Eulogy for an elegy, but questions remain

Betty BeanKnox Scene

Why do Republicans love Donald Trump? I’ve tried to figure this out since he came down that golden escalator, but the fact that he carried 61.87% of Tennessee’s 2020 vote (up a notch over 2016’s 60.7%) continues to bumfuzzle me every time I think about it.


Trump carried every Tennessee county except Shelby, Davidson and Haywood. Two big, diverse metropolitan counties going Democratic is no surprise, but what about little bitty rural Haywood? I looked it up – it’s just west of Jackson and boasts three small towns, the only one of which I’ve ever heard is Nutbush, hometown of Tina Turner, memorialized in an early Tina Turner song:

A church house, gin house
A school house, outhouse
On Highway Number Nineteen
The people keep the city clean
They call it Nutbush
Oh, Nutbush
Call it Nutbush city limits

Tina probably knows that the answer lies in the census data; Haywood County’s population is 50.06 percent Black. And Black folks don’t love Donald Trump – his braggadocios identification with the rapid development of COVID19 vaccines, for example, is one of the red flags making minority communities suspicious of the government’s intentions.

But Trump’s fans have me puzzled. When a book called “Hillbilly Elegy” made the bestseller lists a few years ago, author J.D. Vance hit the talk show circuit to explain why his people loved Donald Trump. His people are the Scots Irish hill folk noted in the title, and the book was billed as an explanation for Trump’s popularity among that tribe. It cost $27.99, a pretty significant investment for a book I didn’t expect to like all that much. But eventually it became such a cultural phenomenon that I coughed up the cash and felt obliged to read it. It’s a skinny little volume – 247 pages plus conclusion and acknowledgments – pretty appropriate for a memoir by a 31-year-old author, even if he did get a scholarship to Yale law school and become a libertarian venture capitalist cultural icon. But I found it more boring than provocative and labored through about 40 overpriced pages before I stuck it on a shelf and went on to more compelling fare.

The book was pretty controversial for awhile, although it no longer attracts the kind of attention it used to before Trump lost his re-election bid. Approving references to racist political scientist Charles A. Murray and the payday loan business raised my hackles There’s too much other craziness going on, like the stunts orchestrated by Trump’s Insane Clown Posse legal team to pay much attention to this.

The book can’t help me much with the truly bad stuff, nor can the new Netflix movie, although Glenn Close probably chewed up enough scenery to get an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Vance’s chain-smoking, pistol-packing, tough-love-dispensing Mamaw.

There are significant differences between the book and the movie, with a lot left out of both. The movie, directed by Ron Howard, stays out of politics and concentrates on the yarn, emphasizing Vance’s hard-won climb out of drug-fueled family drama and his mostly-futile efforts to help his addicted mother get out, too. He devotes a big chunk of the book’s back pages to an analysis of poverty and a belief that hard work and an intact, loving family will win the day.

Vance and his wife, Usha Chilukuri Vance, whom he met at Yale, lived in San Francisco for awhile, but have moved back to his native Ohio, where he has started his own venture capital business and looks to be building the kind of résumé that would benefit a political candidate.

He praises his wife’s brains and beauty, but doesn’t emphasize her heavy-hitting political connections. One must go to her law firm’s web page to learn that she clerked for Chief Justice John Roberts and also for Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh when he was on the Court of Appeals on the D.C. Circuit. Both she and Vance clerked for District Court Judge Amul Thapar, a Mitch McConnell favorite who is on the short list to ascend to the high court, as well. This means that Mrs. Vance might be a heavier hitter than her husband (not that you could tell this from reading the book).

But none of that explains Donald Trump. I predict that J.D. Vance won’t be as willing an advocate for Trumpism in the days ahead, and that I wasted $27.99.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.

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