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Anthem For The Forgotten Man
December/January 2016/17

J.D. Vance: His memoir has become required reading for understanding Trump’s election victory (©Naomi McColloch)

When J.D. Vance first opened the Word document that eventually became this book, he thought he was writing his long goodbye to the rotting white America that seemed no longer to make history. In fact, he was writing a book that has become an essential guide to Donald Trump’s astonishing election victory. This is a moving memoir about the people Hillary Clinton called “deplorables” and Trump (echoing FDR) called the forgotten man. In decades to come, when politics undergraduates study Trump’s rise, it will feature at the top of the reading list, so crucial is it to understanding why these Americans rejected her.

Vance was born in broken-home poverty in Middletown, Ohio, the son of a violent and abusive clan of hillbilly transplants, gun-toting folk lured in the 1950s from the valleys of rural Kentucky to the steady wages of the factories. Today he is a San Francisco resident and successful venture capitalist, and is seen in Washington as one of conservatism’s brightest young thinkers. But his memoir does much more than trace his steps out of poverty. “The coolest thing on paper I’ve done is attend Yale Law School,” writes Vance. “I’ve written this book because I’ve achieved something quite ordinary, which doesn’t happen to most kids who grow up like me.” This is a clearly written, tightly controlled, but still furious epistle to the Beltway influencer class who can only conceive of poverty in infographics of wage stagnation and inequality rates. 

Vance holds up a mirror that reveals the true face of a white America — small-town, rural, uneducated — that swung the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan for Trump. Where Vance grew up, mouths stink of what dentists call “mountain dew”, the deep rot from gallons of sugary drinks. He was nine months old when his mother first started putting Pepsi in his bottle. By the time he was 16 had accumulated 12 step-siblings as his drug-addicted mum shuttled him through half-a-dozen new “dads”. Nobody in the family could make head nor tail of the financing or the forms for him to apply for university, so Vance threw himself into the Marines, with whom he served in Iraq. At Yale Law School he felt more out of place than wealthy foreigners, and the chief value he had been brought up with — “to shoot a gun, and shoot it well” — was despised.

The hero of Vance’s memoir is “a violent non-alcoholic” — his hillbilly grandmother, to whom he manages to cling tightly enough for just long enough to make it successfully through college. “My grandparents embodied one type of American values: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hard-working. My mother, and increasingly the entire neighbourhood, another: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.” This is an America that no longer dreams, thinks the system is rigged, and hates Obama. “I regularly hear from acquaintances or distant family members that Obama has ties to Islamic extremists, or is a traitor, or was born in some far-flung corner of the world.” 

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