I try not to get off-topic here. This isn’t off-topic! It’s about books! Honest!
There are many, many things to be said about Trump’s election. I will forego saying almost all of them to focus on one specific thing. Many factors led to it, but one very important one that has not received the attention that it deserves is that a significant portion of the country looked at Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party and saw people who were not like them, who did not understand them, who did not like them.
This is, I think it is clear, a bigger factor than racism, or even sexism. Trump won Obama voters in significant numbers. Trump probably did better among black and Latino voters than Romney. The gender gap was very similar to 2012. The real new divide this election cycle was by education.
If your first response is “yeah, stupid people voted for Trump,” (1) Clinton did poorly even among high income voters without college educations (is income really that much more an imperfect proxy for intelligence than education level?), and (2) that’s exactly what I’m talking about. To put it in the language of the Left, Americans without college degrees, blue collar Americans, Americans in flyover country, and so on were Othered by the Democratic Party elite. Empathy is a basic predicate to winning someone’s vote. People think politicians lie (and they’re right). They won’t vote for someone they don’t think cares about and understands them. I live in north Florida and I think Hillary’s TV ads (and there were many, many of them) were well tailored to appeal to the sort of white working class voters Florida is full of and who voted Democratic in large numbers not that long ago. But they fell on deaf ears.
Public discourse, driven in large part by people highly educated in non-flyover country has become increasingly hostile to everyone else. Worse, it less and less shows the barest understanding of life outside its own cloister or even acknowledges it. Similarly, the Democratic Party has become increasingly myopic, bogging itself down in cultural issues and identity politics that, based on the election results, may appeal more to highly educated white liberal voters than to even working class black and Latino voters. This has been highlighted by the response to the election, which has been long on vitriol and short on “wait, our economic plan is supposed to help and be popular with these sorts of people.” With Democratic politicians increasingly relegated to major cities and to the West Coast and the Northeast, this threatens to get worse.
If you want to win those votes—and it’s very important in a democracy to win votes—you need to start by understanding people on a human level. You know what’s a great way to put yourself in someone else’s shoes? Reading books. Although I’ve thrown in movies and non-fiction and especially music too. This is intended to cut broadly but is fairly hillbilly-centric, that being my cultural heritage.
(One might also ask why I am performing this public service, emphatically not being on the Left. Even setting aside my opposition to Trump, a well-functioning liberal democracy needs an effective opposition. Ideally your less preferred party is as less bad as possible, because sometimes they win (in a well-functioning liberal democracy). And liberal democracy is extremely ill-served by identity and grievance politics. Getting away from that requires the ability to successfully sell your ideas across racial, ethnic, religious, educational, etc. lines. And everything I’m arguing here applies with equal force to the Republican Party and black and Latino voters.)
We Can’t Make It Here by James McMurtry –
We start our literary journey with a song by noted rightwing [checks notes]. Oh wait, that’s the opposite of true. Not only is McMurtry leftwing, We Can’t Make It Here was a Democratic anthem in 2004. Oh, how times have changed. The platform is the same, but this sort of thing doesn’t get the Left fired up anymore.
(If you want to go really dark you can check out McMurtry’s Fire Line Road.)
Little Victories by Chris Knight (album)
Little Victories is Chris Knight’s response to the financial crisis. Four years later and, like the malaise from the crisis, Little Victories still holds up. It’s all raw and powerful, as Chris Knight’s work is, but this album is thematically tied together in a way that none of his other albums are. It’s an incredible album from top to bottom. But the highlight is In the Mean Time, full of lines like “Uncle Sam comes around getting both hands in your pockets; people out there are just barely getting by” and “I’m pretty sure that the government ain’t gonna save you; the good Lord helps the ones that helps themselves.” (If you’re in the business of selling more government, it helps if people have some faith in it.)
Nothing On Me
Night Comes to the Cumberlands by Harry M. Caudill
But we’re talking about stuff that long predates the financial crisis. The trendy pick here would by Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. But (1) I haven’t read it yet and (2) I like to get back to basics. Night Comes to the Cumberlands tells the story of how coal country got to where it is. It’s not just about coal, it’s about unions, prescription drug abuse, the disability system. (Did you know we have a massive disability problem in this country? We should probably get on that.) It touches on the roots of a lot of the violence and drug problems plaguing large parts of the country.
The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell
This collection of country noir short stories is a pretty unrelenting march of crime and violence and meth in the Ozarks. It’s a look at an ugly epidemic in flyover country, in equal parts old (the violence) and new (the meth). The coasts remain fearful of the former and largely ignorant of the latter.
Krampus: The Yule Lord by Brom
I had to have at least one work of speculative fiction on here. Jesse is another two-bit criminal, this time living in a cramped trailer in West Virginia and caught between a corrupt local police chief and a local, drug-running crime boss (and, uh, Santa and Krampus). The SF setting winds up making for a good window into a particular sort of life: Jesse first thought on gaining possession of Santa’s sack is to use it to get video game systems to pawn, and Isabel—a half girl, half woman from the hills caught forever in time—is the most interesting character. My full review is here.
Cost of Livin by Ronnie Dunn
I’ve been recommending stories of violence and drugs. That reflects badly (albeit not unfairly) on the people here. It’s not my intention to defend people, beyond what deserves defending. But it ain’t all bad, either. Cost of Livin looks at people at their best, a song about a man who just wants to work. It’s past time the Left stopped rejecting work and a good work ethic as positives. It has too often become the subject of mockery.
Hillbilly Highway by Steve Earle and Rock Bottom by Eminem
After a song set against the backdrop of a factory closing, these two are a good reminder that once upon a time people flooded into Detroit for economic opportunity, and they flooded right back out again because of economics too. They’re a reminder of how and why people move around the country, and of the effects of local economic downturns.
Breaking Away and Vision Quest
Breaking Away and Vision Quest have a lot more in common than both being great sports movies about minor sports (cycling and wrestling, respectively). They’re also about class. Dave from Breaking Away is a working class townie in a college town. Louden from Vision Quest is a country boy turned city kid after losing the farm. Both take place a little off the beaten path (in Bloomington, Indiana and Spokane, Washington, respectively). Dave and Louden both see sports as an escape in a couple senses of the word. Both feature young men coming to grips with their fathers, and their fathers’ financial failures. And their fathers coming to grips with that (“You’re not a cutter. I’m a cutter.” “I’m not ashamed of it. It just happened.”).
Above the Waterfall and The Risen by Ron Rash
No, not his best known and most popular novel, Serena. And for just the reason it is his best known and most popular work, because it is written from the perspective of an outsider. You need to settle a bit more into our shoes for our purposes here. I was originally just going to recommend Above the Waterfall. And I was originally going to write this post a week ago. Luckily, waiting gave me time to read Rash’s newest novel, The Risen.
The Risen, a story catalyzed by a hippy bringing her own Summer of Love to small town Appalachia, is a good look at how class operates in small towns. It also works on an allegorical level: the Sexual Revolution was one of the great redistributive phenomena of our time, with most of the benefits flowing in one direction and most of the costs in the other, whether to small town upper class kids or working class hippies.
Rash’s work has always heavily featured crime and at least skirted the edges of country noir, but Above the Waterfall and some of his newer short stories show a mounting pessimism. Life in his beloved mountains is getting harder, uglier. Meth and despair have always lurked around the edges; in Above the Waterfall they shoulder their way onto the main stage. It isn’t his best work (and Serena isn’t either), but it’s that that gets it on this list.
Out Here in the Middle by Robert Earl Keen
McMurtry actually wrote Out Here in the Middle too, but I prefer Keen’s take on it. If only because it so perfectly captures just how self-aware we are out here in the middle, something that has been a part of country music for as long as country music has existed. It paints a pretty good picture of the middle while it’s at it, too, from corporate relo refugees to bathroom speed. It’s a good way to end because it touches on so many aspects, but without ever succumbing to despair.
“Where the center is on the right, and the ghost of William Jennings Bryan preaches every night.”
Feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments.