FIGAROVOX / READING - Alexandre Devecchio read Hillbilly Elegie, a real editorial phenomenon in the United States. In this autobiographical tale, JD Vance recounts the rough life of the "little whites" of deep America who voted for Trump and sounded the voice of a disillusioned class, without ever pouring into misery.
Alexandre Devecchio is a journalist at Figaro, in charge of FigaroVox. He has just published The New Children of the Century, Investigating a Fragmented Generation (Deer, 2016) and co-authored Welcome to the Worst World (Plon, 2016).
Some still struggle to believe it today. Almost a year ago, Donald Trump became the most unlikely American president in history. Editorial phenomenon in the United States, where he was one of the best-sellers of the year, Hillbilly Elégie, translated into French by Globe Editions, provides a better understanding of this event that has made so many observers lie. Yet JD Vance's book is not a traditional political essay. It was written before Trump officially became the Republican presidential candidate and takes the form of an autobiographical narrative.
The author recounts his atypical career: that of a cultural defector, JD Vance, 33, a graduate of Yale Law School, one of the most prestigious in the world. He lives in a comfortable home on the east coast, is happy as a couple and has two dogs in great shape. But deep down, he remains a "hill hickory", "an Irish-Scottish Hillbilly". Vance comes from a poor family in the industrial region of the Rust Belt. These grandparents, "Papaw" and "Mamaw", from the Appalachians, Kentucky, settled in Ohio to flee misery. Sympathizer of the Democratic Party, "the party that defended the workersPapaw experienced a form of social climbing by becoming a worker in the iron and steel industry. Two generations later, everything has changed. Ohio moved from the Democratic camp to the Republican camp, leading to Trump's victory and a deep recomposition of the American political landscape.
Through his chaotic history (absent father, toxic mother), JD Vance traces the fate of the "little whites" of peripheral America. His description of the collapse of Middletown, one of the oldest cities in Ohio, is strikingly true. The city center, which looked great in the 1980s, is nothing more than a pale reflection of the golden age of industrial America. The shopping centers, the restaurants that had existed since the inter-war period, and the bars where the workers met to have a drink after the factory, gave way to the empty streets, the shops with the barricades and the windows. Chinese fast foods. The basketball court is nothing more than a concrete rectangle invaded by weeds. The Armco factory, which had "teleported the Kentucky Hills' Vance grandparents into the American middle class," went downhill. The value of housing has fallen and homeowners are being placed under house arrest in decaying neighborhoods. Their life expectancy decreases.
In this post-industrial hell, anger rages against a democrat elite disconnected and guilty of having eyes only for minorities. "President Obama made his political debut as many people in my community began to believe that in modern America, meritocracy had not been forged for them", Vance analysis. The destiny of those forgotten in deep America echoes that of the "sans-dents" of the France of the Invisibles. But, and this is the strength and originality of the book, the author never pours into misery or complacency. He knows his people: their great qualities as their immense defects. Losers of globalization, they are also responsible for their fate. Hillbillies have a real sense of honor and family. These tough guys are hot-blooded and, if someone insults their mother, they can take out their colt orchain saw". But far too many of them have a penchant for alcohol and drugs. Every night, they scream at each other and throw everything in their hands. Their culture of assistantship and resentment locks them into a form of victimitarian communitarianism. "A strong trend among working-class whites is to blame society or the government for all ills, and it continues to grow," says Vance. His look is both severe and fair. Because, despite his brilliant trajectory, he remained one of them. "Where Americans see Hillbillies, rednecks or white trash, I see my neighbors, my friends, my family, he wrote. I love these people, including those I avoid talking for my sanity. Because there are no bad guys in this story. There is just a funny band of Hillbillies struggling and looking for their way."
Hillbilly Elégie, by JD Vance, Globe Editions, € 22. Translated from English (United States) by Vincent Raynaud.
Source: © Splendor and Misery of "little whites"