The Current

Why white working class voters favour Trump: Hillbilly Elegy author

Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance grew up between the Rust Belt and Appalachia surrounded by poverty, anger and love. It's a culture that Vance says is in crisis in America today and that feeds into the politics playing out in this U.S. election year.
J.D. Vance says his hillbilly roots helps him understand the anger that is driving the white working class to vote for Donald Trump. (Naomi McColloch)

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If you've ever wondered why so many poor, white Americans are supporting Donald Trump, look no further than author J.D. Vance to explain.

"Donald Trump is the first candidate in at least the past 20 or 30 years to really go after these voters — to say I see your problems, I see you and I recognize that your lives are a bit of a struggle," Vance tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

While Vance was born in the Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, he says home for him is Jackson, Kentucky, where his family had lived for generations. Vance explores his Appalachian roots in his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.

When you're so hungry for political leadership, for somebody who recognizes your problems, you frankly have a pretty low bar after you've been neglected.

Vance says white people suffering in poverty have felt invisible. Trump's appeal to voters in Appalachia, according to Vance is that he's relatable — he speaks to the working class.

"When you're so hungry for political leadership, for somebody who recognizes your problems, you frankly have a pretty low bar after you've been neglected."

Vance says Trump's unfiltered character is another trait that Appalachian voters are drawn to.

"If you grow up in an area of the country where that's how people talk about politics around the dinner table then there's something very relatable about Trump's tone."

"My family has existed in eastern Kentucky for as long as there are records," Vance tells Tremonti.

"If you're familiar with the famous Hatfield-McCoy family feud back in the 1860s, '70s and '80s in the United States, my family was an integral part of that."

The Hatfields of West Virginia, 1897. Author J.D. Vance says his family was an integral part of the famous Hatfield-McCoy family feud in the 1860s. (Wikimedia/cc)

The term "hillbilly" is not pejorative in Appalachia. Vance says it's used as "a term of love" when describing themselves.

"My grandma would say if someone else calls you a hillbilly you might need to punch them in the nose. But if we call ourselves hillbillies, it's a sort of a term of endearment, something that we have co-opted," says Vance.

Vance escaped what seemed to a predestined future of poverty and violence when he graduated from Yale Law School. But he tells Tremonti that being a hillbilly from Appalachia is an important part of his identity he keeps hold of.

"I believe that I'm a hillbilly in my values, and in my attitudes, and I don't want to lose that. I think it's possible to maintain a big chunk of that identity so long as you're self-reflective and meaningful about it."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.