Five years isn’t too late to read a best-seller, is it? Not even when Ron Howard cinematized the book last year and the author is running for Congress?
Tardy to the scene or not, I finally read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, despite thinking I took it in way back in the wonder years of 2016, when Donald Trump was just a comical aberration on our sacred election process. I apparently misremembered reading it: all the publicity of the memoir during the middle-American-radical takeover of the Republican Party gave the false impression of actually turning its pages.
No matter. Vance is running for Senate in Ohio on a MAGA-friendly platform. He’s not unctuously raah raah Donald! like some shameless Trump epigones vying for the seat. But he’s decidedly populist on hot-button issues like immigration, trade, and our power-massing tech overlords. And unlike trim-cut-suited Ivy Leaguers LARPing as Willie Stark, Vance’s salt-of-the-earth populism is genuine, as evidenced by his life story.
Hillbilly Elegy is many things: a tour guide to holler culture, a lived account of Rust Belt decline, a clear-eyed look at the ravages of opioids, a sociological lesson on the importance of stability in a child’s life. Vance’s reflective chronicle also acts as a helpful hatchet for clearing the path towards a post-Trump GOP—should the giant peach opt for grandkids time instead of the grueling hustings. The strange, inextricable phrenophone line Trump has with the white working class is explained by Vance in blunt terms: hillbilly culture is a culture of scapegoating. Yes, global labor arbitrage hollowed out the industrial centers that low-skilled, low-educated Americans counted on to make a living. But the destructive behavior of the working class—reckless profligacy, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, truculence, selfishness, short-sightedness—can’t be pinned on someone else. It’s entirely self-perpetuated and a source of abiding shame.
But I’m beating a long dead horse, discussing the symbiosis between Trump and the Carhartt class. Many apologies for commentary redundancy. However, there was something that stuck out in Vance’s autobiography that went largely unnoticed by reviewers truffling for a political angle. It was a phenomenon I’ll dub “the moment of realization.”
A prefatory concession: I readily identify with Vance. No, I didn’t have a pill-popping mother who shacked up with a new potential husband every year. My dad was in my life more than Vance’s biological father. My grandmother didn’t chain smoke, swear profusely, and threaten to pop someone’s melon with a rusted Colt over the slightest of slights. I didn’t spend my childhood being shuffled between a series of ersatz homes, never feeling that I belonged anywhere until my teenage years.
But there are similarities. We’re both from a Middletown (his Ohio, mine Pennsylvania). And many of our friends growing up “didn’t make it,” as in, didn’t plod along the “success sequence” until they reached a mid-to-high salaried job with decent health insurance that covers children and spouse and got easy approval for a mortgage with a modest interest rate.
We count ourselves among the lucky for escaping our statistical mean: burned out, Oxy-addicted, alcoholic, low-wage factotum, living with the ‘rents well into our 30s, possible imprisonment.
And Vance and I seemed to experience a “clicking” in college, when a switch in our heads flipped and, in the felicitous Graham Greene line, the door opened and let the future in. After nearly flunking out of high school and, with little notion of what to do upon graduation, Vance enlisted with the Marines and did a tour in Iraq. The Mesopotamian sojourn changed him. Vance broke the millstone of helplessness he was conditioned to carry. He returned home empowered, and reentered civil society with a determination to succeed, first in college, then in law school, then in the job market. Getting through the Marines instilled confidence in Vance and, more importantly, pushed him to act on it.
“By the time I started at Ohio State, the Marine Corps had instilled in me an incredible sense of invincibility. I’d go to classes, do my homework, study at the library, and make it home in time to drink well past midnight with my buddies, then wake up early to go running,” he recounts. The Ds and Fs of his indistinguishable public high school were replaced with As in university—when grades actually matter. Vance crawled out of the courage-dampening hillbilly hole with his own hands.
My story is not so dramatic, nor plight-defying. My high school grades were merely OK. I floated rudderless through community college while working full-time hours at an amusement park. After graduation, I matriculated at the closest state school to home because I was dating a girl there—not the responsible impetus, but an incentive nonetheless. But something in college “clicked” once I arrived and engaged in campus life. My future—that is, the field I wanted employment in—seemed graspable, if only I pursued it. So I did.
Like Vance, I kept a busy schedule full of extracurriculars and debauchery while maintaining my marks. I was an officer in both college Republicans and college Democrats (my politics morphed to stridently libertarian during my uni years) and was the student newspaper’s mainstay columnist. My course load was intense: constitutional law exams that required a minimum of fifteen pages of handwritten stare decisis-heavy explanandum followed immediately by accounting tests. But I prevailed, graduating summa cum laude, a stint interning in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on my CV, and a repository full of great, though somewhat foggy, memories. By my last semester, a poli sci professor implored me to go to grad school—an entreaty I’m still proud to say I politely declined.
The “moment of realization” that came within my first year at college eventually led to a career, a family, and a nice yard that requires mowing every other week.
It also brought a new, hard-to-pin-down form of awareness. This new disposition isn’t an Übermensch delusion; nor is it a hard-boiled existentialism. It’s not cryptic indicia detectable only to Lamed-Vavniks. And it’s not associated with the whey-milk-inhaling, ego-burnishing, New-Age-ish cockalorums on Twitter.
It’s a consciousness that, once achieved, is easy to spot its absence. The coworker who is habitually late and shoves off urgent tasks; the college buddy who downs half a fifth of 151 the night before a midterm; the intern who never bothers logging into his work email; the junkie mom who blows the rent money on horse; the friend always on queer street who never seeks out work—these are the screwups for whom the light never flashed on. They listlessly glide through life, blissfully unaware of their own foibles, until fateful inevitably rears its head. Then comes a break, which sometimes forces realization, sometimes not.
What the “moment of realization” causes is best described as an awareness of what economists call time horizons—of the interplay of finiteness and anticipation, a kind of situational hyperopia. Base liberty—that is, freedom from physical side-constraints—can’t operate without some degree of future-focused orientation. Call it deferred gratification. Call it reality privilege. Call it internalizing responsibility. Call it a longview synesthesia. Or just call it rationality.
Some are lucky enough to have parents who inculcate the forward-focused ethic in them from a young age with Sanford marshmallow conditioning. Others stumble upon it by chance—the logic of living slapping them upside the head. And others adopt it by hardscrabble necessity.
Whatever the case, the temperament is what propelled Vance out of a white-trash heap and into a competitive race for the U.S. Senate. It provided me the entire job-brood-property package in the flourishing Washington, D.C. metro area.
The newly aware mentality doesn’t obviate insecurities. (The editor of this fine publication can attest to my many finicky edits ex-post submission.) But it indwells an independence of character that is necessary for a free society not to devolve into a mass autophagic bender.