The two great literary bookends of President Donald Trump’s half-term of grift and chaos have come from survivors of the most broken white communities that helped put him in office. They also show us the best way out of the basement of American despair.
How J.D. Vance, the author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” and Tara Westover, who wrote “Educated,” escaped physical and psychological horror is the dose of Charles Dickens that makes these two memoirs so memorable.
Vance was raised by grandparents from Kentucky in a declining steel town in southwest Ohio. His mother was a drug addict who married several times. It was doubtful he would finish high school. Now he’s a venture capitalist who hobnobs with One Percenters in gilded hollows, and Ron Howard is making a movie of his life. He’s closer to a Beverly Hillbilly than one from Appalachia.
Westover, a self-taught writer of incandescent insight, came from a clan of survivalist end-timers in rural Idaho, was badly beaten by her brother and was nearly killed when forced to work at the family junkyard. Her parents didn’t believe in birth certificates, school or safety regulations. She is now Dr. Westover, with a Ph.D. in history, after stops at Harvard and Cambridge. Of late, she glam-posed for Vogue from her home in Britain.
These are two stories of triumph, and I have not a quibble with the magnificent telling of how their authors got from there to here. Hurrah for them. Both books, now circulating on college mandatory-read lists, have been sold in part as anthropological guides to a Trumpland that is terra incognita to most Americans.
On the surface, this is true. Vance’s ragged Middletown, Ohio, went for Trump two to one. And Franklin County, Idaho, where Westover grew up, gave Hillary Clinton just 7 percent of its vote. Trump got 10 times as much. The people we meet in both places are poor, white, undereducated, violent and evangelical in the extreme.
But as much as these folks were all-in for the oft-bankrupt developer, Trump’s presidency has been a kick in the teeth for them. A con man in business turned out to be an even greater con man in office. The policies he has promoted — taking health care from the poor, trying to slash aid for people unable to afford college, gutting regulations that save lives in mills and scrapyards — have made life more hazardous in Trump-won ZIP codes.
Beyond that, the surprise takeaway from these books is that we have the tools at hand to ensure that demography is not destiny in Forgotten America. One common thread of both memoirs is distrust of institutions. And yet it was institutions — the military in Vance’s case, college in Westover’s life — that saved them.
That, and a handful of people who showed them enough love and an escape route from places where “family dysfunction” is too kind a euphemism.
Their cultures are toxic and intransigent. As Vance writes, “poverty is in the family tradition,” as is “learned helplessness.” In other words, the hillbillies of his book have no one but themselves to blame for being hillbillies. Many of his neighbors are painted as lazy dependents of opioids and government handouts. There’s plenty of fighting, fornicating and fact-denying.
He is scornful of government help programs. “I am a conservative,” he writes in a new afterword, “one who doubts that the 1960s approach to welfare has made it easier for our country’s poor children to achieve their dreams.”
But it was a government hand up — the great meritocracy of the Marine Corps and federal aid to get through college — that sent Vance on his way. To his credit, he has recently helped raise more than $150 million in venture capital to encourage new businesses in overlooked communities.
Tara Westover’s story is more harrowing. It’s not just the dark cave of ignorance in which she was raised. She says she was beaten senseless by her brother, in a family that enabled domestic abuse. Her father believed that doctors were “minions of Satan,” and public school was a plot of the Illuminati.
College was her lifeline. Between battering from her brother and serious injuries at the old man’s junkyard, she taught herself enough to get into Brigham Young University. There she first heard about the Holocaust and bipolar disorder, among many revelations.
College is certainly no panacea for all 16 million whites living in poverty, among Trump’s strongest backers. But it is for enough of them. And what Trump offered these people, in his proposed budget for last year, were proposals to cut education aid by $200 billion over the next decade. He would have made it harder for the poor to stay in college.
When Westover’s father visited her at Harvard, he told her, “You have been taken over by Lucifer.”
She saw it differently. College gave her a life of the mind, a new self. “You could call this selfhood many things,” she writes at the end of a fabulous story. “I call it an education.”