Poor White Folk

J.D. Vance was born a poor hillbilly, joined the Marines (who discovered he was smart) and ended up attending Yale Law School. Rod Dreher interviews him here about white and black poverty, Donald Trump, Christianity, and the Marines.

On the two parties:

The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades.  From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues. Maybe they get a few handouts, but many don’t want handouts to begin with.  

From the Right, they’ve gotten the basic Republican policy platform of tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, and paeans to the noble businessman and economic growth.  Whatever the merits of better tax policy and growth (and I believe there are many), the simple fact is that these policies have done little to address a very real social crisis.  More importantly, these policies are culturally tone deaf: nobody from southern Ohio wants to hear about the nobility of the factory owner who just fired their brother.

On Trump’s appeal:

He’s the one politician who actively fights elite sensibilities, whether they’re good or bad.  I remember when Hillary Clinton casually talked about putting coal miners out of work, or when Obama years ago discussed working class whites clinging to their guns and religion.  Each time someone talks like this, I’m reminded of Mamaw’s feeling that hillbillies are the one group you don’t have to be ashamed to look down upon.  The people back home carry that condescension like a badge of honor, but it also hurts, and they’ve been looking for someone for a while who will declare war on the condescenders.

On family chaos in Appalachia:

One of the things I mention in (my) book is that domestic strife and family violence are cultural traits–they’re just there, and everyone experiences them in one form or another.  I learned domestic strife from the moment I was born, from more than 15 stepdads and boyfriends I encountered, to the domestic violence case that nearly tore my family apart (I was the primary victim).  So predictably, by the time I got married, I wasn’t a great spouse.  I had to learn, with the help of my aunt and sister (both of whom had successful marriages), but especially with the help of my wife, how not to turn every small disagreement into a shouting match or a public scene.

On how the Marine Corps saved him:

For a kid like me, the Marine Corps was basically a four-year education in character and self-management.  The challenges start small–running two miles, then three, and more.  But they build on each other.  If you have good mentors (and I certainly did), you are constantly given tasks, yelled at for failing, advised on how not to fail next time, and then given another try.  You learn, through sheer repetition, that you can do difficult things.

Read it!



  1. Oh please. When people (including you) pooh poohed the detrimental effects of Brexit on the average *poor white folk*, who was being smug or condescending? Who was dismissing 98% of available evidence? In essence saying, hey if those people who feel squeezed continue to feel squeezed for another 5 to 10 years (maybe more) that’s okay. Why the Brexit panic, right? You know, it’s just people’s pensions and futures on the line.

    1. Smug and condescending? Me!?
      According to my immaculate memory I said that time would tell whether Brexit was a good or bad thing for the economy. Then again, being a mere mortal its possible my prejudices influenced my statements.

      1. Yes, time will tell. But all evidence from the past and current developments point to more of a struggle for the working class. Not one that’s a matter of months but of years. That’ll have a knock on effect on housing prices (and purchases), the pursuit of education, employment rights- and so the most negatively impacted group will be the people who believed Brexit meant an extra 350 million a week to the health service, better salaries and a better life overall. You may say prejudices- I say those people were deceived with promises that simply cannot be kept. As is exactly the case of Trump.

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