What we can learn about rural America’s turn towards Trump

On Tuesday at 8:00 PM, the polls will close and the result of the 2020 presidential election will be sealed. If President Donald Trump loses, the academics, pollsters, media, and the rest of the “smart set” that dictate the national conversation will be able to claim that their failed prediction of Trump’s certain defeat four years ago was just an anomaly. They will assert their crystal balls are once again to be trusted.

Alternatively, Trump may win. In that case, those same individuals—Republicans and Democrats alike—will ask, “how did this happen?” yet again. And once again Americans will have to look elsewhere for an explanation.

That same question has been asked about the 2016 election throughout Trump’s tenure in office. Still, with no sense of irony, the same smart set that got it so wrong in 2016 were back on TV doing the same old commentary within minutes. Americans needed a new authoritative source to address the question: Why did millions of Americans that previously supported Obama now support Trump?

An unlikely book got to the heart of the matter, and it has nothing to say directly about politics.

That book was J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which is due for its Netflix release in movie form on Nov. 24. The book is a memoir of a young Vance, who chronicles growing up in working class Appalachia, leaving his hometown to serve in the Marines, and succeeding as an out-of-place “hillbilly” at Yale University.

The book sat at the top of The New York Times Best Sellers list for weeks in part because it was a surprise to some and a painful reminder to others that poverty broadly defined is not a problem confined to large urban settings, but is also prevalent in communities of all sizes throughout the United States.

I say poverty broadly defined because the poverty presented in the book isn’t only a lack of financial resources. Poverty is also a state of being in which families are broken, drug and alcohol addiction is prevalent, and education is deficient.

As Arthur Brooks always preaches, happiness only has two sources: meaningful work and meaningful relationships. It’s these two pillars of happiness that were fractured in Vance’s childhood. Though a memoir built around anecdotes, Hillbilly Elegy does a better job of walking Americans through the pressures of poverty felt every day by the American working class than any TV pundit or newspaper report.

Opportunities for meaningful work have diminished as smaller farming operations have folded in the go-big-or-go-home economy. Factories have closed as supply chains moved to Mexico, China and beyond. Right here in Wisconsin, employers like paper factories are closing, dairy farms are going bankrupt and some industries like mining have dried up entirely.

The poverty of meaningful relationships is tougher to discuss and much harder to quantify. J.D.’s father was absent through his childhood, although they reconnected in his later years. The absence of a father, or a parent in general, is a symptom and cause of poverty. 

Like many living in both urban and rural poverty, J.D. is mostly raised by his “Mamaw” (his grandmother). Mamaw had to step in as a stable parental figure because J.D.’s mother was a drug addict, frequently rendering her undependable and nearly always more loyal to her addiction than to her family. J.D. expresses his tremendous gratitude for his grandmother’s influence in his life, but not all children in poverty have a Mamaw.

While politics is at most an afterthought in the book, Hillbilly Elegy is a real-world account that offers explanations for today’s politics. We are a nation in which millions feel left behind as economic and social changes have left their communities a shell of what they were just decades ago. They don’t want a Republican or a Democrat, they want an alternative to what has transpired in their communities. This is why “Make America Great Again” resonates with so many.

When I originally heard MAGA, I thought it was a call to America’s great leadership in the international community. But that’s not the message of MAGA that people hear, particularly in J.D. Vance’s hometown. Those communities support the slogan and its sentiment because it invokes images of a young man earning an honest wage at a local farm or a father in a home who was proud of his work and satisfied in a secure retirement. They see an American era when the local coffee shop was filled with talk about the local football team and not who’s in jail or dead because of crystal meth.

On Tuesday, the future of our country will ride in part on how the characters in Hillbilly Elegy view the prospects not just for our country’s future, but for their own future. It appeared things were getting better, albeit gradually, before COVID-19 changed everything.

If President Trump loses, it may be that COVID and our response has resulted in increased anxiety, drug abuse and unemployment—all already problems in Vance’s America. A new face in the White House may be the consequence of a hurt nation, seeking a new savior to heal our communities’ ills. 

Public policy and solid leadership does have a lot to offer to improve these communities. The consequences of right versus wrong policy can have a significant impact, but the problems detailed in books such as Hillbilly Elegy are deeper than public policy.

Before America can address the challenges facing impoverished rural America, we must first understand those challenges. Hillbilly Elegy is a good start.

RightBooks with Dale Kooyenga is a monthly feature at RightWisconsin. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) represents Wisconsin’s 5th Senate District in the state legislature. He is also a Certified Public Accountant and an Army Reserve officer.