For the fourth week in a row, the book perched at the top of the New York Times bestseller list (No. 2 this week, knocked from the No. 1 slot by Amy Schumer) is a memoir called “Hillbilly Elegy.” Its author is J.D. Vance, a Yale-educated attorney who bootstrapped his way out of a working-class childhood in the Ohio Rust Belt. The story is part family history and part commentary. It’s also part — what’s the best word? — part Trumpology, a nascent genre of reading material exploring a certain portion of the electorate that seems most likely to vote for Donald Trump.
Who are these voters? Why are they? What do they tell us about America, and what does America tell us about them? The most rampant anthropological trend right now is to put a microscope on the neighbors in the next county over, to study how the United States got to this fractured political place. In the pundit world, as commentators speculate over the meaning of Trump’s rise, families like Vance’s are sometimes treated like an exotic new phenomenon, as if they had suddenly sprung, fully formed, from Trump’s brain. But of course they have always been there, a pocket of America waiting to be explored. We just didn’t pay them serious attention until this election provided them with a candidate and made them into bestseller material.
Along with “Hillbilly Elegy,” the current bestseller list also holds “White Trash,” a provocatively titled academic work that traces 400 years of class struggle in the United States. Also released this summer: “The End of White Christian America,” and “White Rage,” about the decades-long resentment simmering in pockets of white, lower-income communities — the types of communities who might now be encouraging their presidential candidate to “build that wall.”
Nancy Isenberg, the Louisiana State University professor who wrote “White Trash,” began researching her book seven years ago, long before this election cycle. “I couldn’t possibly have imagined that Donald Trump would be a serious candidate,” she says, and in fact, her book barely mentions him at all. She finished writing her history of the white downtrodden before he secured the nomination. The books are not about the man. They’re about the moment. Can understanding of this election be found in the scrappy defiance of Memaw and Pepaw, the grandparents that Vance describes in “Hillbilly Elegy”? What about in the cultural legacy of Paula Deen, as Isenberg explores in “White Trash”?
“The original plan was to publish the book after the election,” Vance says in a telephone interview. He’d started writing it several years ago, long before Trump entered the presidential race. But in 2015 he was home for Thanksgiving and he realized that, while his law school friends assumed Trump was a cartoon who would flame out, his family and friends believed in Trump.
Vance came to a conclusion: “I just kept saying, I think this guy is going to win. I think he’s tapped into something.”
There’s no shortage of rural white folks as spectacle; a battalion of doomsday-prepping Honey Boo Boos on television have thoroughly mined the conceit that anyone with a regional American accent exists for viewers’ entertainment. But Vance writes as a member of the community, making him a translator between the big-city talking heads and Trump’s rural working-class base.
“When people try to talk about the white working-class community as an outsider, the white working-class generally reacts negatively,” he says. But he’s had positive reactions to “Hillbilly Elegy” from both white blue-collar readers and from the urban educated class he moves through now. There is Vance, featured in the magazine the Atlantic, on Slate, in the American Conservative and the LA Progressive.
Isenberg’s schedule is similarly packed. Before “White Trash,” Isenberg was an academic who had been toiling in relative obscurity, as most academics do. Now she is booked solid with media interviews, trying to explain why her once overlooked field of study has become the key to understanding the country’s present and future.
There’s something both deeply earnest and slightly disturbing about the runaway success of these works of Trumpology.
Earnest because their popularity shows that people are trying to understand one another. Readers are doing their homework, learning about what it’s like to live in a town where the steel mill jobs stop coming. And when heroin seeps into your town. And when societal shifts leave you feeling bewildered and behind.
Disturbing, because single-clicking titles like “Hillbilly Elegy” and “White Trash” into an online shopping cart is an act that can also be tinged with a feeling of superiority. These are loaded words, loaded stories, loaded times, and insider understanding of a culture isn’t something that can be acquired in a few hundred pages. And disturbing because it took an election for many people to uncover something that was never hidden to begin with.