James McMurtry, J.D. Vance & Coping With Trump
Like most left-leaning Americans, I woke up on the ninth of November in a depressed fog, a situation which wasn’t helped by having to drive 15 miles in the rain to report to jury duty in a landlocked Seattle suburb. The room where jurors assembled made the DMV seem inviting, so I cracked open a book about the modern-day economic, cultural and domestic struggles of a specific, Trump-favoring sub-demographic: substance-abusing, dirt-poor Appalachian Caucasians.
Much to my surprise, it lifted my spirits.
Some of the real-life characters in J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy fit neatly into regional stereotypes. According to Vance, some of his subjects (many of whom he's related to) get blitzed on booze and drugs, beat their spouses, have kids out of wedlock in their teens, neglect their children, refuse to work even when there are decent jobs to be had, blame everybody but themselves for their problems, subsist on fast food and sugary soda, decry government intrusion even as they survive off checks from Uncle Sam, hate people like Barack Obama simply because he’s succeeded where they’ve so miserably failed. Vance, who grew up in this often torturous part of Appalachian culture, pulls no punches in saying that unless his fellow "hillbillies" are willing to help themselves, their fortunes stand little chance of improving.
But there are a multitude of Appalachians who defy such easy stereotyping, and Vance is one of them. Against unbelievably long odds and buoyed by the love of his sister and extended family, Vance managed to rise above his circumstances, serving in the Marine Corps, attending Yale Law School, and now helping to guide one of Silicon Valley’s most influential venture-capital firms. But he doesn’t look down on the region he grew up in, and neither did Donald Trump. While it’s deeply ironic—and, in my opinion, extremely unfortunate—that it took a bellicose billionaire born with a silver spoon in his mouth to appeal to people he has little in common with (often employing needlessly hateful rhetoric in the process), it’s something Democrats need to get their heads around if they want to reclaim the White House in four years. Vance’s book is a great place to start, and so is the oeuvre of James McMurtry.
The Democrats’ central strategy for appealing to blue-collar voters in the 21st century has been for Bruce Springsteen to play a concert in Cleveland or Philly a few days before Election Day and pray to God that working-class people fall in line with their Boss at the polls. But if this election proved anything, it’s that celebrity firepower doesn’t mean squat (unless your last name's Trump, apparently). Springsteen’s written a lot of impeccable songs about American elbow grease over the years, but he’s a rich guy now—and a bandanna slung around his neck isn’t going to trick even the most naive people into thinking otherwise.
McMurtry, however, is different. No fan of present-day Republicans, he’s a stoic Texan with a deep voice and a functional gun rack. The people he’s been singing about so eloquently for his entire career are the ones who just elected Trump. McMurtry released a politically charged song, “Remembrance,” the day before Election Day, but it was the sentiment in his 2005 track, “We Can’t Make It Here,” that really bubbled up in this campaign cycle. Bernie Sanders saw it coming, and so did Trump. Despite an esteemed career in public service, Hillary Clinton did not, and her tone-deafness cost her—and America—dearly. The New Yorker’s George Packer called her “a strange fit for this moment.” Too strange, it turned out. (Elizabeth Warren would have been perfect, but she demurred.)
It's cathartic in times like these to adopt a bunker mentality and retreat to those who affirm your beliefs and share your anger. To this end, I completely understand those who’ve taken to the streets en masse to proclaim their opposition to Trump’s election. But once reality sets in, it's a more productive postmortem to look outside your herd and understand how America got where it is. You don’t need to hug a Trump supporter, but you need to talk—and listen—to one. Better yet, take him to a McMurtry show after happy hour. He’s on tour—as he almost always in—right now.