Trump and Farage might not be hillbillies, but they speak the language of poor whites who have been marginalised
Published 27/08/2016 | 02:30
When Donald Trump introduced Nigel Farage at a rally in sweaty Mississippi this week, two worlds converged. Both men want immigration control, both speak for an alienated working-class. Farage called Brexit voters "little people, real people, ordinary… people".
And yet Farage and Trump are none of these. A retired City trader and a Manhattan plutocrat, Nigel and Donald are products of the very establishment they condemn. The revolution is led by capitalists. How on earth did this happen?
An answer is found in the bestselling 'Hillbilly Elegy, A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis' by JD Vance.
Vance's folks herald from the hills of Appalachia - a land of exhausted mines and shuttered mills. Little people, real people … difficult people. His grandmammy punished her husband for his adultery by dousing him in petrol while he slept and dropping a lit match on him. Her daughter, Vance's mama, has five ex-husbands and a heroin problem.
They live in a small, violent world where sex and addiction fill long, boring lives left empty by unemployment.
Oh, and they're probably all voting for Trump. What Trump offers, says Vance, is political opium - "an easy escape from the pain. To every complex problem, he promises a simple solution."
I don't think that economic anxiety or racial anxiety is really what's driving the Trump phenomenon. What I think is driving the Trump phenomenon is this social and cultural anxiety ... the sense that the world around you is falling apart.
Thanks to Trump and Vance there's now a debate in the US about what to do about the marginalisation of poor whites. But those seeking a quick solution will struggle. As Vance acknowledges, the underclass has been around for a long time.
Hillbilly Elegy puts me in mind of Erskine Caldwell's 'Tobacco Road', a 1932 novel about Georgia sharecroppers who fecklessly feed off false religion, booze and sex. Think 'Deliverance' with laughs. I once set the book as a text for an undergraduate American Studies class in England and was fascinated by the different reactions. The younger students, all good liberals, found the characters repulsive and the authors of their own misfortune. One mature student, with the wisdom of a bit of living, felt sorry for them. Anyone with experience of poverty understands the temptation to deaden the humiliation with drink.
Caldwell was often accused of being a communist. If he was, he has my sympathy - for the study of US history lends itself well to Marxist analysis. This was a country that wasn't discovered so much as plundered and exploited. Control over both natives and the European migrants was exerted through violence. The absence of a serious socialist movement can be explained by the state's willingness to beat up, arrest and deport union organisers, while passing labour laws openly designed to stop organisation.
The easy movement of people and capital has a lot to answer for, too. People live in Appalachia because there was once well-paid manual employment. But industries rise and fall. Many jobs have gone to Mexico since the end of the Cold War. Many Mexicans have come to America to do the jobs that American citizens supposedly won't do themselves - or rather won't do for tiny wages that no one could reasonably raise kids, pay taxes and meet the rent on.
For Appalachia, you could read swathes of the north of England or south Wales. Or my own home of Kent, where manufacturing and mining were once common. These places used to vote solidly Labour, just as Appalachia once loved the Democrats. No more. The Left broke their electoral covenant in the Nineties when they embraced globalisation.
But the bigger betrayal that people feel more deeply is cultural. The Left no longer looks or sounds like the folks they claim to represent, adopting policies that stand like a wall between themselves and the working-class. For Hillary Clinton's Democrats, it is the refusal to acknowledge that immigration affects wages and employment. For Labour it is the same, with a bit of Euroscepticism thrown in. Owen Smith's pledge to hold a second referendum is surely catnip for Ukip. If Farage were to reclaim his party's leadership, he could be in Parliament by 2020.
Vance's family suffers from a cultural decline that the left doesn't have the language to comment on - the collapse of religious authority, broken homes - and the Left's insistence that all ills are cured by an injection of state cash is tired. To make matters worse, many politicians on the left label the folks who don't vote for them racist and ill-educated.
The poor's rejection of a censorious left that won't act in their sectional interest is perfectly rational. But Nigel and Donald also look like fun to get drunk with (although, yet another paradox, Trump doesn't even drink) and there's no hint that they'll judge your inebriated melancholy. They blame foreigners, not you, for your problems. They ask not what you can do for your country but what your country can do for you.
The left denounces their pitch as bigoted, selfish - but the voters who have been left behind while the liberals got rich are listening. When you have nothing, the kind words of a man who can afford a private jet with gold taps seem like something.