J. D. Vance Changes the Subject
A senator from the unconscious
What more does J. D. Vance want? With the Yale degree and the success of Hillbilly Elegy, he got status: glitzy friends, a beautiful and accomplished wife, widespread demand for his appearance and endorsement. More than status, he won celebrity, becoming a totem of the forgotten and abandoned people in whose likenesses — refashioned into exploitative grotesques — he trafficked. He got money, going to work in the fascist wing of Silicon Valley for Peter Thiel, making millions, and then becoming a vulturous financier in his own right. The venture capital firm he started, Narya (named after some Tolkien bullshit in the Thiel house style), invests in companies that aim to monetize Catholic prayer, obstruct environmentally conscious equities trading, further militarize outer space, and consolidate agricultural production, squeezing out the country’s remaining small farmers. Finally, he got power, the real thing, scoring election to the Senate last year — triumphing first, with the critical assistance of Donald Trump Jr. and his father, over a Republican field of sweaty and misshapen golems, then over Democrat Tim Ryan, whom voters successfully recognized as a Democratic congressman and not, as Ryan argued, an Ohio-made weapons system deployed to the Taiwan Strait.
But none of it has been enough. Vance can’t be sated. During 2022’s campaign, to the horror of centrists and liberals who’d been gulled by his earlier Never Trump shtick, it became clear that there was effectively nothing he wouldn’t say or do — to win, certainly, but also for some purpose more libidinal and obscure. He, whose fame and fortune owe everything to the favorable intercession of Ivy League faculty, concluded a speech at the National Conservatism Conference with the pronouncement, “The professors are the enemy.” In a campaign ad, he asked, “Are you a racist? Do you hate Mexicans?” with a shitty little smirk on his face that invited the viewer to say no and yes at the same time. He argued that women should stay in violent relationships for the sake of providing stable homes for their children, and he fulminated against professional women even as his wife pursued her high-powered law career. In an interview with Vanity Fair, he fantasized about firing every civil servant and implementing a “de-Baathification” program against the American left, flirting openly with the idea of a coup d’état. (When delivering this argument, Vance gave reporter James Pogue “an imploring look, as though to suggest that he was more on the side of the kind of people who read Vanity Fair than most of you realize.”) Most infamously, Vance accused Joe Biden of deliberately relaxing enforcement at the country’s border as a strategy to kill off Republican voters via fentanyl trafficking. “If you wanted to kill a bunch of MAGA voters in the middle of the heartland, how better than to target them and their kids with this deadly fentanyl. . . . It does look intentional. It’s like Joe Biden wants to punish the people who didn’t vote for him.”
Vance is no novice to the “great replacement” theory, the idea that a cabal of elites is attempting to gradually eradicate white people and substitute a more obedient immigrant underclass. He delivers it under only the thinnest veneer of deniability. “Our people aren’t having enough children to replace themselves. That should bother us,” he admonished at the 2019 National Conservatism Conference, integrating a semi-tacit white nationalism with the right’s antiabortion program. When Ari M. Brostoff pointed out this connection at the time, the far-right and the center-right Never Trump types forced the Washington Post to issue a correction and delete Brostoff’s lines linking his pronatalism to white supremacy — one of many instances of the contemptible complaisance with which the political establishment received Vance during the long rightward shift he took over the course of the 2010s. Were we really to believe that years of enthusiastic fraternizing with neofascists like Thiel and Curtis Yarvin left him uninfluenced by the concerns that preoccupy those circles, such as the comparative IQ scores of various demographic groups or their relative propensity for crime? That Vance’s zest for high birth rates is unrelated to the eugenics increasingly prevalent on the tech industry’s far-right wing? That when he used the words “replace” and “our people,” he did so innocently — only to repeat the argument more forcefully on the campaign trail?
Vance wishes to foment what he sees as a class war — not between labor and capital, but between the white citizenry and the “elites” of the universities and the media, who pour poison into the ears of the country and corrode its virtue and integrity by stripping away your jobs, corrupting your kids, and sending drug-laden foreigners into your community. Within this false class politics, the suffering of working-class people is understood in conspiratorial rather than structural terms. There is no historical logic to class inequality and exploitation, only inexplicable and unique acts of cruelty that bear no useful comparison to anything that has happened to others. The historical present takes the fragmentary form of an unprocessed trauma: isolated jagged images, shards of fear and shame without pattern.
He is the senator from the unconscious, a voice in Washington for unprocessed trauma, psychic repression, and the monstrous outlets such potent forces can find.Tweet
Trauma was the nominal subject of Vance’s gauzy 2016 memoir about bootstrapping his way out of an Ohio steel town, published before he famously became radicalized — reversing himself on Trump and auditioning for the position of new standard-bearer on the fascist right. And yet what links Vance the memoirist and Vance the politician is a continuous (if escalating) policy of nearly absolute nonconfrontation with what made him who he is — the nature of the trauma that he pantomimes exploring in his book. It’s quite the irony for a man elevated to fame as a soul-baring autobiographer. This also links him to Trump, the least introspective person who ever lived, and a politician with whom Vance shares a profound contempt toward the people for whom he imagines himself the spokesperson. Vance seems not to know that the feeling he conveys for the working-class world out of which he sprang is scorn. As his book communicates at great length, he remains a cipher to himself, and, like Trump, Vance’s transgressions clearly do some kind of libidinal work for him, expressing a need — a psychic void — that cannot be satisfied.
Normally, I would hesitate to psychologize to this degree. But Vance is himself the king of pop psychologists, and his whole self-presentation is built on the notions of willpower and self-discipline that are the heart of the pop-psych and self-help genres. There is no way to engage the problem he represents while refraining from entering this field. The mechanism of Vance’s interior contradiction is important to understand — not to argue the case against him, for which sufficient evidence was long ago accumulated, but to extract some meaning about the forces that animate and enable his ideology.
We are not without resources for such an approach. James Baldwin gets him almost dead to rights in The Fire Next Time, twenty-one years before Vance was born:
The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents — or, anyway, mothers — know about their children, and that they often regard white Americans that way. . . . One felt that if one had had that white man’s worldly advantages, one would never have become as bewildered and as joyless and as thoughtlessly cruel as he.
Here is Vance, all bewilderment, joylessness, and thoughtless cruelty caked over with some of the cheapest mythology on the market. He identifies with a copy-pasted Appalachiana: Hatfields and McCoys, the boisterous Scots-Irish spirit of loyalty, hardworking and hard-drinking and hard-fighting small-town folk with hearts of gold. We can see it on display in an epiphanic anecdote about his time as a Marine Corps press officer, when he delighted an Iraqi kid by giving him an eraser:
For my entire life, I’d harbored resentment at the world. I was mad at my mother and father, mad that I rode the bus to school while other kids caught rides with friends, mad that my clothes didn’t come from Abercrombie, mad that my grandfather died, mad that we lived in a small house. That resentment didn’t vanish in an instant, but as I stood and surveyed the mass of children of a war-torn nation, their school without running water, and the overjoyed boy, I began to appreciate how lucky I was: born in the greatest country on earth, every modern convenience at my fingertips, supported by two loving hillbillies, and part of a family that, for all its quirks, loved me unconditionally. At that moment, I resolved to be the type of man who would smile when someone gave him an eraser. I haven’t quite made it there, but without that day in Iraq, I wouldn’t be trying.
As Baldwin observed, when a white American sees the world as cowboys and Indians, dauntless American troops and pretty white girls (Vance writes that his sister is the most beautiful girl in the world, “just ahead of Demi Moore and Pam Anderson”), he inhibits himself from knowing anything about anyone else or, for that matter, himself: where he comes from, who he is, why he does the things he does. This self-inhibition is the unconscious message that Hillbilly Elegy communicates on every page, and it remains what Vance is all about. He is the senator from the unconscious, a voice in Washington for unprocessed trauma, psychic repression, and the monstrous outlets such potent forces can find.
In one of the more reflective passages of Hillbilly Elegy, near the end of the book, Vance narrates his discovery of the concept of “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) in the discourse of developmental psychology. He’s had a fight with his girlfriend, Usha, and, unwilling to sit through therapy, goes to the library instead to page through some books about mental health. “ACEs happen everywhere, in every community. But studies have shown that ACEs are far more common in my corner of the demographic world.” He gives an account of the debilitating toll of intense repetitive stresses on young people, invoking research from the pediatrics literature: the body and mind are evolved to respond in an urgent, fight-or-flight way when a bear attacks, but what if the bear is not a chance threat but routine, a drunk dad coming home every night? The stress response overfires, leaving a lasting burn scar on the psyche.
As Vance describes this discovery, the gap between childhood and maturity collapses. “For kids like me, the part of the brain that deals with stress and conflict is always activated — the switch flipped indefinitely. We are constantly ready to fight or flee.” Suddenly, without warning or even evident authorial intent, the author’s voice speaks not just about his childhood, but from it. The past tense he uses throughout the book to narrate his youth spills over into the present, and the Bildung plot that is central to the ideological work of Hillbilly Elegy, in which the man conquers the weaknesses of his childhood, crumples in on itself. The man blinks, and a boy looks out from his eyes. One is tempted, of course, to sympathize.
Everything about Vance announces the awkwardness of a kid working too hard to seem grown and impress the adults, a child trying on his dad’s suit. Vance is often mocked for his boyish face — one memorable tweet on election night compared him to a “computer generated image of what a kidnapped child looks like as an adult.” He seems self-conscious about his chubby cheeks and schoolboy hair, desperate to give himself a more rugged, seasoned aspect. (I understand, having grown my beard for similar reasons.) Trump himself, always so perceptive about the ugliest sides of the people he keeps close, praised Vance for his callow, hyperfilial willingness to prostrate himself before the Mar-a-Lago throne — no doubt an insight coming easily to the ex-President, whose own bottomless psychic needs are directed at the imaginary version of his notoriously chilly and authoritarian father. As Trump felicitously put it from the stage of a Vance rally, “J. D. is kissing my ass, he wants my support so bad.”
And Trump, as Vance’s great white father stand-in, shares with Vance an uneasy orientation toward his upbringing, a tendency to generalize the unhappiness of his own childhood into a theory of the world. One grew up in obscene wealth, a consummate New Yorker but not an urbane one; the other, a middle-class (or poor; he describes himself both ways) son of the small-town Midwest. Each sensed himself to be out of his rightful place, although pointing in opposite directions. Trump wanted in on Manhattan, a gilded future that he attained. Vance identified backward, with his grandparents’ roots in Kentucky, and understood the family’s presence in Ohio as a fall from grace.
Jim and Bonnie Vance, the all-important Papaw and Mamaw of Hillbilly Elegy, fled Kentucky after she got pregnant at age 13. That flight is Vance’s primal scene. “I’d like to tell you how my grandparents thrived in their new environment, how they raised a successful family, and how they retired comfortably middle-class. But that is a partial truth. The full truth is that my grandparents struggled in their new life, and they continued to do so for decades,” Vance writes. “Mamaw and Papaw may have made it out of Kentucky, but they and their children learned the hard way that Route 23 didn’t lead where they hoped.” In Ron Howard’s wretched Netflix adaptation of the book, the Vance character’s voice-over is blunter: over golden-hued scenes of a young woman running through the woods, riding in a red pickup with a young man, arriving in a bustling small town huddled under a massive steel mill, film-Vance narrates, “When I was a kid, I couldn’t make sense of it. Imagining Mamaw at almost my same age, just running, pregnant, from everything she knew, every scrap of family she had. It felt like I’d stumbled onto something, a puzzle piece, an answer to a question I’d barely begun to ask about our family — and what became of us.”
What did become of them? Vance would say that the pathologies of hillbilly culture bent but did not break them. Most importantly, Mamaw and Papaw stayed together, so they had the chance to make amends with their grandson for the harm they did to their daughter, Vance’s mom Bev — who lacked her parents’ self-discipline and could not stay off drugs or with any one man. Vance’s lever for understanding the world is to compare others against his grandparents and find them wanting — most of all his mother, whose cruelty to him as a child he attributes to her excessive pursuit of autonomy and desires of her own.
In the memoir’s first pages, Vance appraises two coworkers at a summer job he held at a tile warehouse. He pseudonymizes the man as Bob, and the woman does not get a name:
Bob was nineteen with a pregnant girlfriend. The manager kindly offered the girlfriend a clerical position answering phones. Both of them were terrible workers. The girlfriend missed about every third day of work and never gave advance notice. Though warned to change her habits repeatedly, the girlfriend lasted no more than a few months. Bob missed work about once a week, and he was chronically late. On top of that, he often took three or four daily bathroom breaks, each over half an hour. . . . Eventually, Bob, too, was fired. When it happened, he lashed out at his manager: “How could you do this to me? Don’t you know I’ve got a pregnant girlfriend?”
This is the first opportunity Vance finds to engage in social analysis. Does he realize, when introducing Bob and his nameless girlfriend, that these two appear to be in quite a similar boat to Mamaw and Papaw back in the 1940s? Is this a canny parallel meant to contrast alike people in unalike situations? Or is it an unconscious expression of something else?
Now, Vance says, perhaps half-aware of this comparison, you might think that the difference has to do with the kinds of jobs available then and now. Papaw was a union steelworker at Armco; it’s only natural that people would work less hard if forced into worse jobs — say, at warehouses — by deindustrialization. He entertains this possibility for a moment before he changes the subject. “I worry about these things too. But this book is about something else: what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. . . . There is a lack of agency here — a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself. This is distinct from the larger economic landscape of modern America.”
Vance has done something inhuman in making a grand career out of this betrayal, staging a matricidal melodrama in which he can play the burdened, faithful son.Tweet
Vance knows — must know at some level — that Mamaw and Papaw were Bob and his girlfriend. In their younger years, Papaw drank, stayed out, perhaps ran around on Mamaw; Vance calls their marriage “violent.” Eventually, Vance says, they got their act together, making up to their grown children and young grandchildren for their failures as young parents — but not in time to stop the repetition of the cycle. “The statistics caught up with the Vance family, and Bev (my mom) didn’t fare so well. Like her siblings, she left home early. She was a promising student, but when she got pregnant at eighteen, she decided college had to wait. After high school, she married her boyfriend and tried to settle down.” But, he mourns, “settling down wasn’t quite her thing: She had learned the lessons of her childhood all too well. When her new life developed the same fighting and drama so present in her old one, Mom filed for divorce and began life as a single mother.”
The guardianship provided by Papaw and especially Mamaw in Vance’s difficult childhood is one of the central themes of Hillbilly Elegy, and the grandparent-grandchild relationship provides almost every one of the book’s genuinely moving moments not wholly contaminated by Vance’s incipient politics. Whatever kernel of humanity endures in Vance is found in his refusal to blame Mamaw and Papaw for the intergenerational traumas of his family — a refusal to see them as harshly as he sees Bob and his girlfriend, or as he sees his mother, or as he sees working-class people in general. Vance’s explicit argument is that hillbilly culture, damaged fatally by lack of personal discipline, lowers expectations for children and thereby causes the intergenerational transmission of poverty. If we accept this argument — which we should not — it unavoidably implicates Mamaw and Papaw in Vance’s own childhood trauma and his mother’s. Although Vance has summoned this implication, the book is devoted to denying it. The grandparents who cared for him thus form an anomaly in his worldview, one that all his energies are committed to reconciling with his larger program of doling out fault.
Vance is of course right not to blame his grandparents for what happened to them, or for what followed in their wake across the 20th century and into this one. But this singular ideological inconsistency is symptomatic. His mother and his grandmother were caught up in iterations of the same social process — the brutal reneging on the postwar promise to the US working class — and treated their own children in similar ways. The only real difference is that one of those children was him.
But before anything else, Hillbilly Elegy is committed to the ethic of culpability. Guilt must be established. Vance acknowledges that his mother’s upbringing must in some sense be at fault for how she treated him. The “constant fighting and alcoholism must have taken its toll on her,” he writes. “Mom is no villain.” But this acknowledgment is not allowed to mean anything for the larger argument. He cannot get to the end of the paragraph without reassessing. “But Mom deserves much of the blame. No person’s childhood gives him or her a perpetual moral get-out-of-jail-free card.” When she struggles with addiction and points to genetic propensity as an explanation, he resists. She’s probably right, he concedes, but what’s more important is that she not believe such self-indulgent excuses: “Mom was telling herself the truth, but the truth was not setting her free.” Genetics, or morals: Vance can only find fault with the individual, never the society. In an account of his conversion to Catholicism written several years later, he writes, “I felt desperate for a worldview that understood our bad behavior as simultaneously social and individual, structural and moral; that recognized that we are products of our environment; that we have a responsibility to change that environment, but that we are still moral beings with individual duties.” This is well and good but describes a question rather than asking one, much less answering it: What is the relationship between the social and the individual, the structural and the moral? Which is more important? Both are more important, Vance answers.
This rhetorical template repeats throughout the book, almost compulsively: a superficial gesture toward the structural or supra-individual causes of intergenerational trauma — and then an undefended dismissal of their relevance. “The reasons poor people aren’t working as much as others are complicated, and it’s too easy to blame the problem on laziness. For many, part-time work is all they have access to, because the Armcos of the world are going out of business and their skill sets don’t fit well in the modern economy. But whatever the reasons, the rhetoric of hard work conflicts with the reality on the ground.” Whatever the reasons — always a sign of a cogent argument.
In fact, the accounts Vance gives of working-class life in 20th-century Middletown are unsurprisingly just like those that can be found in the social history of any industrial community, but no matter. By exceptionalizing his origins, he exceptionalizes himself. By exceptionalizing himself, he authorizes his own separation from the working class around him, and ultimately his betrayal of the very principle of class solidarity in which his grandmother instructed him. Mamaw, he writes early in the first chapter, “loathed disloyalty, and there was no greater disloyalty than class betrayal.” This genuine nugget of working-class wisdom, seemingly imagined as epigrammatic for the memoir, proves indigestible for Vance; he retches it up again and again across the pages of the book.
To indict the literary and political failings of Hillbilly Elegy requires little further effort — numerous critics have done so effectively, including many from Appalachia. Vance is a liar and a creep with a talent for bringing out the worst in people. It is the psychic structure of this talent that presents the more live concern. What is remarkable about Vance, after all, is not that he failed to learn Mamaw’s lesson about solidarity. Misunderstanding the wisdom of elders and violating their ethical injunctions only makes him human. But Vance has done something inhuman in making a grand career out of this betrayal, staging a matricidal melodrama in which he can play the burdened, faithful son. The book and indeed his whole career form a spectacular act of revenge in the guise of a loving tribute, an operatic performance of disloyalty not just to his mother about whom he voices his ambivalence, but to his grandmother about whom he stifles it, and most of all to the class they are meant to represent. It bespeaks the intellectual and political barrenness of elite liberalism that so many people and institutions — the agent and publisher who got him in print, the Yale faculty who advanced his career, the journalists at outlets like Vox and the New York Times who reviewed him favorably, the politicians like Hillary Clinton who praised his work — failed to see what he was doing straightaway.
I met Vance once or twice in the early 2010s. We overlapped at Yale while I was doing my PhD there. I had been friends with Usha Chilukuri, now his wife, before they met. (We have had no contact since 2012 or so, although we remain Facebook friends.) I did not of course see in him the monstrous sociopath he turned out to be, but even in our couple of passing encounters I could recognize him as a bullshitter, eager to ingratiate himself to wealthy liberals who couldn’t see his disingenuity. If you spend enough time at elite universities, you should be able to recognize this as a type: conservative white men from outside the WASP elite who have figured out how to present themselves as persecuted minorities and be rewarded for it. Although Vance no doubt did feel out of place at Yale, elite universities love promising young conservative men like him. Institutions often seek them out and do them favors: doing so makes faculty and administrators feel broad-minded.
More to the point, almost everyone feels out of place at Yale somehow — thousands of students, but most significantly, tens of thousands of Black and brown and working-class New Haven residents and university staff who experience the institution as their boss, or as the gentrifier of their neighborhood, or as the employer of the cop who harassed their kid, or as the collector of their medical debt. Just as Hillbilly Elegy presents the social disruptions that characterize working-class life everywhere as unique to the special subculture out of which Vance arose, Vance interpreted an institution that gave rise to the CIA and the Bush family, which holds the looted bones of Indigenous heroes and employs the country’s oldest university police force to maintain its segregated frontiers, as uniquely cruel to him.
Vance believes his discomfort at Yale embodies a faithfulness to his origins, but he’s got it backward. Encountering new authority, Vance’s every move aims to comply and conform. He guns for a fancy clerkship, is talked out of it by his mentor Amy Chua, then the next year pursues another one. “I did decide that I wanted to clerk. But instead of walking into the process blindly, I came to know what I wanted out of the experience. . . . This is just one version of how the world of successful people actually works. But social capital is all around us. Those who tap into it and use it prosper.” Vance thinks he’s alienated at Yale initially because he hasn’t met the right people yet, or learned the right wine to order or fork to use. But then Chua and Chilukuri teach him his Ps and Qs — problem solved.
To underscore Vance’s outsider status, the film version of Hillbilly Elegy has him work a job at a Yale dining hall — a departure from the book, and a particularly ironic one. I’ve never heard of a Yale law student working university food service; in general, the cafeterias are staffed by members of UNITE HERE Local 35, a powerful, largely Black union with some of the best standards for food service workers found anywhere in the country. The union’s first affiliation, after it formed in the 1940s, was to Appalachia’s own United Mine Workers of America. It betrays the elemental racism of Vance’s worldview that, feeling alienated at an elite university, he could not recognize how much he was still at home, how much New Haven — a community also devastated by deindustrialization — is just like Middletown.
It is not so implausible. Thousands of Yale students of all backgrounds over the years have achieved just this recognition, and sought out opportunities to explore what they have in common with the community around them. In the years I spent in New Haven, I knocked on thousands of doors across that unequal city, alongside innumerable other activists — custodians, waiters, students, academics, unemployed people; there were even some transplanted Appalachians in this group. I can say with certainty that some such activist knocked on Vance’s own door in the years he was in New Haven, seeking to talk about health care access, unions and local hiring, taxes, housing, schools, or policing with him. Yet in the familiar issues that an upbringing in the Rust Belt might have prepared him to think about — who gets good jobs and who is forced to the margins, what should be the tax burden of the rich, who enjoys access to medicine and who is denied — we may presume that he would have heard something alien rather than familiar, and would have seen threat rather than friendship.
Among the campaigns in which I was involved in New Haven was a brief effort to organize around predatory practices in the structured settlement industry — a branch of bottom-feeding finance close to payday lending, an industry that Vance defends in Hillbilly Elegy as the only option for cash-strapped folks like his young self. Structured settlement purchasing had attracted activist attention because the Yale endowment held a large ownership position in J.G. Wentworth, a company you might know from its once-ubiquitous jingle: “I have a structured settlement and I need cash now / call J.G. Wentworth, 877-CASH-NOW.” In a case like medical malpractice or lead poisoning of a child, a court might order the ensuing settlement to take the form of an annuity rather than a lump sum, to ensure the financial future of the claimant — a “structured settlement.”
Firms like J.G. Wentworth then approach these settlement beneficiaries, often giving them the hard sell repeatedly over months and years, to offload future installments in return for immediate cash — often at pennies on the dollar. Before Baltimore police killed Freddie Gray in 2015, he and his siblings had sold their $280,000 lead poisoning settlement for a present cash value of $54,000. Sometimes, various subsidiaries of the same firm will make different offers to generate a false sense of the comparative quality of the best offer. Even the name J.G. Wentworth is counterfeit, a fake name presumably chosen to evoke a respectable WASP banker.
Vance’s form of far-right politics is so ominous because it responds in a primal, perverted way to something actual.Tweet
Because such purchases have to be approved by a court (typically somewhat pro forma), there exists a public record of names, addresses, and amounts. From this, it was possible to go knock on doors. The canvassing route was a tour of economic immiseration in Connecticut: the neighborhoods of Black and Puerto Rican New Haven and Bridgeport suffering from the classic patterns of urban segregation and disinvestment, but also the miniature Rust Belt of the Naugatuck Valley, where old brass mill towns like Waterbury could easily pass for Steubenville or Lorain — or, I suspect, Middletown. Some people we visited were suspicious, even furious, that we knew what had happened to them. Others were desperate to talk. Once, in Bridgeport, we didn’t find our target, but the young guys hanging out on the stoop offered to take my number, knowing that she would want to talk to us. She called back the next day. It’s the only time I’ve ever experienced anything like that in canvassing.
It is easy to tell a story about deindustrialization — as most of our politicians of both parties have for the past generation — that presents it as another episode in a perennial sequence of economic development. The old is traded out for the new once again. Those who can’t keep pace by acquiring new skills or transplanting themselves to a new place get abandoned — a tragedy, to be sure. But this is how capitalism works and its casualties are worth it. In more recent discontented times, a rival narrative responds that this was not a necessary outcome but a globalist conspiracy, resulting not from any inner logic of capital but from the corrupt decisions of politicians and financiers; if not for them, everything might have stayed the same. In the course of Vance’s brief public life, he has swung from the first of these positions (the neoliberal) to the second (the populist-conspiracist).
Seemingly opposed to each other, both accounts share a disinclination to assign, or even imagine, any active role for the working-class people who bear the consequences of abandonment. Either they are self-sabotaging social detritus or passive victims of the elite. What they are not, in any way, is capable of making sense of their historical situation and exerting agency upon it — a concept unintelligible to Vance, who in his conversion narrative describes the “economic left” as a coldly compassionate Mandarinate:
The left’s intellectuals focused much more on the structural and external problems facing families like mine — the difficulty in finding jobs and the lack of funding for certain types of resources. And while I agreed that more resources were often necessary, there seemed to me a sense in which our most destructive behaviors persisted — even flourished — in times of material comfort . The economic left was often more compassionate, but theirs was a kind of compassion — devoid of any expectation — that reeked of giving up . A compassion that assumes a person is disadvantaged to the point of hopelessness is like sympathy for a zoo animal, and I had no use for it .
In the space of three sentences, Vance first describes the behaviors of his own family and friends as pathological learned helplessness; these are behaviors that he himself has put on public display in return for fame and fortune. Next he describes the left, the movement that ascribes to the working class the power to change the world, as akin to zoogoers. To call this maneuver projection would be a polite understatement. Nevertheless, it illustrates how Vance is committed psychically to not seeing the third possible position in relation to the cruel power of capital: the inner logic of capital is implacable and punishing, but it can be made sense of and resisted if its agents are specified and comprehended as bearers of larger structures rather than malevolent shadow creatures. Such an act of comprehension is possible because capitalism forces proletarians to depend upon each other and therefore develop capacities beyond and against the violence of capital — capacities for solidarity, courage, and understanding. These are the working-class virtues. They have been modeled for Vance more than once, but he always mistakes and eventually reviles them.
Discarded, poisoned, plundered, policed, and punished, working-class people responded to the afflictions of both industrial work and industrial job loss by weaving a collective life and holding each other tight. Many of these everyday solidarities persist into the present. I’ll try to pick up extra shifts if you can get the kids from school on Thursdays and Fridays. I have to get back sooner in the evenings this month to check on my dad, can I catch a ride with you those nights after work? The boss is saying I took money out of the register but I would never do that — will you back me up? I need this job to support my family back home who helped me come to this country. Across much of the Rust Belt in particular, an aging, ailing population began to rely more heavily on the health-care system, and the daughters of steelworkers got jobs as nurses. Even if the mill doesn’t call you back to work, we don’t have to move — who would watch our parents? Let’s stay — I’ll find something, maybe the hospital.
Vance himself was of course a beneficiary of such practices, many times over. At a narrative level, they form a central thread of his book, although he recognizes only timeless clannish loyalty there, not class solidarity. Repeatedly, we see him prioritize this crabbed, misshapen interpretation against a more sympathetic reality — not just in his relationship with Mamaw, but even with his mother, who followed the classic path of women in deindustrialized steel towns and became a nurse.
When Vance gets sick in college, his mom drives to Columbus to take him to the emergency room. “She wasn’t perfect, she wasn’t even a practicing nurse, but she took it as a point of pride to supervise every interaction we had with the health care system. She asked the right questions, got annoyed with doctors when they didn’t answer directly, and made sure I had what I needed,” he writes, allowing himself a moment of appreciation. He is released to her after two days in the hospital, and she brings him home to Middletown to recover. But Vance does not want to stay, and he struggles with this emotionally.
I never explained to Mom that no matter how nice and caring she was at any given time — and while I had mono, she couldn’t have been a better mother — I just felt uncomfortable around her. . . . To this day, I often wonder whether, if I’d had the courage as an adult that I’d had as a child, Mom might have gotten better. Addicts are at their weakest during emotionally trying times, and I knew that I had the power to save her from at least some bouts of sadness. But I couldn’t do it any longer.
Vance did not get the care that he needed when he was young — and this, he thinks, is what’s wrong with the country. His non-explanations for both personal and social problems are, in the end, those of a child: Why did the mean person do the bad thing? Although there is a vulnerability buried somewhere deep and soft here — who can begrudge him some ambivalence about his mother? — he has armored that innermost wound in impenetrable layers of meanness. Whatever else changes in his public commitments, the ethic of culpability persists. He represents the poisonous idea that the very real traumas suffered by the American working class over the past two generations are without structural cause and therefore can be overcome by willpower and self-discipline; that those who fail to do so have themselves, or otherwise malicious phantasms, to blame.
In this sense, Vance’s form of far-right politics is so ominous because it responds in a primal, perverted way to something actual. We are caught under a heap of wreckage, an accumulation of social and historical trauma that we are largely without means of getting out of. Millions are dead, and millions more permanently sick, from a pandemic that everyone now pretends didn’t happen, and even more vigorously pretends is not still happening. This massive new collective burden was piled on a society already stumbling under the weight of organized abandonment, environmental racism, for-profit health care, and mass incarceration. Vance, in the end, cannot abide the idea that what he suffered has to do with any of that disabling stuff. He will torture the rest of us until we agree to make him President to prove that there is nothing wrong with him. “Remembering,” as Freud says, “gives way to acting out . . . the patient brings out of the armoury of the past the weapons with which he defends himself.” First Vance tried to remember — this was the book. But there was a market for his memories, an audience that wanted to hear that the poor are to blame. Having a poor person to blame ready to hand — his mother — he supplied this market, but it warped his account of himself. The remembrance succeeded commercially, but failed utterly to access any real truth. So he went looking for weapons, and now he posts pictures online of himself pointing machine guns at the sky.
But self-protective misanthropy is not the only possible response. Vance’s ACEs are a real impairment, and disability in its broadest sense is a universal experience. This is not only because everyone will experience impairment and require care in the course of a life, although this is certainly true. It is also because our society doles out impairment and trauma with wanton abandon, fashioning disability into one of the primary forms of appearance of race and class. In this capacity, disability can produce not just evasion and cruelty, as Vance’s adverse childhood experiences and resulting apparent PTSD did, but also solidarity.
We might, for example, compare Vance to his senatorial neighbor and fellow steel-town politician John Fetterman. Fetterman, whose 2022 campaign was widely believed to be finished after a stroke impaired his ability to speak, instead stirred widespread empathy in Pennsylvania, another Rust Belt state that’s taken a bad beating. Pennsylvanian Paula DeCarlo, a former teacher and flight attendant who quit her job after a cancer diagnosis, told the New York Times that for her, Fetterman represented the idea that “we need help.”
Who, elsewhere, will confront the rising tide of right-wing authoritarian politics? In the political center, liberals will fret about the cruelty of the right, but their response on the most visceral questions is deferential: abandon pandemic measures, put more cops on the beat, clear the homeless from the streets, give refugees the boot. No, the alternative must come from elsewhere, and here we can learn from Vance. For it is precisely his agonized relationship to the care he did not receive, and the resulting trauma that he did not process, that indicates an alternative site of power in everyday life: the thing that he does not know and cannot admit he wants.
In Chicago, my corner of the Rust Belt, the relationship between trauma and politics moved to the center of public life just as I was finishing this essay during the spring. After ousting incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot in the first round, teachers’ union activist and county commissioner Brandon Johnson won the mayoral race against Paul Vallas, a white bureaucrat who has spent his career privatizing urban school systems and ran as the champion of the Fraternal Order of Police and its wished-for crackdown on Black and brown Chicago.
Johnson, a Black former teacher who entered politics through a hunger strike against Rahm Emanuel’s infamous school closures, is an unabashed champion of rebuilding the public sector, particularly in the city’s abandoned South and West Sides. He embodies the increasing concern of the Chicago Teachers Union with social questions beyond its narrow economic remit. Johnson is charismatic, but his style is gentle, even a little bit corny, and he punctuated campaign speeches with formulations like, “Can we do that together, you all? I know we can.” It’s easy to imagine him in front of a middle-school classroom. The emotional core of Johnson’s campaign was the loss — likely to overdose — of his brother, Leon, who was unhoused and addicted. “Treatment not trauma,” Johnson’s slogan, calls for reopening the city’s shuttered mental health clinics rather than pouring more money into the police department. “I lost my mother to a lack of health insurance, and my brother to a lack of mental health care and treatment. I am like many Chicagoans, having suffered trauma from an unjust system,” says Johnson. “But a better life is possible, and it’s coming.”
In coalitional terms, Johnson cracked a code that has frustrated the left for the past decade, joining a united, cross-class Black electorate on the South and West Sides with the largely white activist left on the North Side. In this, he had the advantage of a confrontation that disclosed its moment’s deepest contradictions in such pure form. Multiracial city against white suburb, teacher against superintendent, labor against management, Chicago Teachers Union against Fraternal Order of Police — or as Johnson poses it, treatment against trauma. Another, more structural way to see it was as a confrontation between the welfare state and the carceral state: deindustrialization stimulated more care and more punishment at the same time, until each became a possible model for the larger society, and a template for the kinds of lives that can be lived within it. Eventually, each of us has to decide.
We also voted for district-level civilian police oversight councils for the first time. A few weeks before the election, I got a leaflet through my door from a candidate named Coston Plummer. Although he lost narrowly on February 28, Plummer saw the choice on offer in places like Chicago — like Middletown, like New Haven — that Vance could not, and his leaflet narrated this recognition. Here is what it said:
My name is Coston Plummer and I was born and raised on the south side of Chicago. I’m a husband of twelve years and a father of five beautiful children. I have two boys and three girls. I currently live in the Washington Park community and have done so for the past seven years. Let me say that I love my community very much. I’m a proud home care worker and I have been doing that job since 2008. I absolutely love to take care of our seniors and people with disabilities because they are our most vulnerable citizens in this city. I’m a proud SEIU member leader and I’m also a proud UWF [United Working Families] member leader too. My Union is how I got involved in fighting for the most vulnerable and standing up to the powers that be. Through UWF is when I went back to my community to fight for the working class and the many. I have been directly impacted by police misconduct . My brother Johnny Plummer at the age of fifteen was tortured at the Area 3 Police Headquarters by detectives working under the supervision of the notorious former Commander Jon Burge for thirty-nine hours until he signed a confession. I have always promised myself that if I was ever in a position to help bring positive change to my community that I would fight tooth and nail for it . I’m also very big for fighting for better mental health and homeless for my community. I’m not going to say to my community that I have the answers to how our community should be policed and what policing should look like because I would be lying. But I know my community will have many ideals and I would love to hear them so we could put those ideals into action. That’s why I decided to run for 2nd Police District Counsel because I want to hold bad police officers accountable and to make sure we as a community are at the head of the table when any decisions are being made that will affect us. I want to work for my community and allow them to set the agenda of what needs to be done because this is not about me but everything about my community in the 2nd Police District . If you would have me as your District Counsel I promise I will give everything I have when representing my community. I will fight for what my community wants me to fight for. Because in the end I work for community and no one else.