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‘Hillbilly Elegy’: The Forgotten Americans Who Love Trump

His name doesn’t even appear in the book.

But make no mistake. “Hillbilly Elegy,” the new bestseller by J.D. Vance, is, in a very real sense, about Donald Trump. More to the point, it’s about the people who have made his unlikely run for the presidency possible.

It is also, not coincidentally, a book about being invisible. Not H.G. Wells invisible, with objects seeming to float in mid-air. Rather, Ralph Ellison invisible, when you are right there in three dimensions, but somehow, unseen.

First and foremost, though, Vance’s book is a memoir about growing up hardscrabble and white in clannish, insular communities in Kentucky and Ohio. It was a tough, unstable life. Vance was in and out of his mother’s house — she was a drug user with a procession of boyfriends and husbands — and was raised mostly by his grandparents — “Papaw” and “Mamaw.”

Mamaw was no June Cleaver. A gun-toting “lunatic” with a menthol cigarette forever dangling from her lips, she was rumored to have once almost killed a man who stole from her family. Her favorite descriptive term was the verb form of the F-word. But her love for her grandson was iron.

That grandson did a hitch in the Marines, went to college, went to law school at Yale. But he never lost a certain tough-minded pride of people and place.

“I may be white,” writes Vance, now a Silicon Valley investment executive, “but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty is the family tradition — their ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and mill workers during more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends and family.”

In other words, Vance’s people are Trump’s base. And the book is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand Trump’s appeal. “Hillbilly Elegy” is a compelling and compassionate portrait of a people politicians seldom address and media seldom reflect.

They love Trump because he sees them.

Yes, he’s a racist clown who lies like bunnies copulate. Yes, he appeals to their lowest selves, to their hatreds and fears. But he sees them and speaks to them, something neither Democrats nor Republicans do. When you feel yourself forgotten, when work and hope have fled, when you live by a tough-minded pride of people and place, yet also by a whisper of embarrassment that your people and place are so often sick, unschooled and hungry, the simple fact of being seen and spoken to is powerful.

The one great flaw in Vance’s book is a disingenuous near-silence on his kinsmen’s attitudes about race. And a passage wherein he claims their antipathy toward Barack Obama has “nothing to do with skin color” but rather, with the fact that he is “brilliant, wealthy, and speaks like a constitutional law professor” is flat out intellectually dishonest.

Obama is hardly the first politician to be smart, rich and well-spoken. He is, however, the first to be hounded into producing his long form birth certificate.

Still, that flaw does not outweigh Vance’s triumph, which is to give substance and dimension to those America has made invisible. Democrats, Republicans and media struggling to comprehend the forces that have upended politics should be asking themselves a question. Donald Trump shattered the paradigm because he sees J.D. Vance’s people.

Why is he the only one who does?

Photo: A coal-burning power plant can be seen behind a factory in the city of Baotou, in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region October 31, 2010.     REUTERS/David Gray/File Photo – RTSMVQ1

The Real Reason Young People Dislike Republicans

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a senior editor at National Review, and a leading conservative pundit. The views expressed here are his own.

June 11 (Bloomberg) — Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, won among voters over the age of 30, but lost younger voters by 23 points. That statistic has gotten a lot of attention from Republicans, especially since they have now lost young voters in three presidential elections in a row. They worry that voting Democratic could be habit-forming for this generation.

The party leadership’s post-election “autopsy” offered a superficial take on its challenge with young voters: It’s just social issues, and particularly Republican opposition to same-sex marriage, that have turned them off. The College Republican National Committee has just released a detailed report on young voters that goes considerably beyond this conventional wisdom.

It’s true that most polls find strong support for same-sex marriage among young people. The report, mainly written by Winston Group pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson, tries to gauge how important the issue is in driving their votes. It finds that 26 percent of young voters favor same-sex marriage and wouldn’t vote for a candidate who opposes it even if they agreed with that candidate on most other issues. Some of those voters, maybe most of them, must lean toward the Democrats on issues other than same-sex marriage. So Republicans are losing some young voters on this issue, but it may not be central to the party’s troubles.

And young people aren’t socially liberal when it comes to abortion. In the College Republicans’ March survey, 51 percent of them believed abortion should be banned altogether or with exceptions in unusual circumstances. They aren’t all that liberal on immigration, either. About 65 percent of young voters favored deporting illegal immigrants, enforcing the law before offering them legal status, or offering them legal status but not citizenship — all positions to the right of the immigration bill now being debated in the Senate. Young voters also consider climate change a low-priority issue.

They are deeply concerned, on the other hand, about economic issues. And Republicans have a lot of work to do on them. A majority of young voters think the party’s economic policies played a big role in the recession. They don’t follow Republican politicians in thinking that higher taxes on the rich are higher taxes on small business. Although they tend to agree with Republicans about the future of entitlement programs for the elderly, they are much more worried about the here-and-now. (The report cites a survey showing 20 percent of young people had delayed marriage because of the economy.) They consider student-loan debt a major obstacle to their goals.

And they give President Barack Obama credit for trying to help the economy, reduce their debt burden, and fix health care. Among those young voters who approve of Obama’s job performance, “trying” was the No. 1 word they used about him — as in, he has been trying to improve things.

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They think that public spending should be cut and that government is too big. Fighting big government is, however, a much lower priority for them than expanding the economy, reforming the safety net and controlling the national debt.

To my eye, these findings suggest there is an opening among young people for Republicans who advance credible plans to reduce the cost of health care and college, to foster job growth, to control the national debt and to address the other issues they consider important. Republicans will want those plans to involve shrinking the government, but that shouldn’t be their chief selling point. If they can do that — a big if, for many reasons — Republicans will also get credit from young voters for trying, whereas they now seem reflexively anti-Obama. It will also make them seem more intelligent, which is a quality that young people, according to the report, prize more than coolness.

There are a lot of ways to slice the polling data. Dividing voters based on whether they have turned 30 is just one, and it can obscure some truths — for example, Obama carried voters aged between 30 and 39 by 13 points.

One question the report doesn’t directly address is how much age and generation influence voting. Young voters are less likely than older voters to be married, white or Christian, all of which would make them less likely to be Republicans even if they were older. The party’s poor performance among young voters is partly a sign that they do badly with nonwhites and that nonwhites are a growing share of voters.

It is probably a mistake for Republicans to spend a lot of time targeting young voters. They should concentrate more, for example, on doing better among nonwhite voters, which would improve their numbers among the young, too. And above all, they ought to have something more compelling to say about voters’ daily economic concerns. Young voters are just like their elders in wanting that.

Photo: DonkeyHotey via Flickr.com