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Lessons for Democrats from ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ 

Cuts in funding for health care, health-insurance coverage, and nurse-training programs. For infrastructure improvements. For job training and job creation. For home heating assistance, housing assistance, cancer research, college-tuition aid for low-income students.

This is what we get in the budget that Donald Trump put forth last week. And all of the cuts will hurt the very people who form the base of his support.

Anyone listening to Trump during the campaign could predict what he would do, but millions of people voted for him anyway. And you get some insight into their reasons if you read J.D. Vance’s best seller, “Hillbilly Elegy.”

On the surface, the book is a memoir, Vance’s story of growing up in Middletown, Ohio, in a highly dysfunctional family from the mountains of Kentucky. One step up from dirt poor, Vance was raised by adults who were foul-mouthed, obsessively proud, and prone to violence. But those adults also cared for him. And a few of them valued education. Highly.

And so thanks to those few, plus the United States Marines and others, Vance ended up getting a law degree from Yale.

If that’s all you take away from the book, you’ll see it as an inspirational, bootstraps story. Proof that anybody can make it, despite the odds. If you didn’t grow up in the South, you may be tempted to think Vance’s book has relevance only to the Southern Appalachians, yet another light shone on the backwardness and cultural grotesqueness of Southerners.

At the risk of letting my own hillbilly roots warp my judgment, let me offer a word of caution: there’s a much bigger story here. Because while Vance focuses on Southern Appalachia – the culture that shaped him (and me as well) – the unease, the estrangement, the distrust of various “establishments” that hillbillies feel – isn’t unique to the Southern mountains.

Southern Appalachia isn’t the only region of the country where decent-paying jobs have all but disappeared. It isn’t the only region where second and third generations of children are leaving school poorly equipped to get what few good jobs exist. Where adults have lost faith in the American dream.

The hillbillies of Southern Appalachia didn’t elect Donald Trump all by themselves. Their pain and resentment may have its own peculiar, Scots-Irish roots, but similar pain and resentment exists throughout the country. The hillbillies of my native region may have been suffering from it longer (coalminers have been watching their jobs evaporate for decades), but a lot of America is experiencing the same thing.

Jobs have disappeared. And when jobs disappear, bad things happen. And people look for answers, and for hope. That’s resilience. And those people deserve credit, and respect, not ridicule.

They also deserve political leaders who recognize the problem and believe they have a responsibility to help find solutions. Donald Trump jetted around the country promising help. Hillbillies in Kentucky and West Virginia weren’t the only people who crammed into airplane hangars wearing red caps and shouting their angry support for him.

Donald Trump was elected by people in Southern Appalachia – and in the mountains and hills and farmlands of New York State, Wyoming, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Florida, Michigan.

This is a deeply divided nation, and we’d better understand what has caused that division. Racism plays a part, yes, in many people. Racism and nativism and religious prejudice. But our division has other causes, too.

Donald Trump’s promises about restoring manufacturing jobs and Mitch McConnell’s pledge to end “the war on coal” are shams – deliberate, willful deceptions. For multiple reasons, Democrats couldn’t counter that in the last election. Maybe that’s because they, too, are too far removed from a part of America that needed their help.

If that’s the case, Vance has opened a door for them, introducing them to that America and the people who live there. They’d better start getting acquainted with them.

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