Leonard Pitts Jr.: The unseen in America

J.D. Vance gives substance and dimension to America's invisible

His name doesn’t even appear in the book.

But make no mistake. “Hillbilly Elegy,” the new best-seller 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?
Email: lpitts@miamiherald.com

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