‘The Poor Who Love Trump’

If you don’t have time to read the Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and51G93vyEl5L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_ Culture in Crisis, I recommend Jennifer Senior’s NY Times review of J. D. Vance’s new bestseller – A Compassionate Analysis of the Poor Who Love Trump.’   I’m not sure what she means by that other than Trump draws support from people like Vance describes – hillbillies who have given in to their misfortune and given up on themselves.

In his ‘elegy’ or lament Vance attributes much of Appalachian or ‘hillbilly/white trash/redneck’ poverty on what psychologist Martin Seligman calls ‘learned helplessness’ – a ‘fatalistic belief, born of too much adversity, that nothing can be done to change your lot.’

It’s his own story growing up in a dysfunctional family network in Middleton, Ohio populated by Kentucky immigrants. However, his observations apply to urban
poverty as well.

It seems to me that in impoverished neighborhoods, whether rural or urban, three things are at work:

  • bad luck – being born into poverty
  • bad structures – sometimes the government hurts as much as it helps, and,
  • bad decisions – perpetuating what Oscar Lewis called the ‘culture of poverty’

Vance escaped the despair of those he left behind with the help of grandparents, four years in the Marines and on to Ohio State and Yale law school.   I know several leaders who, like Vance, have an affection for their hillbilly roots even while recognizing with Vance that the culture ‘increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.’

Looking back he wonders – ‘how much should he hold his hillbilly kin responsible for their own misfortune?’   The answer is ‘a lot.’

 Those who serve with compassion and justice ministries know that it is always about intervening to help people overwhelmed with bad luck, bad structures and bad decisions.     It is never about blaming the victims or separating the deserving from the undeserving poor.

Senior’s review acknowledges that ‘Mr. Vance doesn’t have all the answers.  But he’s advancing the discussion.’   I agree.   What think ye?

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6 Responses to ‘The Poor Who Love Trump’

  1. Bob Sloan says:

    Hillbilly Elegy is the story of my family with one major exception and that is the Nazarene Church. My Mom was invited to attend the Nazarene church as a young Mother. She accepted Christ and convinced my Dad that he should stop drinking. My Dad listened to her. They were both born and raised in south-central Kentucky in the middle of tobacco fields and coal country. They were poor. Both sets of my grandparents had outhouses and no running water. My parents migrated to Indiana after the war because there were factory jobs available.

    Due to the influence of the church, my brothers and myself were raised in a stable, two parent family, surrounded by love, encouragement and faith. Even though my Dad left school in the eighth grade he worked hard and advanced from a laborer to a plant Superintendent in the Steel Fabrication business. Even though we never had much money, my parents encouraged us to get an education and all four of the boys earned Master’s degrees. My older brother and myself attended Olivet Nazarene College(University). There was always the realization that we were one step ahead of poverty because we would visit my grandparents and use the outhouses.

  2. Gene Gabbard says:

    I bought the book two weeks ago and I’m just now starting it. My story is similar to Bob’s. Grew up in Sand Gap, Jackson County Kentucky one of the poorest counties in the country. My grandparents heated with coal stove or grate and no running water throughout their life. Dad never graduated from the eighth grade but would become a very prominent citizen and did well financially staying in Jackson County. And dad and mom taught us to work at a very early age starting early in the morning on the farm.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing that story! Although there are clearly differences in my story there also are some dead rock identities. I guess the critical question is how we turn the culture around to one that provides opportunity but expects and demands responsibility – – on everyone involved starting with parents grandparents aunts and uncles, community leaders etc. – – clearly would be a great discussion topic.

  4. Oliver says:

    I saw Vance being interviewed by Chris Matthews recently, and was struck with how on point he was. We often forget the hidden underclass of white poverty and he did a great job of bringing us such awareness. He gave some clues as to why some survive incredible hardships and others don’t. As to your third point, you’re right, there is a “learned helplessness” that plagues those who are struck by bad luck and are paralyzed by systemic and structural injustices.
    The poor are unquestionably on the losing end of globalization, economic change, the technological revolution, and government in the hands of a technocratic elite. I believe that part of the answer is a realignment of educational values in the areas of poverty and that it is the route out of poverty.
    Thanks for keeping us anchored!

  5. Jim Cooper says:

    Thanks Tom for the probing thought about the enslavement of mind and soul brought on by poverty and systems/behaviors that perpetuate the lifestyle. I grew up “poor white” but never “trash”. The true “hillbilly” Ozarks was home…no running water, no indoor pluming, 4 rooms without doors, sloped floors and sagging leak stained ceilings, and a wood stove that heated half of one room. I think I found the way “up and out” because there were those who birthed a dream in me….a Mother, a country church, a few teachers and a community of caring people. It seems to me that if we are to address poverty and the “learned helplessness” then we will need to more aggressively develop “dream-birthers” who paint a vision of a grander possibility in the minds of poor and oppressed children. We hear supporting stories from the Olympics. A dream…and someone who believes for you that it can be reality… can open the poverty clogged channels of life.

  6. David Ralph says:

    It seems that the value of the church and the gospel is as vital and necessary as ever. With a rise of father-less homes and unwed mothers, I wonder how the church is engaging in those areas that seem to have only anger and rioting as an outlet, such as South Chicago where there is 70 to 90% father-less homes, and murders in the 10’s and teens nearly every weekend. Is the church and the gospel engaged? I to think the category of “Learned Helplessness” is insightful and wonder if the gospel is being applied to these incredible blighted urban and rural areas.

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