Writer and pundit Bonnie Greer gives her searing take on the passions stirring change across our contradictory landscape
PUBLISHED: 18:11 01 September 2016 | UPDATED: 18:11 01 September 2016
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The hottest book in America right now is a memoir by Silicon Valley executive J. D. Vance. It’s called: Hillbilly Elegy.
It is the poignant and eye-opening memoir of a son of what are called in the US “white trash”; “rednecks”; “hillbillies”.
They are the descendants of the Scotch/Irish-people who came to America as indentured servants in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Called the ‘middle class’ in America, they are the working class.
Proud, hardworking people, they are blunt and part of the backbone of the American Dream. They are not The Elite – they never have been. They’ve had their share of trouble and discrimination; setbacks and broken promises. They have no illusions except perhaps that life would reward you if you worked hard enough and played by the rules. To them the rules have changed. And they can’t play.
In the book, Vance recounts his life growing up in a town where almost everyone worked at the local steel plant. This was a job for life and there were no worries. Everyone belonged to the union and voted for the centre-left party – the Democrats. They knew that their children’s life would be better than their own because theirs had been better than their parents’ and their parents’ before them.
Life was safe, and familiar and sure. From the cradle to the grave.
The author managed to escape his Steel Town trajectory, join the Marines; then to university; and finally Yale Law School. He eventually got a prestigious position at an investment firm and finally in Silicon Valley – thousands of miles from where he grew up.
But he is the exception.
While unemployment itself is low, many of the families in his home town earn less than they did before the Great Recession.
They feel that they’re being pushed toward a life of handouts while they see others they feel less deserving living off the fat of the land. What they have come to understand as ‘the American Way Of Life’ is slipping away from them, owned by others.
“I’m tired of walking on eggshells,” one of these PWT’s (Poor White Trash) said on American TV recently as his reason for supporting Donald Trump. The “eggshells” he referred to are what he sees as a culture of political correctness in which the worst thing that you can be is a white man with a job.
Their television exists between ads for Viagra and prostate conditions; endless medical companies and how to get equity out of your house. That iconic scene of Rocky running up and down the stairs of the Philadelphia Library in the first Rocky film – ready to go into the ring with Whatever’s Coming – is the past. These films, which were the foundation myth of much of what underpins Trump’s support today, are fading from the collective consciousness of J.D. Vance’s place of birth. Where you always had a job and where you knew everybody.
For them they feel that there is quite simply nothing left. They want “the way it used to be” back.
The world is a threat that has many tentacles: multiculturalism; feminism...all sorts of “isms”. There’s globalisation; de-industrialisation – and Islam. They are convinced that the President of the United States secretly is a Muslim, which means that he’s Fifth Column. Talk radio allows them a Forum Of Fear. The Trump Campaign is hiring hard-right media experts to make sure that drum is banged loud and clear. As if he cares about anything other than winning.
In Vance’s book, they talk about how Trump is standing up to “them”; “Talks back”; “doesn’t back down.”
The irony of a real estate tycoon, born with a silver spoon and who lives in a Tower, seems to be irrelevant. That he is not Them doesn’t rankle.
They listen to his speeches, not for the rhetoric, but for the feeling. It is what they feel, too. He echoes their deepest selves and is not afraid to say so. They back him. Trump is their President already.
They see nothing but a world of Elites: educated at the same prestigious schools; circulating their wealth and their jobs, and possibilities amongst themselves. The Elites like The Downtrodden, but Steel Town people don’t want to be that. They want to hear and see themselves in the corridors of power.
Meanwhile they will continue to hold the line of True Americanism fighting back the Deluge.
This white working class has come to see Donald Trump as their Saviour: their Last Hope. They support him in unprecedented numbers.
What these people have in common with the followers of Marine Le Pen in France; Bernie Sanders in the US, and to an extent Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, is that they are the Losers.
They are the ones who have benefitted less from the unprecedented wealth being created right now. Never have human beings been so rich; had so much potential to be even richer.
It is said that the combined wealth of the world’s wealthiest 62 people is now roughly equal to the combined wealth of the entire bottom 50% of human beings. Maybe it’s always been that way. The difference now is that we know it.
The Americans depicted in ‘Hillbilly Heaven’ want to “make America Great” again because they believe that it will make them great again.
Like the UK pensioners who voted Leave, even though they were warned that it might affect the pound (it has) and therefore their cost of living and even their pensions (it has), the American steel mill people don’t care. They want to hit back.
Even though they live thousands of miles from the Mexican border, they see foreigners as literally the embodiment of all that is about to wash them away.
And so the table is set for populism.
They will have it because they are determined not to lose again. Whatever the price.
Their counterparts on the left feel the same way – but for different reasons.
They blame what they call “neo-liberalism; they blame the abrogation of worker’s rights; the diminution of the State; a future of The Rich For The Rich. They – and the right-leaning people of Steel Town USA – are all of the people who have lost out in this brave new world of uber wealth, privilege and access to privilege.
We are now in the midst of an Uprising Of The Losers.
Nice, in the South of France, has been a part of my life for over 20 years. I know it very well and like it very much.
When I first started coming in the early days of easyJet, what struck me was the lack of brown and black faces in the centre of town.
I’m an urban person and simply couldn’t imagine a town centre with no ethnic minorities in it. But that was Nice then.
I often wondered where they were, what they did. We had French friends of Algerian origin who ran a restaurant and would sometimes talk about the police. But these gendarmes were not Officer Friendly.
Once, while catching a bus, a man of North African appearance started picking the handbag of the elderly woman in the queue in front of me. I loudly stopped him.
What I remember most from that was the look on his face. He was shocked that I would intervene – me, a black woman. It was as if he was asking me: wasn’t I in solidarity with him?
Sitting at a table next to a cop one day back then, I observed that there were no ethnic minority police. He smiled and said: “Don’t worry, we’re not after YOU”. Then he indicated a woman pushing a baby buggy. She was dressed in a hijab.
Nice’s heroine is a woman who showed her naked backside to the invading Turks back in the 16th century. Their regional language is protected; and their accent is Southern and proud.
And they are the Losers, too. Once the region was a stalwart of the Communist Party, but today the Front National almost won the Presidency of the region in the recent elections.
The FN is headed now by Marine Le Pen, the charismatic and politically shrewd daughter of the founder of the Party: Jean Marie Le Pen.
When I first started coming to the city, the FN was best known for its virulent and energetic Holocaust denial. The Jewish cemetery, a few hundred miles from Nice in the town of Carpentras, had its graves dug open and swastikas painted on the headstones. It was horrendous.
Flash forward 20 or so years later, Marine – known fondly as ‘Bleu Marine’ by her millions of supporters, has fashioned herself into a Madame Toute-Le-Monde –Mrs Everybody.
Formidably intelligent, she’s smart enough to muzzle her father and make herself user-friendly. But there is still-for her Party – The Other: Muslims. And the EU.
“It disgusts me that they pray in the street”, she has said.
“We must have Brexit, too.”
In Nice the bright, new and efficient tram system has brought ethnic families in from the outskirts to the Promenade des Anglais itself. Women in hijabs shop in the Old Market; go into the expensive shops, drink coffee in the cafes.
Why, I asked a friend, had the people here and in PACA (the region) deserted The Socialist Party and the Communist Party? The reply was that everyone in these parties was too cosy. They were The Elite. They wanted leaders who were like them.
And who told the truth.
Retail politics (mainstream, knock-on-the door; get-out-the vote;) is now being perceived as the bastion of charlatans and liars. Many people believe that – on the left and the right – we are all lions led by donkeys. Maybe the political process as we know it, is coming to an end. And – what next?
This past July 17 an armed group emerged in Armenia, in the streets of the capital, Yerevan, calling themselves ‘Daredevils of Sassoun’.
This is the name of an epic poem from the Middle Ages and tells the story of the battle for Armenian independence.
The Daredevils aim: independence from foreign forces and corruption. And The Elites.
There is a debate raging in the country now – in the streets and on social media –about what to do.
There is also the question of who the The Daredevils really are: terrorists; rebels; heroes?
Like the people in Hillbilly Elegy, it seems that everywhere, people are aiming to fight The Elite, to defeat that which is defeating them.
It is no surprise that this is all happening at the end of a financial crisis.
Because for many the crisis has not ended, and with it comes an erosion of dignity and trust.
People are increasingly putting their faith in lone agents – individuals who exist for them on a first name basis and seem to carry with themselves the hopes of a nation.
It is not necessary to exaggerate that this all feels like (if we who didn’t live through it) the post-crash world of the late 1920s and early 30s. But in the air is the yearning for the strong man (whether literally or morally) who can make it all better.
In this era of ”I’m right and you’re evil” – what lies ahead?
The 1930s is not a road that Europe can go down again.
Nor can America.
And yet: the Losers will not tolerate losing again.