighted parts of America where people voted for Donald Trump, in an effort to explain the great national tragedy of Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Preelection, it was all too simple. Trump supporters were all racists (according to President Obama) and sexist (according to Hillary). When Hillary called them all “deplorables,” she had simply expressed what everyone on her side was thinking. And who cared, frankly, since she was going to win in a landslide?
But then it didn’t turn out that way. And the comforting explanations didn’t do the trick. The charge of racism fell flat, when so many counties flipped from voting for Mr. Obama in 2012 to Mr. Trump in 2016. There were 22 of them (out of 72) in Wisconsin alone, the state that put Mr. Trump over the top. As for the gender gap, white women proved themselves traitors to their sex in 2016, and while more women voted for Hillary than Mr. Trump overall, Hillary actually received less of the women’s vote than Mr. Obama did.
That left us with the idea that Trump voters were moral reprobates, the Oxy-sniffing spawn of unwed mothers. National Review’s Kevin Williamson got this started by describing their “whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog.” They complained about bad trade deals, immigration and crony capitalism, but had only themselves to blame. “The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.”
Mr. Williamson’s little essay might have reeked with smug self-satisfaction, but voyeuristic, redneck porn literature soon emerged, in books such as J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy.” Its subjects weren’t the working-class heroes of Britain’s Angry Young Men in the 1950s with their gritty integrity. Instead, they were the stuff of moral decay, the passively rotten masses in TV series such as “Breaking Bad” and “Justified” that deserved Mr. Williamson’s contempt. Mind you, I don’t have a problem with J.D. Vance. Just with people who enjoyed his book.
The mainstream media soon jumped on this. In a notable example, The Washington Post sent a Pulitzer Prize winner, Wesley Lowery, to McDowell County, W.Va. The county has the lowest life expectancy and the highest rate of drug-induced deaths in the United States. Males live an average of 63.5 years and females 71.5 years, compared to the national average of 76.5 for males and 81.2 for females. Between 1985 and 2013, the national lifespan increased 5.5 years for men and 3.1 years for women, but in McDowell, it declined 3.2 years for men and 4.1 years for women.
Mr. Lowery’s story is one long sneer at his inferiors. What he chose to report on was a fight club in which local young men try to beat each other up in return for a chance at a prize. “That $1,000, that’s a whole lot of beer, man.” The fights are scheduled just after the government welfare checks are delivered, which enables the spectators to buy their “$3 hot dogs drenched in warm chili.” Between rounds, scantily clad ring girls dance for the crowd, with what Mr. Lowery describes as “varying degrees of rhythm,” and the reader is permitted to see their degradation through photographs meant to make them look trashy. You get the sense that Mr. Lowery really enjoyed their disgrace, and that the only thing that really bothered him was the poor cellphone reception. I bet he gets another Pulitzer out of the story.
How very different this was from the older literature of poverty in America, James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” or Michael Harrington’s “The Other America.” The earlier writers described the poor with compassion, as fellow Americans. They were the Joads in “The Grapes of Wrath,” honorable people down on their luck. There was no sense of moral superiority in this literature, even with those who might have brought their poverty on themselves. The desperately poor were broken in body and spirit, and while they didn’t belong to anyone or anything, they still were our brothers with whom we shared a common humanity and citizenship. If they lived their lives at levels “beneath those necessary for human decency,” we were called upon to do something about it. In Mr. Harrington’s case, that had meant living with them in one of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker hospices, not an experience any of the purveyors of redneck porn will have shared.