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A conversation with J.D. Vance, the reluctant interpreter of Trumpism

The author of Hillbilly Elegy on why Trump won, how elites helped, and what we miss about social mobility.

Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump  Campaigns In Pennsylvania Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy has been adopted as the book that explains Trumpism. It's the book that both Sen. Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rob Portman recommended as their favorite of 2016. It's a book Rep. Keith Ellison, the frontrunner to lead the Democratic National Committee, brought up in my recent conversation with him. Everyone, on both sides of the aisle, has turned to Vance to explain What It All Means.

All of which is a bit odd, because Vance's book is an awkward fit with Trumpism. As Vance describes it, it's about "what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it."

It's a memoir about growing up amid a particular slice of the white working class — the Scots-Irish who settled in and around Appalachia — and the ways that both propelled Vance forward and held him back. It's a book about one man's story — a story that is universal in some ways, particular in others, but was certainly not written with Donald J. Trump in mind.

I spoke with Vance on a recent episode of my podcast (subscribe here!). Excerpts of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follow.

Ezra Klein

You've written a book that became the book of this election cycle. I opened the New York Times a couple weeks ago and they had folks recommending their best books of the year, and Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, recommended yours. How do you explain what people saw in Hillbilly Elegy that made it so essential to this moment of upheaval in American life?

J.D. Vance

Part of it is obviously the political moment. Donald Trump became president of the United States, collecting a lot of votes from the white working class, and even though Donald Trump is never mentioned in the book, there's a fair amount in the book about the political, the economic, the social frustrations of the white working class. So if you're hoping to read about a group of people that made Donald Trump or helped make Donald Trump president, then my book gets recommended.

I think that's a little bit weird, frankly, given the fact that I really try not to talk about politics too much in the book, but I think folks are just grasping for something to try to understand this political moment, and my book is one of the things that they landed on. And my hope is that the way I talk about these issues, the way I really try to walk somebody through how hard it is to grow up like I did, and to "make it" in the modern American economy, I'm hopeful that that resonated.

There's this fear I have that the book will be viewed as this explainer of the Trump phenomenon, which it really isn't, and that the core message, the real reason I wanted to write it, which was to talk about how difficult these problems really are, gets lost. So I think we're in this moment where it's not totally clear what the lasting impact of the book will be, but I hope it's that third factor, this idea that we need to understand what's really going on in the lives of some of these lower-income kids.

Ezra Klein

I read the book a little bit before Trump became the Republican nominee, and what was striking to me about it then, particularly as it became part of the explanatory toolkit people used for Trump, is that the book is a pretty awkward fit with Trumpism. The explanations you give for things are an awkward fit with where the political class ended up, which is in a sort of Washington fix-it mentality, with the idea that policy has abandoned these Rust Belt towns, that there aren't enough transfer payments, that there's not enough energy going into revitalization.

The book was very cultural in its analysis. You have this line early on that seemed to act almost as a thesis statement, that this book is about “what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it." It seemed like a book that in some ways resisted policy solutionism in a way that seemed unusual to me, and also seems in tension with the political discussion that emerged around it.

J.D. Vance

Well, there's definitely an element of truth to that. The one part where I'd push back a little bit is that I do think policymakers can do more to address some of these problems, and it's not that I think government is totally helpless.

It's more that I think government is somewhat helpful and can be part of the solution, but it can't be the whole solution, and, more importantly, I think that if government tries to fix these problems without policymakers really understanding them, then I think those solutions are almost destined to fail. But there's definitely something a little bit weird about the way the book has been picked to help explain the Trump phenomenon, because, like you said, at the end of the day my argument is not a robust criticism of American trade policy. It's not a strong indictment of the economic policies of President Bush or President Obama.

Ezra Klein

The book explores resentment you see among the middle class or the working class toward poorer folks. When discussing why the white working class turned toward Republicans, you write:

A big part of the explanation lies in the fact that many in the white working class saw precisely what I did, working at Dillman’s. As far back as the 1970s, the white working class began to turn to Richard Nixon because of a perception that, as one man put it, government was “payin’ people who are on welfare today doin’ nothin’! They’re laughin’ at our society! And we’re all hardworkin’ people and we’re gettin’ laughed at for workin’ every day!”

One of the arguments in the book, as I understood it, was that the resentment that powered Trumpism is not just a black-white thing, which I think is how it's often understood, but is actually a class thing that happens even within mostly white communities from one person to another.

J.D. Vance

Yeah, that's definitely a really important part of my thinking. It's interesting that that passage in the book is sometimes viewed as my criticism of social welfare programs, right? It's a criticism of food stamps or SNAP or whatever else, and I actually really explicitly meant to be agnostic in that section of the book. I wasn't saying these programs are good or bad.

The point I was making is that when you see people using these programs in a certain way, it causes a certain social distrust among the people who may be using them or may be not using them, but certainly don't perceive themselves to be misusing these programs. So I saw this with my grandma, who was a classic Blue Dog Democrat but had grown up in poverty herself, gravitated between working class and impoverished for pretty much her entire life. She had no ideological problem with receiving welfare, and in fact early in her life had been a recipient of welfare herself, but when she saw people buying soda but then selling it at 50 or 60 cents on the dollar to their neighbors so that they could convert those food benefits into cash benefits, it creates a certain amount of social mistrust.

And like you said, in our neighborhood it was always white people who were perceived to be misusing these programs. There wasn't a racial element, at least in my personal experience, with this stuff, just because there weren't a whole lot of black people shopping at that grocery store.

Ezra Klein

Let me ask about how Trump intersects with this. You have a party in the country that is quite focused, particularly when creating transfer programs, on getting as much as possible to the poorest of the poor or the nearly poorest of the poor, and then you have a party in this country that is pretty focused on shrinking the size of government, and Trump walks into the middle of this and offered, I think, a third way.

He's pretty pro–safety net, pro–welfare state. He promises not to touch Medicare or Social Security or Medicaid, so he's not a small-government guy. His promise, in contrast to the Democrats, is that he's going to make sure the benefits go to you, the hard-working — and, I think implicitly, white — American, instead of going to, say, these immigrants who are coming across the border.

Where does his story intersect here with yours?

J.D. Vance

My view on the meaning of Trump is, one, it's complicated, because 60-some-odd million people voted for him, and I think everybody has a different reason for why they voted for him. But my primary conclusion is that Trump identified a problem, and so he got to name it.

Trump identified these feelings of being left behind and left out, and the thing he named it was, in some cases, maybe a fear of the other, but a core part of Trump's message, as I understood it, or at least as people back home seemed to be understanding it, is that Trump would bring back jobs, he would bring back good work. Even the immigration issue, whether you agree with him on the policy particulars or not, was framed as a jobs question.

The second thing is this question of who are the others that the benefits of the economy are going to, and the message I was getting from Trump, and certainly the message I was getting from Trump voters, is that the other wasn't black Americans living in the inner cities, it wasn't brown Americans immigrating from Mexico — it was the elites. It was the Clintons of the world. It was the Jeb Bushes of the world.

Even the way Trump framed this question of the inner cities — as being infested with crime and drugs and whatever else — a lot of African Americans were rightfully offended by the way he described the inner cities, but even then, it's not like he was framing black Americans as the winners of the past 15 or 20 years. He was really framing them as the losers in the same way that he was framing the white working class as the losers, so it always occurred to me that the great enemy of Trump's campaign was never racial minorities. It was always the elites, whoever that is.

Ezra Klein

There's long been, in liberal circles, the dream of economic solidarity — the idea that there is some way of knitting together a coalition that is the white working class and the multicultural working class, that whether you are working retail in a rural town in Ohio or you're working retail in Los Angeles, whether you're white or Hispanic, you're facing pretty similar issues.

Trump was actually able to create, instead of the "us" of a united working class, a "them" of elites plus multiculturalism. He certainly wasn't framing African Americans as the winners of the last couple years, but it was that elites are colluding to create this multicultural America where people are allowed to come across the border because it's cheap labor for corporations, and you're the one who's ending up paying.

J.D. Vance

It's interesting, too, the way the immigration side of this has manifested itself in my own life. I have very close family members who are extremely, one, generous, and two, involved with a family of undocumented immigrants, and these family members are devoted, devoted Trump people, the types of people who have "Make America Great Again" trucker hats.

If you ask these family members of mine why they're voting for Trump despite the fact that, at least if you take him literally, he may very well deport these people that they consider very close friends and that they love a great deal, the response is always, "He's not going to deport them. What he's going to do is fix the system that forces them to live in the shadows. He's going to fix the system that allows other people to get ahead of them in line."

So even when it's taken to the part of Trump's message that is explicit as possible, which is that undocumented immigrants are an unacceptable strain on American society, you see his voters reinterpreting it in a way that, whether they're right or they're wrong, I think that there's something actually quite admirable about the way they perceive what he's going to do and how it motivates their voting.

Ezra Klein

There's a good line — and it's not from me, it's from someone else — that you did not, by any means, need to be a bigot to vote for Donald Trump, and I think the majority of people who did vote for Trump are not bigots, but there are certain things you need to be okay with that were a lot harder for folks of color to treat as lightly. It does take a kind of position of privilege to say, "Hey, I'm pretty sure that won't happen, so I'm not going to worry about it."

There is a risk tolerance that, depending on who you are in this discussion, I think, feels very different and can feel very frustrating. I remember thinking a lot during the campaign that if what Trump had said was that Jewish people should not be able to travel to and from the United States, if he had come out and said, "I'm for a Jewish travel ban," whatever I thought about him winning, I would have left the country. That speaks to an ancient fear in myself and my people. But a lot of Muslim folks didn't have that option, and a lot of people around them took it as, "Oh, take Trump seriously, not literally," but the question of who gets to decide when he’s serious versus when he’s being literal is, I think, a very hard one.

J.D. Vance

Yeah, I agree. The point about risk tolerance for some of the things that Trump said, I think, is a very important one. It's something I've tried to talk about with my family a lot, that if we maybe looked a little bit different, if our names were a little bit different, then maybe we wouldn't be so tolerant of some of the things he said. We wouldn't be so willing to cast it aside and say that's not really what he means or that's not really what he thinks. The complicating factor, of course, is that people weren't voting a binary yes or no Trump. They were necessarily voting, if not for Trump, then for Hillary Clinton.

The framing I have always had to this is that there's both a substance and a process element to Trump. There's the things that he says, the policies, such as they are, that he hopes to enact. That's the substantive part of Trump, but then there's the process part of Trump, which is a criticism of the elites, a criticism of the way we engage in political discourse, a criticism, specifically, of the Clintons and especially Hillary Clinton. And my sense is that the process side of Trump was very appealing to a lot of people even as the substantive side of him was at least a little bit disconcerting, even to a lot of his voters.

Ezra Klein

That's a very interesting point. I almost want to stop the podcast for 10 minutes and think about it, because there are times when I felt the opposite, where I wondered if somebody with Trump's ideas and his policies who did not have many of his process and temperamental dimensions wouldn't have even done better.

I guess one way of thinking about it is, are the people you know, are the people around you, are they upset about the fact that Trump has brought so many folks from Goldman Sachs and CEOs from other companies into his office? If this was a backlash to a globalized elite, it would seem that what he's doing would anger people, but that's not really been the feeling I've gotten.

J.D. Vance

No, that's not been the feeling I've gotten either. There's always been this element with Trump where a lot of people feel that he's peeling the onion back and showing them how the world actually works and giving them some perspective into a part of our political and financial process that usually lays hidden.

With Cabinet picks, I've never been surprised that they've never engendered the backlash that you might suspect. A lot of folks feel like this is the way that business is done. Trump is showing us the processes and the functions of government, and what he'll ultimately be judged on is if things actually change.

Ezra Klein

To bring Trump back to your book, one of the things that is core to his portrayal of his own life is that he is the agent of his own story, he is the main character, he is somebody who, whatever he decides to do, it just gets done. You write in your book that “whenever people ask me what I'd most like to change about the white working class, I say, ‘The feeling that our choices don't matter.’" That struck me as an interesting juxtaposition.

The person who, of everybody I've ever seen in public life, seems to believe that his personal choices matter the most, is appealing to a group in which, at least as you describe it, is afflicted by a sense that the everyday choices have stopped having meaning.

J.D. Vance

I've never thought of that before, but it definitely makes a great deal of sense. This is something that I worry a lot about in the book and the way I frame it is a sort of learned helplessness, this constant feeling of being kicked by the economy, by your boss, by your family. I don't think that view comes from nothing, but it can be pretty self-destructive once it sets in.

It is fascinating to think of Donald Trump as a sort of clarion call against that self-defeatism. And yeah, there's something powerful about feeling a little hopeless and a little powerless in your own life but then seeing this political figure who explains why you feel hopeless and powerless but is so powerful in his own right.

Ezra Klein

One of the things your book is talking about is that not all white people are the same. Your book is talking about a particular lineage of Scots-Irish folks who settled primarily in certain parts of the country, have distinct cultural markers and patterns than other people do, and have not done as well, income-wise. So when they hear about white privilege, they think, "Fuck you. Nothing about my community says to me that I'm privileged and should be at the back of the line for getting some help here." I'm curious how you think about that playing out and how you hear it in the conversation.

J.D. Vance

First of all, I think it's one of the ways that the thesis of the book, or at least some of the background arguments I make in the book, is really relevant to the 2016 election. I remember right after the Iowa primary, a political scientist did basically an ethnographic breakdown of Trump versus Cruz versus Rubio in the Iowa caucuses, and what he found — and I'm going to overstate this, maybe, because I haven't seen this study in nearly a year — is that one of the, if not the biggest, correlations to Trump support was identifying as Scots-Irish or one of its derivatives.

I really thought that was a massively underreported part of this election cycle. I really think that's why he won Pennsylvania, Michigan, and, to a smaller extent, Wisconsin — if you look at the migration patterns, the white working-class populations of those areas are heavily Scots-Irish.

But to connect it to the conversation about white privilege, I think it's always important to note that there are obviously still advantages to being white, there are still disadvantages to being black, even when you control completely for class, income, and so forth. But one of the points I tried to make is that if you're asking the son of an unemployed West Virginia coal miner to check his privilege or to appreciate the ways in which, let's say, Barack Obama's daughters are going to be privileged or underprivileged relative to him in certain ways, I think that you're asking just too much from basic human cognition.

That kid cannot look at his life and say about a group of people that he doesn't understand, that he doesn't even interact with a lot day to day, that their lives are much worse than his, and I think that's one of the things that the modern discourse around racial privilege and racial disadvantage misses. I don't think most of the people making these arguments are that reductive, I think they're a lot more sophisticated in what they're saying [about] how privilege operates along different dimensions in our society, but the way it's actually talked about appears very reductive, and I think that's a really significant problem.

Ezra Klein

You have a stat in the book that working-class whites are currently the most pessimistic group in America. You write that “they're more pessimistic than Latino immigrants, many of whom suffer unthinkable poverty. They're more pessimistic than black Americans whose material prospects continue to lag behind those of whites.”

If you are a white kid whose father is unemployed and you're in a struggling majority-white community, and you're turning on the television and the president is an African American, and you're looking at sitcoms and they're suddenly much, much, much more diverse and nobody you see talks like you do, nobody has the accent you do, nobody has the cultural markers you do, it’s hard, then, to hear that white privilege is the problem.

On the other hand, you could not have somebody like Trump, but was African American, elected president in this country. He is walking white privilege.

J.D. Vance

The problem, as I see it, is that we haven't necessarily developed a great vocabulary to describe disadvantage in a newer, much more culturally diverse country.

One of the things I hope that a reader of my book will take away is that it really operates among multiple different axes, so it's a function of where you grew up, it's a function of whether you grew up in concentrated poverty, it's a function of your race, it's a function of your class, it's a function of the education level of your parents, it's a function of how much childhood trauma you faced, it's a function of whether your parents are single or still married.

I really think we have to catch our collective vocabulary up to the real complexity of these problems, because if we don't, we're left effectively talking about the issue in incredibly reductive ways that, one, isn't helpful for the reasons you describe, but two, I really think discolors the public debate in a certain way. It's not just that talking to that kid about white privilege is not an especially useful way to understand his real disadvantage. It's that it actually makes it harder for him to see the disadvantages that other people face.

Ezra Klein

Let me ask you about the other side of this. I hear everything you just said there, and then you talk to somebody who's African American and they say the quantity of cultural sympathy that is being directed toward Trump voters is overwhelming.

The idea that they always need to be understood better, that there need to be more and more and more sympathetic profiles, that's not true for folks who were followers, say, of Louis Farrakhan, who also had his bigoted moments but was speaking to a very real sense of cultural dislocation and economic anxiety and frustration and feeling that communities are falling apart. Or, even less provocatively, that’s not true folks who are seeing police brutality in a pretty routine way in their communities, or who look at the studies and see that if you've got a stereotypically African-American name you're just less likely to be called back for a job.

All of a sudden when it's a problem for a traditionally powerful community, there needs to be a level of precision that the marginalized community never got and a level of sympathy they never got, and that holds back the conversation in a different way.

J.D. Vance

One of the things I try to do in my book is to be very sympathetic about the way in which these various structural problems make it very hard on the white working-class community, but also to be a little bit hardheaded about the ways in which white working-class Americans — not all of them, of course, not even most of them, but certainly some of them — have reacted to these problems in a very negative way. And I think if we have sympathy completely disconnected from moral judgment, I don't think it's real sympathy. I think it's basically the sympathy of an outsider that's condescending to make people feel good.

The way I see that in the African-American community is almost the exact opposite, so typically if we talk about culture in the black community, at least with regards to the problems of the black community, it's almost always in this morally condemnatory way — it’s like, let's look at these pathological black people and all of the problems that their culture causes them. And I think that way of talking has been incredibly destructive, and it's been destructive in two separate ways.

One, it's allowed us to ignore the problems of black Americans where we should be really paying attention to them, and two, I think it has caused us to talk about culture in a way that's about judgment and blame and not about understanding. Because I think if you look at some of the best sociologists and political scientists and so forth who are writing on this, William Julius Wilson, Robert Putnam, these guys are worried about culture; they're just not worried about culture in a way that necessarily percolates to the standard everyday political conversation. So I think that's a real casualty of the way that we've typically talked about so-called black pathology in the inner cities.

To tie all this up, my view of this is that we should continue to offer sympathetic but hard-nosed looks at the white working-class community, and we should maybe pair that with more sympathetic views of what's going on in the black community.

Ezra Klein

I think one thing that is a contributor here is that we have trouble talking about problems that are non-economic. We have a language for economic problems, but particularly when it comes to people discussing what's happening in white working-class communities, a lot of the problems are not the ones that come through first on an economic test. There are things showing that Trump voters had a higher median income than the average American household, and that doesn't mean that their communities don't have problems, but it does make a straightforward discussion of economic anxiety a little bit hard.

You gave an interview to Slate, and you had a really nice language around this, I thought, where you talked about social and cultural anxiety, and for these communities you diagnosed it as a feeling that “the world around you is falling apart. It's not just you can't find a good job, but that your kids are dying of opioid overdoses, that your families are breaking apart, that churches are not really present in your community, that you can't trust the media.” I think we have a difficult time measuring and discussing more complex, multifaceted forms of breakdown, where we can't just say, "Hey, look, the unemployment rate has gone up to 9.6 percent, and so there's clearly a crisis here."

J.D. Vance

I agree 100 percent with that. And I think a lot about why that is, about why we're so bad about talking about non-economic problems, and I think it's partially just a symptom of the fact that our public discourse is really dominated by what I'll call the technocratic left and the libertarian right, and so we want to see these problems purely in terms of rational actors responding to incentives.

If you're not talking about social and cultural capital, if you're not talking about the role of religion, which can be either positive or negative in these communities, as I write about, if you're not talking about the role of childhood trauma and family instability, these are things that are real, and if you look at the data they definitely affect these kids' life prospects. If you look at a study like Raj Chetty's, for example, he did this huge study on equality of opportunity in the United States, and you can make a very good argument that the two most important things he identified as driving mobility differences were social capital and family breakdown.

Ezra Klein

There's a dimension of the technocratic left, and I'll use Hillary Clinton here as an example, that is very focused on these problems but cannot seem to communicate effectively about them.

I interviewed Clinton during the campaign, and a question I asked her was to name some of her favorite books. And the two books she named that she was thinking about a lot on the campaign trail were Robert Putnam's Our Kids — which is a deep, ethnographic look at the ways in which culture and lived experience and community are really tearing apart the futures for kids who are born in poor communities and kids of all races — and Habits of the Heart, which is all about community breakdown, about the role religion does or doesn't play in our lives.

Trump, I think, has no idea that Robert Putnam has written a book called Our Kids and is not deeply thoughtful, frankly, on a lot of the way these things overlap and interact, but he had some capacity to say, "I am on your side," and that was what people responded to.

J.D. Vance

Well, I definitely agree with you that this capacity to form a connection is one of the clear critical problems that a lot of our politicians face these days. It strikes me that not spending a lot of time in these areas, not living in these areas, not campaigning in these areas, that sort of drives the difficulty in connecting. And to put a very fine point on it, I think just because of the way upper-middle-class elites educate themselves, the way they intermarry, the way they work and where they live and so forth, is just really driving this wedge further and further.

It may not be that Hillary Clinton could have solved the problem by campaigning more in rural Pennsylvania or suburban southwest Ohio. The problem may just be that she spent so long among a certain class of society, and that class of society is just not good at emotionally connecting with another class of society — and here I'm speaking of the elites versus the broad middle — and I unfortunately just do not have the answer to that problem. It's something that really, really bothers me — this fear that those who are doing especially well in our society, for one reason or another, that they've lost touch with those who don't feel that they're doing especially well in our society.

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