A Response to Trump: Tribune of Poor White People

Several liberal friends have recently posted the article Trump: Tribune of Poor White People, which is an interview by Rod Dreher had with JD Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy.51G93vyEl5L

When I read it, I wanted to like the article and wanted to gleam some great insights. But at the end of the article, I was not at all impressed by the commentary that lacked nuance and made broad generalizations that were entirely based on anecdotal evidence and not supported by actual hard facts.

Here are my thoughts on the interview:

1. Yes some liberals at Yale can be elitists, like the ones that Vance talked about in the interview. Yet, if Vance want to speak against broad assumptions of a group of people, the he should not make broad assumptions of another group of people. Yes, there is classism at Ivy League schools, but a majority of the liberals in the US do not go to Ivy League schools. Anecdotal evidence is just that, anecdotal.

2. Another anecdotal evidence that the interviewer Dreher and JD Vance seemed to affirm is a friend of Dreher’s seeing Trump signs all over West Virginia. If you look at results from the primary election in WV, Trump was indeed the top vote getter overall, but more people voted in the Democrat primary (roughly 30,000 more) with Sanders and Clinton getting 60,000 more votes combined than Trump. In some of the southern countries where I have traveled through and is pretty rural, Sanders captured more votes than Trump, so it wasn’t just big cities, like Charleston, voting overwhelming for Democrats to skew the voter turnout.

3. This leads to a point my friend Vonn New made on Facebook. This whole interview is based on the theory that poor working whites are the majority of Trump base. This theory is debunked by Nate Silver of 538. In his article, Silver shows that Trump supporters have a median household income $16,000 higher than the national average. Also Silvers has a breakdown of voters and their median household income. Silver doesn’t show data for West Virgina, but he does have data from Ohio where Vance is from. In Ohio, Trump primary voters had an median household income of $64K, $13K higher than average for Ohio and 5K and 2K higher shutterstock_3218677341-554x380than Clinton and Sanders’ voters respectively.

 

Even the woman pictured with a Trump hat (shown right) at the top of the article is a multi-millionaire herself, according to someone who wrote Dreher after he initially posted the interview. Also notice that in the same post-script Dreher writes about using the photo because it is one he could find quickly “of a normal-looking person at a Trump rally, up close.” So… let’s talk about elitism…

4. Vance’s overall point, besides liberals are elitists, seems to be that liberals are too concerned about structural barriers, that the conversation to help the people in Appalachia needs to be about personal responsibility. Besides this being a common trope that liberals want to take care of people so it lets people be lazy, Vance does agree himself that barriers are very much real.

As a liberal, I see these programs as leveling the playing field so that people from Appalachia can have more of a chance to go to college as their peers in suburban Washington DC have, not as a way for people to be lazy. Liberals tend to have platforms that support a strong public education. Public education helped Vance to go to Ohio State University, which led to him then going to Yale Law and having to deal with the liberal elitists there. Vance himself benefited from liberals wanting to and working to break down structural barriers, but he does not seem to acknowledge this at all. Meanwhile, conservatives across the country are currently actively working to defund public education at all levels that would prevent poor students like Vance from ever being able to attend a great state college like OSU.

5. Obama came from a middle class background and was raised at one point by a single mother and her parents. Insinuating that he is an out-of-touch elitist is an empty attack that shows there is no substance to the underlying argument.

6. Coal is a dying industry, not only because of liberals’ evil regulations, but because it is a finite natural resource. Also, strip mining is literally destroying the state and causing floods like never seen before. Instead of propping up an industry whose top executives have shown little to no regard for their workers’ lives (eg Don Blankenship), let’s actually start figuring out new industries and jobs for people in Appalachia.

Overall, this interview does show a much-needed conversation about class among white people. One that I was looking for when I opened the article. Yet instead, this conversation is obscured by useless political attacks, substitution of hard facts in favor of anecdotal evidence, and overgeneralization of complex issues facing poor white people in Appalachia and beyond.