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Must We Now Hate ‘Hillbilly Elegy’?

Flawed movie lacks depth and complexity of J.D. Vance memoir, but critics' knives seem sharpened by anti-Deplorable politics
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Here’s a really punchy interview with Batya Ungar-Sargon, op-ed editor of the liberal-leaning Jewish newspaper The Forward, on the meaning of contemporary liberalism. Ungar-Sargon says that Covid has exposed a class divide:

There’s a huge Covid class divide. The economy has not just bounded back for upper income Americans; it’s given them higher housing values and lower interest rates. Meanwhile, 12 million service industry workers are still out of work. Small businesses are struggling. The affluent see Covid as a health problem, while for the working class it’s about economic survival. And liberals are doing the same thing they did with Trump: Clothing their class privilege as science and facts and morality.

The politicians are even worse. Instead of coming up with a clean Covid bill, Democrats are now trying to pressure Biden into student loan forgiveness. Can you believe it? What kind of society thinks it’s ok to ask 12 million people who lost their jobs to Covid to foot the bill for the student loans of the top 40% of earners? Sure, maybe it will accidentally help someone in a food line who dropped out of college. But college-educated Americans are back at work. The Covid recession is over for them. Why are the Democrats designing legislation to help the people who need it least, in the belief that some of the benefits might trickle down to help those who need it most?

In this passage, she expands on her claim that so much of Trump-hatred is really well-to-do white liberals hating the lower classes, and wishing to think themselves virtuous for it.:

In other words, digital media met an affluent liberal audience desperate to be told that the people they looked down on were evil racists and that we live in a white supremacy. So the New York Times, Vox, MSNBC, and CNN gave them what they wanted. And media companies went from being broke to making bank.

All of this gets to your really smart point about the Democrats, who are supposed to be the party of the people. There was a time when Democrats represented labor, while the Republicans were all about the rich. We’ve seen a reversal of that under Trump. Trump’s economic agenda was protectionist in nature, and very much geared at the working class. (Like many Scandinavian countries, he coupled this with a big corporate tax cut early on.) Meanwhile the Democrats have doubled down on a thirty-year trajectory of going all in on college-educated voters.

After decades of consensus between the two parties about a free market global economy that serves the top 20%, Trump represented the return of the repressed. And there’s nothing elites hate as much as having the masses impose their will. So much of the hatred of Trump is about class. We in the upper classes hate his infantile vocabulary, his needless lies, his gross, undignified brawling, his ignorant conspiracy theorizing. I hate that stuff, too. But a lot of it—not all of it, but a lot of it—is not about morality.

Trump made four or five racist statements throughout his presidency, and about the same number of antisemitic ones. The rest of the opposition to him wasn’t about values at all. It was about taste. Trump is gross. That spray tan, that hair, the golden toilet, the vainglorious pettiness: He didn’t fit with the vision upper class people have of a leader. But we in the media clothed our taste-based objection to Trump, which is of course a stand in for class, in terms of values: He’s anti-truth; he’s racist; he’s a Nazi.

That’s how you end up with an MSNBC host worth $25 million looking down her nose at a person without a college degree and sneering, “You voted for Trump? You racist!” and feeling like a hero.

Read it all. It’s really hot. I remind you that Ungar-Sargon is a liberal.

Gotta say that Ungar-Sargon’s point in that last passage explains to my satisfaction the overwhelmingly negative critical response to Ron Howard’s film of J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy. The movie debuts on Tuesday on Netflix, but I was able to see it early, on Sunday night, along with my daughter, who also read and loved the book.

Critics have absolutely savaged the movie. As an early champion of the book, and a personal friend of J.D. Vance’s, I hate to see that. True, having been a professional film critic for years, I know that film critics are strongly to the Left in their politics. But judging from the reviews, I could sense that Howard stripped the story of the political insights Vance brought out in his memoir.  Maybe the movie really is bad, I thought, and worried about watching it.

Well, I finally did, and it’s much better than the critics say. Much, though I confess that I doubt I can separate my affection for the book and for J.D. Vance entirely from my opinion. I turned to my wife a couple of times during the movie and told her that the distance between the movie we were watching and the movie that the reviews told me we were going to watch was massive.

The performances are quite good. The script is the problem. It jumps back and forth in time, breaking storytelling rhythm, and at times confusing the viewer. Character development is seriously underdone. For example, my daughter and I were shocked when Mamaw’s death was treated almost in passing. I realized today, thinking about it, that I fell in love with J.D.’s Mamaw reading the book, but you don’t really sense in the film version why J.D. hero-worshipped that tough old bird. I can understand why Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor decided to blunt the cultural politics implicit in Vance’s memoir (for audience accessibility), but it was a mistake. Without it, you really don’t get a sense of why the book — which sold in the millions — was a pop culture phenomenon. Vance presented the white working class from which he came as both culturally disadvantaged and hard-pressed by structural economic shifts that closed down factories and mills, but also self-sabotaging, as the same cussedness that helped them survive also caused many of them to undermine themselves. Vance wrote an emotionally and culturally complex book, but the film version is simple rags-to-riches melodrama (though with fine performances, especially Glenn Close as Mamaw).

Having said all that, it’s still a pretty good movie, definitely worth watching. Having seen Hillbilly Elegy, and having spent the day thinking about it, I remain genuinely surprised by how much hatred the film has drawn from critics. I can’t read their minds, obviously, but I can’t shake the belief that they are venting their hatred of Donald Trump at the Hillbilly Elegy movie. J.D. Vance’s book came out months before the 2016 election, and though Vance, a Republican, was clear in his publicity interviews that he was not a Donald Trump supporter, he was also insistent that Trump spoke to and for people like the folks back home: those who had been left behind. Here’s what he told NPR’s Terry Gross in August 2016:

A lot of people in my family are going to be voting for Trump, a lot of my neighbors and friends from back home. So it’s definitely a phenomenon I, I think, recognize and frankly saw coming pretty early. You know, it’s interesting that I don’t think the Trump phenomenon is exclusively about the white poor.

I think that it’s more about the white working-class folks who aren’t necessarily economically destitute but in some ways feel very culturally isolated and very pessimistic about the future. That’s one of the biggest predictors of whether someone will support Donald Trump – it may be the biggest predictor – is the belief that America is headed in the wrong direction, the belief that your kids are not going to have a better life than you did.

And that cynicism really breeds frustration at political elites, but, frankly, that frustration needs to find a better outlet than Donald Trump. And that’s why I’ve made some of the analogies that I have because I don’t think that he’s going to make the problem better. I think, like you said, he is in some ways a pain reliever. He’s someone who makes people feel a little bit better about their problems. But whether he’s elected president or not, those problems are still going to be there, and we’ve got to recognize that.

Three months later, Donald Trump was elected president. Back then, some people in the liberal elite said that the Left needed to spend more time and effort trying to understand the white working class. Well, we had four years of Trump, and now those same people want to return to hating the white working class, with whom they associate Trump. That, I’m convinced, explains some of the vehemence with which critics are reacting to this film — even though Trump’s name never comes up, and the filmmakers excised the politics to make it a middle-of-the-road drama.

I do wish Howard had been willing to take the chances that Vance did in his narrative. Here’s something from the book:

Why didn’t our neighbor leave that abusive man? Why did she spend her money on drugs? Why couldn’t she see that her behavior was destroying her daughter? Why were all of these things happening not just to our neighbor but to my mom? It would be years before I learned that no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems of hillbillies in modern America. Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith. During my junior year of high school, our neighbor Pattie called her landlord to report a leaky roof. The landlord arrived and found Pattie topless, stoned, and unconscious on her living room couch. Upstairs the bathtub was overflowing — hence, the leaking roof. Pattie had apparently drawn herself a bath, taken a few prescription painkillers, and passed out. The top floor of her home and many of her family’s possessions were ruined. This is the reality of our community. It’s about a naked druggie destroying what little of value exists in her life. It’s about children who lose their toys and clothes to a mother’s addiction.

This was my world: a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. Thrift is inimical to our being. We spend to pretend that we’re upper class. And when the dust clears — when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our stupidity — there’s nothing left over. Nothing for the kids’ college tuition, no investment to grow our wealth, no rainy-day fund if someone loses her job. We know we shouldn’t spend like this. Sometimes we beat ourselves up over it, but we do it anyway.


Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other like we’re spectators at a football game. At least one member of the family uses drugs — sometimes the father, sometimes both. At especially stressful times, we’ll hit and punch each other, all in front of the rest of the family, including young children; much of the time, the neighbors hear what’s happening. A bad day is when the neighbors call the police to stop the drama. Our kids go to foster care but never stay for long. We apologize to our kids. The kids believe we’re really sorry, and we are. But then we act just as mean a few days later.

This is the kind of thing that made some left-wing critics furious after the book became popular. Vance dared to hold his own people in part responsible for their fate, by passing on violence and chaos to their kids. In the book, J.D.’s Mamaw, for all her rough edges, took the boy under her wing and away from his drug-addicted, much-married mother, and sheltered him, and nurtured him, until he could get out. When J.D. gets to the Marines, he learns how much farther a man can go if he has structure and discipline in his life. It’s a really interesting story, painfully honest, but hopeful. Unfortunately, Howard took all of the difficult and potent (culturally and politically) stuff out to make it more conventional. (N.B., I’m quoted in a Hollywood Reporter story about the movie and its politics.)

So yeah, it’s a flawed movie, and I understand much of the criticism, even share it. There just seems to be a lot of anger that can’t be explained by the merits or demerits of the movie itself (e.g., a critic for The Independent, a leftist British newspaper, called it “sickeningly irresponsible,” which is just beyond bonkers). And I think it’s class hatred, and maybe even resentment that four years ago, J.D. Vance made them consider that these poor white people might be human beings worthy of their concern, not mere Deplorables.

I’ll leave you with this interesting letter I received today. You newer readers won’t know this, and maybe you older readers have forgotten, but Hillbilly Elegy rocketed to success after a July 22, 2016, TAC interview I did with J.D. for this blog went viral, and suddenly all the media were inviting him on to talk about it. (Funny story: I chose the photo that illustrated the interview because it was the only one I could find at the time that was a good portrait of a Trump rallygoer. I found out later that the woman in the shot is a wealthy Florida donor!) The reason I did the interview was because a week earlier, a liberal reader of this blog said that I should read this new book, Hillbilly Elegy, because I would really enjoy it. She bought me a Kindle copy, and I devoured it on a flight to Boston. I remember sitting in my hotel bed trying to find the author on social media to ask for an interview. The rest is history.

Today I received this letter from that reader:

I know you get inundated and if you missed this excellent piece by Damon Linker I want to call it to your attention.  In all of the writing about how Trump keeps his hold on his followers, nobody has found a better explanation in my opinion than this: Trump is a demonic force in America.

We have lost the cultural ability to recognize and describe wickedness.   Even those who are repelled and offended by him can’t look away.
As you may remember, one year ago my husband and I moved from Seattle to a small city in eastern Washington–which is deeply red and deeply, deeply resentful of Seattle and the “liberal” state government in Olympia.
Living here has really changed my perspective about conservatives.    I have, for the first time in 30 years, voted for Republicans–both at the local and state legislative levels.  Washington had a ballot measure proposing to repeal a new state requirement for “age appropriate sex education instruction” in public schools.  You know what? I am all in favor of it for my own kids, but I voted against it, recognizing that there is NO NEED to needlessly antagonize people who think differently than I do about this matter.  I mean, of all of the important things that the state could be working on–fixing roads and bridges, finding ways to finance health care, etc.–they poke the bear with this kind of thing.  This is why Democrats can’t win in conservative areas–it’s the kind of intrusion into people’s personal lives that they get so angry about when it concerns access to birth control or the right to marry a partner of the same sex.
I wish more liberals would move to the country–rural people do tend to move to cities because that’s where the opportunities are–but there’s very little flow in the opposite direction, and that is unhealthy.  It creates a sense of being “less than”, not listened to, and exclusion on the part of good people who have been born, raised and who live in rural areas.  Living here has opened my eyes and made me see their concerns. Trump doesn’t give a rip about them and has no clue about their concerns, but he has an almost supernatural ability to stir up their feelings of resentment and then lies to them and feeds their worst emotions–just like the Prince of Lies.
This is the same reader who, four years ago, read Hillbilly Elegy, was so moved by it that she shared it with a conservative blogger (me), who also loved it, then reached out to ask its author for an interview, which went viral, and boom, millions of books later, there’s a Hollywood movie. Now she and her husband, urban liberals, are living in the conservative countryside, and starting to see the conservatives’ point of view, even though they remain liberal. 
I guess now it’s okay, and even obligatory, for coastal liberals to hate rural white Deplorables again. Damn shame. Anyway, I hope you give the Hillbilly Elegy movie a shot. This movie is going to do far, far better with audiences than with critics.
UPDATE: A reader writes:

I read Hillbilly Elegy after you recommended it here. I read it one sitting and then had a good cry at the end, it reminded me so much of my own Childhood Among the Deplorables (though here in Canada).

The movie looks terrible but I’m sure you’re right about the backlash from the smart set. The unleashing of class hatred across North America in the wake of Trump’s election has shocked even a cynic like me. My wife and I, who both work in very left-leaning industries, have learned the hard way that, although we often agree on many points with our friends and coworkers, any deviation from the Woke Party line can get you labelled a bigot and lead to real-life financial and social costs. (Every one of those people we censor ourselves around would also go apoplectic if we pointed this out to them.) They all KNOW, in the goodness of their educated, middle-class hearts, the root causes of all suffering in this world: bigoted white folks. There is no point trying to have a reasonable discussion with them; their eyes go kind of glassy and they act as if you’ve peed on the table cloth in front of them.

Just today I was talking to the crossing guard at my son’s school after the kids had gone inside. She was telling me how she’s had to keep her great-grandson at home during the COVID crisis (schools have reopened here) because the extra care he normally gets is not available. She explained that the boy, who is eleven, came into her care when shortly after he was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and abandoned by her granddaughter. She is in her late sixties and working as a crossing guard while raising this boy, who has severe behaviour issues. And yet if one of our Woke friends were to hear this they would think (without admitting it to themselves) that although the boy is innocent, surely his mother made some mistake in life that brought this suffering down upon her and her son and the boy’s great-grandmother, a judgment they’d never make if the boy was non-white. It’s sickening.

Another one:

I got up early this morning and watched the movie. After first reading the review in The Atlantic – headline “Hillbilly Elegy is One of the Worst Movies of the Year” – I found myself stunned by how GOOD it is. Wonderful performances, beautifully filmed, and deeply moving… It’s true that the film is stripped of the book’s politics – that seems to be a general complaint – but it still manages to tell an affecting and engrossing story about real people, while also making significant social commentary. Why isn’t this enough? I loved the movie and I’m furious with the critics for getting it so wrong.