Hillbilly Ethnography

A well-meaning, best-selling memoir promotes dangerous myths about racial determinism and racial innocence that form the bedrock of Trumpism
J.D. VANCE has had a very good year. With the bewildering rise of Donald Trump--buoyed, supposedly, by a groundswell of support among the white working class--the author of the best-selling memoir Hillbilly Elegy has become a de facto spokesperson for the president-elect’s constituency on the cable news circuit. “I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the northeast,” Vance writes in the book’s opening pages. “Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree.” A Yale Law School graduate who now works for Peter Thiel’s investment firm in San Francisco, Vance has made a second career explaining his Appalachian Kentucky and Rust Belt Ohio roots to the liberal audiences of MSNBC and the New York Times. (The Times even included Hillbilly Elegy in its list of “Six Books to Help Understand Trump’s Win.”)

Some on the left have taken liberal readers to task for their earnest gullibility: Vance is a conservative--albeit of the #NeverTrump variety--and he prescribes conservative values to rectify the Rust Belt’s “culture in crisis.” He takes great pains to insist that the decline of industry is not responsible for “a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it,” that reacts “to bad circumstances in the worst way possible”: with hedonism, materialism, poor work ethic, lack of thrift, disregard for family obligations, and a victim mentality. Those sound like the pathologies conservatives have long attributed to black Americans, as Sarah Jones points out in the New Republic, because that’s exactly what they are. (“I have known many welfare queens,” Vance writes, "some were my neighbors, and all were white.”) Like all bootstraps narratives, Vance’s focus on self-improvement distracts from the structural causes of the suffering that plagues his hometown.

If this were the extent of Hillbilly Elegy’s ideological baggage, it would be harmless enough--Vance’s policy prescriptions are vague, and his bootstraps mantra is unlikely to convince any liberals. But embedded within Vance’s many first-person plural appeals to the white working class is a set of racial assumptions that readers would do well to interrogate. Hillbilly Elegy insists, almost simultaneously, that it is and is not about race. Vance writes that he hopes his readers will not see class through “a racial prism,” but quickly goes on to say: “There is undoubtedly an ethnic component lurking in the background of my story.” Hillbillies, Vance claims, are a race of their own.

After lamenting that all whites fall under a single racial banner in the American imagination, Vance works to distinguish “hillbillies” from WASPs and other whites. “Hillbillies” are an ethnically homogenous and geographically identifiable subgroup: whites of Scots-Irish descent who live in the Greater Appalachia region of the United States. As Bob Hutton notes in Jacobin, Vance’s ethnographic description echoes historians Forrest McDonald and Grady McWhiney’s “Celtic Thesis,” which argued that white southerners were ethnically and culturally distinct thanks to their common descent from pastoral Celtic tribes in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. McDonald and McWhiney were also founding members of the League of the South, a white nationalist organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center currently lists as a hate group.

Vance’s view of Appalachian culture feels more opportunistic than sincerely white nationalistic. It allows him to portray Appalachian and Rust Belt poverty as an exceptional phenomenon, rather than a symptom of broader trends that could not be so easily ascribed to culture. As such, it conveniently justifies the existence of his book. This opportunism makes the book’s racial determinism all the more insidious: it makes it more palatable to audiences that might normally be on guard against explicit white nationalism.

For one thing, Vance cites racist-thinking much more directly than even his critics have indicated. The very first endnote references Razib Khan, a writer who the New York Times dropped as a regular science contributor after Gawker revealed his “history with racist, far-right online publications.” Charles Murray--author of The Bell Curve, and perhaps the most famous racial determinist in contemporary American public life--is cited approvingly. These citations are not accidental, nor the product of lazy research. Last month, Vance sat down with Murray for an hour-long discussion at the American Enterprise Institute, a discussion in which the two emphasized the “strong ethnic distinctions” that characterize the white working class.

It’s clear that Murray not only relishes Vance’s emphasis on the ethnography of the Scots-Irish--Murray’s reference to his own “pretty clean Scots-Irish blood” is a bit chilling--but also has good use for the cultural crisis Vance diagnoses in his supposed ethnic group: when Murray asks him to comment on the decline of steady marriages and male breadwinning, Vance obliges in good faith. The accident of Vance’s success is that he published his memoir about “a culture in crisis” at precisely the moment that Trump’s election has forged a national consensus that such a crisis exists. And, to paraphrase Milton Friedman, the ideas that get picked up in a time of crisis are the ones that are lying around.

But Charles Murray’s ideas about racial determinism are not the only ones still lying around. Another racial ideology is “lurking” in the background of Hillbilly Elegy, one so central to contemporary conservative thought that it doesn’t register as ideology at all. Call it racial innocence: Even as Vance wags his finger at the vices of his fellow hillbillies, he cannot help but insist on the innocence of their whiteness.

For decades, the explicit invocation of white supremacy has been anathema to American public life. If this was a welcome development, it was foolish to assume it would be a permanent one. Racial determinism was the Trump campaign’s center of gravity, from the candidate’s rise to prominence as a champion of the “birther” movement to his insistence that a Mexican-American judge would necessarily be biased against him. People like Murray have been peddling racial determinism for a long time, but Trump’s victory has made it a central tenet of the American right, rather than a fringe view it entertains with the occasional National Review article or think tank fellowship.

With its “ethnic component lurking in the background,” and with well-meaning liberals tacitly accepting its dubious racial claims, Hillbilly Elegy helps to normalize this thinking across the political spectrum. But while reactionary racial determinism spent decades in exile before its recent, triumphant return, an insistence on racial innocence never left the conservative mainstream. This ideology, too, is implicit in the book’s opening pages. Hillbilly Elegy asks us to accept that the Scots-Irish are fiercely loyal, quick to anger, and suspicious of outsiders. It’s just their culture. If the white working class is reacting badly to deindustrialization, as Vance argues, it is because of these innate characteristics.

This strain of mythology was expressed in former Democratic Senator Jim Webb’s Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America (2004), a book that Vance and Murray both cite approvingly. For Webb, these cultural traits are the very stuff of American greatness. In Vance’s update, those same traits are hastening decline. But, though Vance calls for introspection instead of anger, and though he explicitly insists that his people are responsible for their own lot in life, he is still (implicitly) endorsing a story much like Donald Trump’s: The Scots-Irish made America great until outside forces cast them aside. Something intrinsic to them--what they were--once held great social value, but no longer.

As the historian Matthew Lassiter has argued, racial innocence was a foundational ideology of the “silent majority” that elected Richard Nixon for two consecutive terms. The movement’s core of suburban whites accepted equality before the law (and many core civil rights); what they vehemently objected to was the idea that their whiteness had benefitted them and that antiracist policies might be required to counteract this. (Housing and school desegregation were the flashpoints for this constituency.)

For the Trump coalition, the dynamic is different: instead of the innocence of its privilege, it’s the innocence of its dispossession that supporters rally behind. The danger lies not only in their denial of the continued, empirically demonstrable benefits incurred by whiteness, but also in the implicit (and sometimes explicit) claim that their whiteness is being leveraged against them. This is how the racial innocence that has long characterized conservative thinking in the post-Civil Rights era evolves into a more dangerous phenomenon: racial vengeance.

Of course, vengeance couldn’t be further from the mind of J.D. Vance. He seems nothing but thankful for his own ascent to the coastal cosmopolitan class, and Hillbilly Elegy is peppered with positive statements about pluralism and multiculturalism. But with its casual, almost imperceptible acceptance of conservative racial premises, the memoir draws the battle lines in favor of the white supremacists now storming the halls of American power. The problem is that Vance tells the exact same story that they tell, just with a different ending: To make America great again, they should pick themselves up--not push others down. Needless to say, this sermonizing is not going to convince them. If we’re going to halt their advance, we need to tell a different story.