A memoir from inside Donald Trump’s base

When I caught up with J.D. Vance, he still sounded a bit bemused by the success of his colorfully titled book, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis.”

“I was just hoping to get some attention,” he told me as he prepared for a network TV appearance in Washington. “I wasn’t expecting nearly this much attention.”

No, but nobody was expecting Donald Trump to be the Republican presidential nominee, either — especially not as a populist hero to a base of white working-class, non-college-educated voters.

That’s why, although Trump’s name appears nowhere in Vance’s book, it quickly rose to Amazon’s top 10 amid glowing reviews as a narrative that helps to explain Trump’s surprising appeal to the white underclass, the underprivileged group from which its author emerged.

“You cannot understand what’s happening now without first reading J.D. Vance,” wrote Rod Dreher, senior editor of The American Conservative. “His book does for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book did for poor black people: give them voice and presence in the public square.”

I agree. Just as Coates’ memoir “Between the World and Me” helps us to understand the rise of movements like Black Lives Matter, Vance helps us to understand how shrinking opportunities for low-income whites helped fuel the rise of Trump.

Vance’s rural Kentucky upbringing was plagued with family and community violence and disorder brought on by alcohol, drugs and other types of dysfunction.

His life settled down after his often-feuding grandparents reconciled and took custody of him as he entered high school. After the Marines, Ohio State University and Yale Law School, he now is a principal in a Silicon Valley investment firm, far from the hills he used to know.

Vance writes about people who are “very frustrated because they feel like the institutions that enable success are closed off from them,” he said in an ABC “This Week” interview. “When I got into Yale Law School, for example, a family member asked me if I pretended to be a liberal.”

The sense that “traditional markers of success” are not open to them “breeds a sense of learned helplessness,” Vance says in his most controversial yet also most important argument. Learned helplessness, or “the sense that folks’ choices don’t matter,” is crippling when it prevents individuals from taking advantage of available opportunities, like education or job training.

Vance, who also has written for National Review, is more conservative than I am, yet we agree on a lot. Like me, he sees Trump as someone who “diagnoses the problems in a very successful and passionate way,” but Vance doesn’t “see him as offering many solutions.”

Indeed, his recent economic policy speech, for example, promoted a set of income tax cuts and credits that sound great until you realize that most low-income workers make too little to pay federal income tax, although they pay plenty of other taxes.

We also wonder if Trump loses — which has been looking more likely by the day — whether the Grand Old Party will react with a more populist stance to enlist low-income workers who have been overlooked in the past.

Or will they only breathe a sigh of relief and try to move on — until the next opportunistic demagogue steps up? That book has yet to be written.

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