Why do they hate us, so? (And, what to do about it)

J.D. Vance’s 2016 best seller, Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir of growing up in — and ultimately escaping from — the quicksand of endemic, debilitating poverty in America’s Rust Belt, is coming to Netflix, November 24. The book was prescient in predicting the appeal of an emergent Donald Trump. The movie comes at a time when the country is grappling with the possibility that the divisions among us might be unbridgeable.

Vance turns his lens on his own people — poor, uneducated, dispossessed whites, a cohort that occupies a vast swath of this country running from the Great Lakes in the north to the southern end of the Great Smoky Mountain range. It may be the die-hard core of Trump’s support.

“We’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by. Heroin addiction is rampant. In my medium-sized Ohio county last year, deaths from drug addiction outnumbered deaths from natural causes,” Vance told The American Conservative in a widely read July 2016 interview. “And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops.

“Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears. He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas. His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground. He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.”

Vance documents the decline and fall of Armco steel, in many ways the backbone of life in his native Middletown. It is a story of betrayal of a community at the altar of “shareholder value,” perhaps the most pernicious phrase in capitalism.

My own personal Hillbilly Elegy dates back to a brief period in the mid 1970s. I was a young engineer, who’d developed a technique for testing cold rolled steel tubing at pace — as it was spit out of a rolling mill. My employer, a specialist in the somewhat arcane field of non-destructive testing, shipped my machine, and me with it, to various steel mills in the North East (in what could only have meant as punishment for my precocity). I spent days and weeks at a time installing and troubleshooting my machine at places like Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) in Beaver Falls PA (a grimy place, famous only for the fact that it’s the birthplace of Joe Namath), Youngstown Sheet & Tube and at the Gary Works, U.S. Steel’s hulking giant of a plant on the shores of Lake Michigan in Gary, IN. I was quite new to this country at the time and easily entranced with the accoutrements, baubles and mores of American life. I found it all fascinating — from the sea of big American cars (new cars, many of them) in the parking lot to the blast furnaces, fire-breathing monsters that belched molten metal, the currency of industrial America. Most of all, I was fascinated by those steel-working men, hard-hatted, hard-working and hard-swearing, and perhaps they found me just as fascinating, as they gathered around with exuberant but unhelpful advice. They were cheerful, then, secure in their union jobs and proud of their work for a company that had employed many generations of their forebears. On a Friday night they might invite me for a “shot and beer” in the public houses. There seemed to be one on every corner of Beaver Falls.

Not more than ten years later it had all gone to rack and ruin. What I’d witnessed was the heyday of American steel and now it was over. Japanese and German mills had rebuilt out the wreckage of the war with newer, more efficient production techniques. Nixon had opened American markets to the Chinese. Faced with foreign competition American steel retreated instead of reinvesting. I’d moved on, but I read about “Black Monday,” in September 1986, when Youngstown Sheet & Tube, with no warning, closed one of its two mills in Northeast Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, putting some 5,000 people out of work. It was a devastating blow to a city that had become synonymous with the steel industry. At its height, in the mid 20th century, Youngstown’s population was well north of 150,000, with high wages and one of the highest homeownership rates in the country. Within five years of Black Monday a total of 50,000 steel-economy jobs disappeared from the Mahoning Valley. Today, the population of Youngstown — now one of the poorest cities in Ohio — has fallen to about 65,000.

Beaver Falls fared equally poorly. B&W’s Beaver Falls complex was phased out and eventually shuttered in 1987. The facilities that once supplied steel tubes for the boilers for New York City’s first subway system, for the Manhattan project and for the Nimitz aircraft carrier were simply abandoned, standing for years as mute testament to a century’s toil in building a country. Today, Beaver Falls has a population that is 70% white and a poverty rate just under 30%. On November 3, Trump carried Beaver County by 18 points.

From the Left (where I live) the Trump coalition might as well inhabit a different planet. Their denial of science (or facts of any kind, for that matter); their racism; their tolerance for attacks on the media, secular institutions and democratic norms; their eager acquiescence to subverting the electoral process, amounts to nothing less than a brick thrown through the glass pane of democracy in a collective nihilistic spasm. What is wrong with these people? What was the great evil that “we” subjected them to, what injuries did we cause them that they regard us with such bile?

For one thing, as the facts bear out, we left them behind without so much as a backward glance. We moved into a new age with a new kind of talk — of “disruptors” and “moving fast and breaking things,” and “going big or going home,” and the aforementioned “shareholder value.” We bandied around terms like “too big to fail” and, of course, “greed is good.” Our “bandwidth” extended only as far as “low hanging fruit,” not to the dying Rust Belt.

“People back home see [Trump] as someone who — finally — conducts themselves in a relatable way,” says Vance. “He shoots from the hip; he’s not constantly afraid of offending someone; he’ll get angry about politics; he’ll call someone a liar or a fraud. This is how a lot of people in the white working class actually talk about politics, and even many elites recognize how refreshing and entertaining it can be!”

They bought that act, of course. And they continue to buy it, despite the fact that Trump did little to help once he rode their backs to the White House. No matter; it was just a reality show that reflected their lives. Someone — even if it was a New York City conman — was paying attention. That much was enough.

But Vance resists the temptation to descend into mawkishness. Instead, the most controversial — and consistent — part of his message is one of tough love and personal responsibility. Vance uses the psychological term “learned helplessness” to describe the resignation of his peers, many of whom have given up on the idea of upward mobility in a region that they see as permanently left behind. “Hillbilly culture,” which allows “the white working class to blame its problems on society or the government,” is a large part of the problem, according to Vance who goes on to criticize its violence, its stubbornness, its pride, its incuriosity, and its “bizarre sexism,” which, he thinks, all encourage “reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible.”

In taking that stance Vance could be accused of feeding into some of the same offensive stereotypes famously espoused by Bill Cosby, who berated his own community for blaming discrimination, segregation and government institutions for higher unemployment rates among blacks, instead of acknowledging their own lack of parenting, and of wallowing in a “culture of poverty.”

Neither Vance nor Cosby come close to leveling as withering a criticism against their own communities as Kevin Williamson, roving correspondent for that bastion of conservatism, National Review. Writing in a March 2016 issue (before Trump had fully commandeered the national consciousness), Williamson pulls no punches:

“It is immoral because it perpetuates a lie: that the white working class that finds itself attracted to Trump has been victimized by outside forces. It hasn’t. The white middle class may like the idea of Trump as a giant pulsing humanoid middle finger held up in the face of the Cathedral, they may sing hymns to Trump the destroyer and whisper darkly about ‘globalists’ and — odious, stupid term — ‘the Establishment,’ but nobody did this to them. They failed themselves.

“The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. 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. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.”

Ah, well. The special privilege of holding up a mirror that reveals all the warts of their particular community is reserved only for its members. The rest of us may experience a smug satisfaction — a sort of vindication, even — but decency keeps us from demonstrating it.

Still, how do we react to Trump’s followers? (Trump himself we regard with visceral, moral revulsion) How do we react, especially since there are so many of them?

To be sure, Trump support is not monolithic: There are those who like the fact that corporate America has pumped up its valuation by gorging on Trump’s tax largesse (“My 401k is through the roof!’); there are racists and their more extreme cousins, the white supremacists, alarmed by the browning of America, but now emboldened by a like-minded leader who does little to conceal his contempt for non-whites; there are the white evangelicals shamelessly flaunting their hypocrisy in supporting one who has transgressed virtually all the core beliefs of their religion and there are those who see in Trump the redneck values they attribute to themselves, namely a toxic mix of preening masculinity, misogyny, casual racism, homophobia, a suspicion bordering on contempt of book learning and a willful ignorance of history and of the world outside America’s borders. Trump speaks for them; “Trump tells it like it is.”

There are people who would never vote for a Democrat because they’re afraid of their guns being taken away (though that’s never happened), or of socialism being imposed on them (though they couldn’t even define the term). You could slice it a million ways.

I have a simple answer: Do nothing. Ignore them.

Let me explain, but first this: There are those who encourage us to “repair the breach” to “reach out” and, yes, to forgive.

To them I say, tell that to those who’ve been irreparably harmed:

Tell that to the parents of Heather Heyer, mowed down by a neo-Nazi Trump supporter who drove into a crowd of counter protesters at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, not long after Trump failed to denounce the event; tell that to the (American) families of fathers and mothers who had built a life here only to be deported by ICE; tell that to the DREAMers who find their existence suddenly in limbo; tell that to families of the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, felled at the hands of a white nationalist;

Tell that to Kristin Urquiza, who said this about the father she lost to COVID-19: “His only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump and for that, he paid with his life.” And, tell that also to thousands of others who lost loved ones because they believed Donald Trump when he said COVID was no big deal;

Tell that to the families of “losers” and “suckers” who gave their lives in service to this country on its battlefields.

No. An artificial attempt at rapprochement asks too much of the victims of Trumpism. It is doomed to failure.

But so is revenge. “Those desires [for retribution] are corrosive to our political culture. America’s tribal warfare never ends; the anger never goes away; the affront is never forgotten,” says Peter Wehner, contributing writer at The Atlantic.

Wehner continues, “Trump has dominated too much of our thinking for too long; his transgressions, provocations, and sheer abnormality have made him an omnipresent figure in our lives. Time and time again, I’ve spoken with people who are not particularly political yet feel not only deeply unsettled by Trump but enveloped by him. He’s had too much power over too many of us. It’s time we move on from him.”

Odd though it may seem, the only way to move on from Trump is to do nothing. The ancient Daoist concept of “Wu Wei,” of taking no action, has relevance here. The action to be avoided is that which is deliberate, conscious, thought out, rather than one that is in spontaneous accord with the emerging patterns of nature. Water, which has no conscious action, but overcomes the strongest obstacles — water can break stone — is an important metaphor in understanding the meaning of Wu Wei. The Tao Te Ching advises us thus: “The most submissive thing in the world can ride roughshod over the most unyielding in the world — [only]that which is without substance enters that which has no gaps. That is why I know the benefit of taking no action.”

Practitioners of martial arts may resonate with this verse from the Tao Te Ching:

One who is good at being a warrior does not appear formidable;

One who is good at fighting is never roused in anger;

One who is good at overcoming his adversary does not take issue with him;

This is known as the virtue of non-contention;

This is known as making use of the efforts of others

In other words, good things unfold in the fullness of time. Be patient. Be still. Only then will the moment for action reveal itself.

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Just trying to figure things out.

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Girish Mhatre

Girish Mhatre

Just trying to figure things out.

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