It is a Middletown native’s memoir of growing up in the steel mill city and Appalachia that many political experts have said explains the appeal of President-elect Donald Trump, a wealthy New York businessman, to the struggling white working class.
J.D. Vance’s book, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” not only shares stories of his upbringing, but also gives a broad look at the working class in America.
The book topped the New York Times Bestseller list earlier this year and is currently in its 14th week in the top 10 best-selling non-fiction books in America.
A Middletown High School graduate, Vance grew up in Middletown and the Appalachian town of Jackson, Ky., before enlisting in the Marine Corps and serving in Iraq.
A graduate of the Ohio State University and Yale Law School, Vance sat down for an exclusive interview with this news outlet on Thursday.
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Why did you decide to write the book, “Hillbilly Elegy?”
“I was a third-year law student when I wrote the book and I was very troubled by this question why I thought I was such an outsider at a place like Yale Law School. Why were there so few kids there like me, who were poor with roots in Appalachia, at places like Yale? I wanted to answer that question. Why I felt so culturally alienated from these people who were very nice but different than me. I decided that if I opened up my life I could tell that story, try to answer that question in hopefully a pretty compelling way.”
I’m guessing you, like many in America, were shocked Tuesday night?
“I was definitely surprised. I thought there would be enough leftover voters from 2012 from the Obama coalition who would prevent (Trump) from getting elected. I was obviously wrong.”
How did Trump win it, or how did Hillary lose it?
“It’s an interesting question. There were two very important things that happened. The first is that Trump won hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of white working-class voters that Obama had won in 2008. Those people went from Obama to Trump. Those voters caused huge swings in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. That delivered the election for him. The other thing is a lot of core Democratic constituencies who should have voted for Hillary Clinton did, but not nearly as high a number as they did in 2008 and 2012.
What does the election say about our society right now?
“That’s a big bite to chew. I think it says that we’re a very divided country. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a very small margin. It was split almost right down the middle. The people who voted for Trump don’t understand the people who voted for Clinton. And vice versa. We have a very stark cultural divide in our country that hopefully the next president can start to heal.”
If you’re Trump, how do you heal the wounds?
“He did this pretty well in his victory speech. He has to be gracious and humble. He has been given the most awesome responsibility in the world. The other thing that Trump has to do is recognize there are a lot of voters actually scared by the prospect of a Trump presidency. And he has got to understand why they are scared. He has to do a better job of talking to those people and convincing them he’s going to be their president too. A lot of the rhetoric on the campaign on both sides scared each side of the prospect of a Clinton or Trump president. I would have said the same thing if Clinton was president. The way he talked to a lot of groups is making people afraid.”
What do you think the meeting Thursday with Obama and Trump was like?
(Laughter.) “I can’t imagine two people who are more different. Obama is cool, collected, a little detached you may even say. Trump is very engaged, very fiery, very emotional. It’s hard to imagine two different people meeting. My guess it was really all about business. I don’t think those guys like each other personally. It’s a credit to Obama and Trump that they’re already trying to figure out how to go from one administration to another. My guess is they talked about business and not a lot of chitchat.”
On Facebook right now it seems people are losing friends over politics.
“My theory on this: We as a country don’t go to church as much, that’s especially true in lower-income communities. Our families are not doing as well and the divorce rate is up. My worry is that politics has stood in and is becoming the most important thing in our life. It’s what we are passionate about. There is nothing wrong about getting passionate about politics. But we really have to remember it’s not the most important thing. Your family. Your work. Those things are more important, and I like to see us remember that sometimes.”