Creative Destruction, or Just Destruction?

The Trump administration’s efforts to disrupt the political world in recent months should be no surprise to anyone. After all, Trump promised to be disrupter-in-chief if elected and to “shake things up.” His supporters on the right were happy to ride on this train, claiming that such an approach would clear the debris of the current system and lead to lots of fresh ideas.

A favorite theme they embraced was the notion of “creative destruction.” The term was made popular by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter to describe the evolving, destructive power of capitalism, in particular its tendency to undermine old structures in the process of creating new, more efficient ones. Because of the term’s somewhat mordant irony, political commentators have not hesitated to employ it in reference to political change as well.

Newt Gingrich was one of the first users of the theme during the primaries, seeing  Trump’s candidacy as analogous to “kicking over the table.” It amounted to a bid to overturn and replace political correctness, big bureaucracies, current trade policies, public employee unions, and the like. He framed it both as an “American rebellion” and a “consumer revolt.” Later in the primary season, Ilana Mercer, a “paleo-libertarian” and recent author of The Trump Revolution, saw “creative destruction” as a means of upending a similar list of “sacred cows.” She equated Donald Trump with a “force of nature” heralding  a new age.

And now with the new age upon us, Richard Manning of Fox News uses the motif to describe such accomplishments as Trump’s spirited junking of a long list of economic and immigration regulations and his “re-ordering” of American world interests beginning with the rejection of the TPP, all in the happy cause of a “complete rebooting of the system.”

Such appeals to destruction and the creative process are worth noting because they offer some sort of overall framework for Trump’s actions. The problem is that while the “destruction” part is clear to the observer, the “creative” part seems elusive. What happens after step one is never clearly depicted or expressed.

The inattention to the aftermath of destruction is nowhere better illustrated than in the Trump administration’s approach to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). With little interest in the details of legislation, Trump simply wished to be rid of the existing program as quickly as possible. Any combination of repeal, replace, and delay would suffice for him. Handing the issue off to a Republican Congress, Trump cheered on what became a top-down, secretive process that skipped all ordinary order and procedure. The deadly consequences of the bills that were fielded in the House and Senate according to projections by the Congressional Budget Office were never taken seriously by Trump or the vast majority of Republicans, who gave a “What me worry?” shrug in the face of them. By a quirk of fortune we were spared the deadly consequences by a last-minute moment of honesty in the Senate.

The notion of creative destruction seems similarly off the mark in describing Trump’s international behavior. Trump’s withdrawal, or threatened withdrawal, from a series of multilateral agreements including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Paris Climate Accord, the Iran Nuclear Agreement, and lately the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) presents the international community with few if any positive options.

Indeed, given the time required to bring together multiple actors and reach intricate compromise in political compacts like the Climate Accord and the Iran Nuclear Agreement–over a decade in each case–the possibility of their unraveling presents an ever-present danger and not exactly fertile ground for creativity. The model of the second law of thermodynamics comes to mind.

Moreover, Trump’s peevish opposition to international trade agreements raises the prospect of grave economic disruption. His simplistic proposal of bilateral talks to replace multilateral ones is a poison pill for most nations because they have everything to lose by them. Unlike multilateral agreements, which present a relatively level playing field and a common set of rules for all participating countries, bilateral ones enable powerful nations (notably, the U.S.) to use their negotiating leverage to hold the upper hand and to introduce unique requirements to guarantee their ascendancy. It is hardly surprising that in the wake of Trump’s sinking of the TPP, countries like Japan have shown little interest in bilateral talks with the U.S., instead holding out for an agreement in concert with other Pacific nations. The fluidity of the issue puts the future of trade relations in a state of high uncertainty.

The sad fact, as suggested by the above examples, is that the Trump  administration governs largely by impulse, with scant signs of reasoned forethought. Behind the recent flurry of pronouncements and decisions lies a strange void, something that hangs almost like an uncompleted sentence. Not since the illogical conduct of Wilhelm II’s Germany on the eve of World War I has a world power shown itself so strategically inept. It is entirely possible that those who come after Trump will look back upon his administration as an historic model of political malpractice. The message to all politicians: First, do no harm.

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Putin-philia on the American Right

Trump’s adoration for Putin is not an anomaly in today’s American politics. Such at least is the gist of Jeremy Peters’ recent article in the New York Times , which shows that figures on the American right have been lauding Putin’s virtues for some time. Although mainstream Republicans have not yet adopted the same thinking, figures like Rudolph Giuliani, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, and various Fox News personalities have been expressing for a while their awe of Putin’s strong-arm tactics, his embodiment of conservative values, and his defense of Western civilization against its enemies. This tendency makes Donald Trump’s unconventional stance towards Putin more acceptable to conservatives, even given their traditional strong aversion to Russian power.

The key point is that the phenomenon of Putinphilia preceded Trump and made his position relatively easy to take. Most obviously, praise of Putin during the Obama administration served as a tempting way for rightists to mock a black, liberal president. The aggressive Russian leader stood out as a jolting contrast to the cerebral Obama. Critics who hated Obama’s  globalist tendencies, his caution in foreign policy, and his personal coolness found Putin the perfect foil.

But just as significant, the Putin fad reveals underlying right-wing trends in both Russia and the United States that should not be ignored. Putin’s Russia has increasingly viewed itself as a fortress of sorts against Western-style democracy, globalism, and so-called cultural decadence. Employing an ethnic brand of nationalism, it has identified with and funded some of Europe’s neo-fascistic movements, including those in Hungary, France, and Greece. And particularly since the beginning of Putin’s third term (post-2012), the government has adopted an ultra-conservative stance in alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).

In this latter regard, Russia’s elections in 2012 stand as a significant turning point. The elections, which Putin won, were accompanied by mass protests against corruption in his government. Rightly or wrongly, Putin believed that they were clandestinely funded by Western entities and supported by Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. His close cooperation with the ROC became more salient following these events, as he began to crack down on Western liberal influences. Feminists and the LGBT community, who condemned his traditionalist approach, were the first in the line of fire. Legislation passed in the next couple of years signaled the new trend: a strict law regulating the foreign adoption of Russian children so as to disqualify countries that recognized same-sex adopters (2012); a law making it a crime “to insult the feelings of believers” (2013); and a law outlawing so-called anti-gay propaganda, essentially a ban on free speech. Behind these laws was an angry, almost vindictive militance.

Meanwhile on the American side of the equation, various forces on the right were warming up to what they saw happening in Putin’s Russia. Even as far back as the 1990s when things were chaotic under Boris Yeltsin, the U.S. Religious Right viewed Russia as a field of opportunity and began to increase its evangelical activities there. But Putin’s recent social conservatism has brought a cultural embrace of sorts. Major evangelists like Franklin Graham have made no secret of their affinity for the regime for its position on gay rights, the blurring of church state divisions, and abortion. The TV evangelist Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association lauds Putin as a promoter of the Christian cause, calling him a “Lion of Christianity.” A key organization of the Christian Right for global outreach, the World Congress for Families, which exports homophobia under the name of protecting the “natural family,” has found  eager partners in today’s Russia. A conference in 2016 took place in Tbilisi, Georgia. Even the Putin regime’s recent religious favoritism toward the ROC at the expense of Western evangelical churches has not damaged the relationship.

American white nationalists have likewise crooned over the Putin  regime. In recent years, neo-fascist Richard Spencer, white supremacist David Duke, and Matthew Heimbach of the Traditionalist Worker Party have all expressed strong approval of Putin’s Russia. They have been drawn to the aggressive expression of ethnic nationalism, anti-globalism in the Breitbart mode, and attacks on liberal democracy.  Duke and Spencer view Russia as nothing short of a beacon of white civilization. Heimbach calls Putin the “leader of the free world” and speaks of Russia as the home of a new “Traditionalist International” in the model of Stalin’s Comintern. For all of them, Putin serves as a stern rebuke of today’s tolerant American ethos and represents the last best hope for the survival of “white” civilization.

It’s too soon to say whether Putinphilia will become a permanent feature of American politics. Already polls show that at least half of the Republican electorate takes a favorable view of Putin. On the other hand, most elected Republicans and self-styled conservatives, still influenced by canons of individual freedom, still seem to find the embrace of a heavy-handed Russian strong man hard to swallow. Their recent legislative support of sanctions against Russia, even in the face of Trump’s displeasure, is an indication of that view. The real test will be whether Republican voters begin electing Russiaphiles and brazen nationalists into office. A tendency in favor of overt authoritarianism would drastically alter America’s political system and be an indication that Trump was not simply a lone black swan.

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Why the Left Excels at Political Humor and the Right Not So Much

It is almost a cliché that political humor is owned by the left. One can’t help but be bowled over by the number of liberal-leaning comedians sucking up oxygen on the airwaves. For a long while it was people like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and the satirists at Saturday Night Live (SNL). Now it continues with late night stars Colbert, Trevor Noah, and Seth Meyers backed by their impressive staffs, SNL with impersonators such as Alec Baldwin (Donald Trump) and Melissa McCarthy (Sean Spicer), and start-up artists like John Oliver and Samantha Bee offering in-depth coverage of current issues. If one is politically blue and digs comedy, there is a a lot of choice on the dial.

In contrast, there seems to be a relative deficit of conservative comic artists on TV today, or at least ones whose names are familiar. Although the right can claim several talented comedians, they simply do not have the audience appeal or renown of their liberal counterparts. Dennis Miller, who has appeared frequently on Bill O’Reilly’s show, is one of the better ones. But he is the exception who more or less proves the rule.

So what’s going on here? Alison Dagnes, author of a recent book on political humor entitled A Conservative Walks into a Bar, considers several possible reasons for the phenomenon.

To begin with, there is the question of occupational bias, raised by many conservative comedians themselves. The claim is that they are excluded because liberals dominate the comedy power structure in TV and Hollywood. While there may be something to this, it does not explain why conservative comics who do make it to TV, whether on cable or the major networks, have much more trouble developing audiences than liberal comedians. The imbalance may, indeed, have more to do with factors such as the untraditional nature of the job and the process of self-selection. Let’s face it, comedy is an art form that is usually not financially rewarding in the same way as a career in, say, business or finance, where conservatives dominate. Like anthropology and social work, comedy just seems to draw more liberals than conservatives.

But perhaps more to the point, comedy tends to reflect a worldview that is less natural for conservatives, one that broadly relativistic and critical. In particular, it does not feel constrained to respect many of the traditional verities considered out of bounds by conservatives. When it takes on political subjects and turns to satire, the comic spirit becomes iconoclastic, showing a tendency to challenge taboos and sacred cows. Comedy in the conservative vein finds itself at a disadvantage since, by taking certain things about the established order as above reproach, it has lesser flexibility and  smaller reach. Sometimes, in struggling to maintain ideological consistency, it borders on preachiness, that true enemy of the comic muse.

Various recent attempts by conservatives to launch humor programs on TV, no doubt hoping to challenge the dominance of comedians like Jon Stewart, only demonstrate some of these problems. One such attempt, a show called “The Flip Side” launched in 2015, tries to work comedy around traditional conservative themes. But with clumsy presentation and stale subject matter more reflective of the Reagan era, it gives the impression of being poorly conceived and inadequately financed.

More famously, Roger Ailes, launched an earlier experimental program called “The Half-Hour News Hour.” Seeking to inject comedy with a conservative slant into issues like climate change, gun control, and the like, the program often comes across as heavy-handed. One of the episodes features a liberal gun-control advocate being questioned by a couple of interviewers. The advocate gives three examples of where he is annoyed by people with guns, one a lady in a park, the second a homeowner, the third a bank employee. It soon becomes obvious that the interviewee is a thief who has found guns to be a troublesome barrier to committing his crimes in each of the cases. The humor, someone’s idea of heavy irony, could well be mistaken for ideological propaganda.

Not surprisingly, Ailes’ Half-Hour News Hour turned out to be less than successful. With abysmal ratings, the program lasted only 13 episodes. It demonstrates what happens when a promoter with a tin-ear for humor and less than full commitment tries something out of his depth.

The above examples underscore the principle that for comedy to succeed it has to be funny before all else. The comedian’s political commitment to one sider or the other should be distinctly secondary to that first axiom. The success of a Jon Stewart or a Stephen Colbert bears this out. Ever conscious of the spirit of the times, these artists feel no need to remind audiences of their liberal credentials, being perfectly comfortable making jokes about Obama, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and the like, even if they may find it more natural pillorying Bush and Trump. Conservative humorists, on the other hand, apparently more wedded to ideological consistency, generally do not share the same flexibility.

Liberals should not necessarily take comfort from the right’s lackluster performance on the comic front. There is a downside to having opponents who prefer ideology to laughter. I agree with Peter Weber at The Week who maintains that humor is a universal good that makes all of us better people. It allows individuals on both sides of the aisle to deal with defeat, put aside fear, and avoid turning to hate. By putting some of the grim aspects of politics into perspective, it takes the edge out of political animosity. For these reasons, one should hope that conservatives learn to be better comedians.

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Trump-Nixon Parallels: Is History Repeating Itself?

In the unfolding inquiry into the Trump campaign’s Russian connections, one can’t help but see Trump-Nixon parallels. Trump’s firing of James Comey in the middle of an ongoing investigation bears obvious similarities with Nixon’s firing of Watergate investigator Archibald Cox. Not only do we see evidence of a coverup, but a tendency to obfuscate, distract, and mislead by the man in charge.

The differences between the two protagonists, however, are significant. On character issues, Nixon impresses one as disciplined and single-minded, while Trump seems self-indulgent, impulsive, and erratic. To some extent, this is a reflection of different life histories. Nixon, a middle-class striver with personal insecurities, advanced himself through careful calculation and shrewdness. By contrast, Trump, the son of an alpha real estate magnate, learned to excel through aggressive self-promotion and flamboyant salesmanship, often in the absence of personal reflection. While Nixon comes across as sinister and obsessive, Trump seems simply out of control.

The Trump-Nixon contrast brings to mind a famous quotation from Karl Marx when he was comparing Napoleon Bonaparte to his lackluster nephew Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III). Marx remarked that when history repeats itself, it does so differently the second time around, namely, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” One could argue that Nixon’s transgressions, carried out with a ruthless single-mindedness that ultimately leading to his downfall and disgrace, qualified as tragedy. By contrast, Trump’s feckless and spontaneous errors, whatever the ultimate result, seem much closer to farce. The orange-haired narcissist simply does not rise to the level of tragedy.

One can certainly expect Trump to handle the crisis he faces with more circus bombast than Nixon was ever capable of. While Nixon, an introvert, withdrew into the White House and shared his morbid thoughts with his band of followers, Trump, the unrepentant extrovert, will make his fight a public one with the assistance of his daily twitter account. He will double down on the conspiracy motif and rely increasingly on spinning counterfactual facts. We will hear a great deal in coming months about the revenge of the elites, the tyranny of a rigged system, and the repression of the people’s will.

During this time, Trump will turn to his hard-line base for inspiration. That base may erode as the  failures of his regime become more etched in people’s consciousness. But Trump will continue to maximize it in his own mind and treat it as a kind of mystical “vox populi” constituting a justification for his every action. He will use the base as a warning to those in his own party of the dangers of thwarting him and as a protection against impeachment and conviction in Congress, if things go that far. His playing of the populist card will be everything the Founding Fathers warned against.

Will our constitutional system survive all this tumult unbruised? If our countervailing institutions (especially the press, the courts, the bureaucracy) continue to do their job as they have done so far, it seems reasonable to think that our system will come out intact, if not uplifted. Trump’s incompetence and congenital self-destructiveness will do him in, and he will probably be paired in infamy with Richard Nixon. But it will not be an easy slog for the American people. The potential danger lies in a crisis brought on by external forces–either a terrorist attack on the homeland, which Trump could use to abrogate our freedoms, or an international incident that could end up starting a major war. For these reasons, it is no time to let down our guard.

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Asymmetric Warfare: How Is It Working for Trump?

As two recent commentators have observed, Trump is a master of asymmetric warfare. Asymmetric warfare is a term used to describe tactics adopted by a weaker force against a stronger one, normally in a military setting. The typical example is of a guerrilla or terrorist group  employing forms of harassment to frustrate a large army. Acts requiring a minimal amount of money or equipment, such as employing home-made roadside explosives or suicide bombers against random targets, can easily put the larger force on the defensive.

The larger force, of course, has the advantage of superior power, organization, and numbers. Armed with advanced technology, it can devastate its opponent whenever it can find it or lure it into the open. The smaller force using asymmetrical methods, on the other hand, takes advantage of the inertia and lumbering size of the larger force. By harassing it on the fringes, it aims to distract it, confuse it, and subvert its purposes.

Trump, according to Kathy Gilsinan and Uri Friedman, practiced a political form of asymmetric warfare in his campaign for the presidency. During both the  primary and general election, Trump faced opponents who were much better funded, better advised, and more lavishly advertised than himself. Yet his own whimsical, rally-centered organization was able to overcome them by resorting to random attacks, tweets, branding, and false claims. He won by disobeying all the rules of the political professionals and by doing the untried and the unexpected. He proved wrong almost all the commentators and tea-leaf readers.

Since his inauguration, Trump has continued to keep his opponents off balance by being unpredictable, cavalier, and intentionally outrageous. But what worked so well during the campaign seems to be proving more of a problem for him as commander-in-chief. Responsibility and power bring a whole new set of challenges unlike those faced by struggling contenders. Just as ISIS, a skillful practitioner of asymmetric warfare, faced a whole new set of challenges when it found itself in charge of Mosul, so does Trump as a newly installed president.

What Trump seems innately unable to understand is that he cannot run a convincing war against the establishment now that he is the establishment. Bannon-inspired deconstruction of the administrative state makes no sense when one is running a government that must rely on a complex bureaucracy and deal with a multitude of invested players. While an asymmetric strategy served Trump well against a field of competitors because it shifted attention to their weaknesses and away from his own, the dynamic is now reversed. By creating distractions and uncertainty, the strategy is currently unnerving Trump’s own administration and providing fodder for an aroused opposition.

Trump’s inadequacies are now front row center. For all of his authoritarianism, Trump does not take on the aura of authority naturally. Through a deficit of character and discipline, he is unable to act presidential. His challenges are twofold. He lacks credibility, and he fails to demonstrate competence. Credibility is what establishes a leader’s trustworthiness in the eyes of voters, public figures, and foreign leaders. It is founded on factors like the seriousness with which one takes on one’s duties, the willingness to be held accountable, and one’s basic integrity. Competence is conveyed through a leader’s ability to bring results. It is based on a talent in working with others and an understanding of how the system works.

After two months of typical asymmetric, go-it-alone behavior, Trump has failed badly on both counts. On the credibility side, he has been undone by a slapdash approach to the dignity of his office, an inability to take responsibility for mistakes, and an epic unseriousness about fact and policy. Even on the issue of fulfilling promises, a point of importance to him, his claims of kept promises come across as either bogus or insubstantial.

On the competence side, Trump has shown himself sadly unfit. Rather than inspiring his government with a united purpose, he has divided it by targeting internal “enemies” in some areas while tolerating rivalry and conflict in others. He has lessened its effectiveness through either a lack of direction or intrusive micromanagement. In concrete terms, his bizarre handling of executive orders and failure to cajole a Republican Congress point to an administration with performance problems.

But while Trump is crippling his administration through erratic behavior, his foes in the opposition may be taking a leaf out of his own book of asymmetric war. They are beginning to size up the vulnerabilities of a hapless Goliath and to wing well-aimed rocks in his direction. Democratic attorneys-general in the states are using the courts to stymie, Democratic senators are using the rules to delay, unhappy bureaucrats are using leaks and the forces of inertia to frustrate, all with noticeable effect. It seems we are witnessing a classic example of karmic justice.

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Will Trump Exploit a Terrorist Attack for His Own Ends?

Because Trump’s tweets are spontaneous, they provide a useful indicator–a kind of Rohrschack Test–of his fundamental instincts. One recent tweet, reacting to the Federal Court’s  blockade of his immigration executive order, was nothing less than a wake-up call for concerned Americans. Trump tweeted: “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens, blame him and court system.” In other words, judges questioning Trump’s orders threaten the safety of the nation and must be held accountable.

Several alert journalists, including Paul Krugman, Nate Silver, and co-authors Curtis Bradley and Neil Siegel writing for Lawfare, have raised red flags about such a “blame-shifting narrative.” Specifically, they see it as a means for Trump “to reduce the future checking power of institutions like the judiciary and the media, especially in the wake of a terrorist attack.” More ominously, it prepares the way for a bold assertion of executive power.

The blame-shifting narrative, based largely on Trump’s paranoid and narcissistic instincts, begins by assuming that Trump’s view of the world is more accurate than anyone else’s (“nobody knows the system better than me“). It is a dark narrative, one that presupposes a kind of Hobbesian war of all against all, where civilizations collide, nations strive to dominate, and Islamists and border-crossers pose existential threats.  Trump’s unnuanced authoritarian approach, as shown in his first immigration executive order, follows logically from this mindset. Since Trump “alone can fix” the problem, those opposing him become part of the problem and potential enemies of the people.

The Trumpian narrative is calculated to sideline an alternative narrative based on strategic interests. That alternative narrative, long held by American military and security experts (dare we use the word?), views a combination of careful vetting, intelligence, and diplomacy as the logical and proven prescription for security. Unlike the Trumpian outlook, it rejects drastic measures based on religious stereotyping, which it understands can exacerbate tensions and put the United States in greater danger.

But a concern for strategic interests did not get Trump elected. Appeals to fear, nostalgia, and a need for payback mobilized his populist base and won him personal confirmation as well as his current office. The narrative of blame falls in with this trope, proving politically advantageous by turning the tables on his critics. Moreover, it empowers Trump in a cynical sense because it negates his accountability for failing policies. On national security it presents him with a win-win situation: full credit to himself if his policies result in less terrorist events, and the ability to deflect blame onto others if such events escalate.

As a candidate, Trump has already shown a tendency to spin terrorist events in ways that favor his own ambitions. He used the Orlando bombing of June 12, for example, to congratulate himself on his foresight and to indirectly swipe opponents for lack of toughness. More recent comments even suggest that he needs such events and wants to see more of them. How else does one explain his eerie statement that the news services are not reporting enough of them, or worse yet, conspiring to hide them? 

And surely such events will occur, regardless of the nation’s most careful steps to prevent them. We all know this. The United States is not a  police state that intrudes into people’s minds. There is no guarantee that some religious nut will not commit a violent act, especially in the divisive climate that Trump has fomented.

In the event this happens, preparing for a dangerous overreach by an out-of-control government is part of being a good citizen. To those who share our values: Follow the news. Be defenders of the press, the courts, conscientious government servants, and others who pose limits on authoritarian executive power. Donate to the ACLU, the CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists), and similar organizations that support our freedoms. Connect and circulate with allies in the struggle. Be willing to discuss the Trump problem in our daily interactions. Watch Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, and John Oliver and share their videos with  friends (never forget the salving effect of humor for deflating demagogues). And be ready to jump to the phone and put on our boots when abnormal events start happening.


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Hillbilly Elegy: J. D. Vance’s Personal Take on White Working-Class America

J.D. Vance’s recent book, Hillbilly Elegy, puts a spotlight on the crisis of white working-class America. It is a memoir of a young man who grew up in a culture of poverty and dysfunction but who, with a little help and some grit, eventually escaped it. The author’s anguished personal story provides insights into the challenges of pursuing success in that world. Unfortunately, it is short on realistic solutions to the underlying social and economic problems that people face there.

Although the book, published in the summer of 2016, does not mention Donald Trump, it describes a climate of anger and frustration that could be easily exploited by a demagogue. In this sense, the book helps to explain Trump’s appeal in places like rural Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

The story centers on J.D. Vance’s early life in Middletown Ohio, a community struggling to be middle class. Like many of the town’s inhabitants, his family has its roots in Appalachia–in its own case, the depressed community of Jackson, Kentucky. Accordingly, it must constantly struggle to shake off the self-destructive mindset of a culture of poverty. The book describes in detail Vance’s dysfunctional family life, personified by an unstable mother and multiple live-in fathers. It is a life filled with anger, violence, alcoholism, and drug addiction. Growing up, Vance is thus constantly haunted by anxiety and  a search for authority figures he can trust. After years of chaos, he gets a bracing wake-up call when his addicted mother demands that he pee into a bottle so she can submit a pure urine sample for a job application. To his credit, he refuses and moves in with his grandmother.

Vance attributes his redemption in large part to this elderly substitute mother, whom he calls “Mamaw.” She was no angel herself, a volatile personality, and a bad mother with her own children. But the second time around, she uses some of her hard-won lessons to enforce discipline in the young teenager and instill the importance of education.  The timing of this change of authority was fortunate, comprising Vance’s three final years of high school. An important turning point for him was when she bought a graphing calculator for him for $180, a major sacrifice, to allow him to excel in math. It was the kind of commitment on her part that ignited his own resolve and ambition.

The rest of his story is pure Horation Alger. After high school he spends four years in the Marines, where he gains confidence and learns responsibility. By the time he enters Ohio State University, he is on a tear. He  takes on two part-time jobs and gets through college in two and one-half years. He goes on to Yale Law School, finding his way to the top by listening to mentors, getting onto the Law Review Board, and learning how to develop connections. His ascent into the world of the elite confirms that mobility still works, at least for some, in today’s America.

Vance is very hard on the culture of deprivation he has left behind. People in affected communities seem resigned to despair and find excuses for failure. They typically lack ambition, resolve, or follow-through. Even when they have decent jobs, they often overspend and go into debt. Loyalty to family and a sense of honor still exist, but these attributes are warped by violence and sexism. Rather than facing up to hard truths and taking responsibility for outcomes, many blame outside forces or focus resentment on fellow citizens who take advantage of the system. It is hardly surprising that politicians like Trump attract such voters, who have little commitment to the existing system and little to lose.

Vance’s escape narrative focuses on the importance of personal factors in getting out of the morass: a helping hand (in his case, his grandmother) and the vital role of individual motivation. But, although these factors are undoubtedly necessary for personal success, they are not easily replicated without changes in the underlying social and economic conditions of depressed communities. These the author fails to address adequately.

Vance, who now writes for National Review and holds to small-government conservative maxims, makes a half-hearted reference to public involvement but basically pans it. “Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us,” he states. True, no government can simply “fix” stuff. But it is surely appropriate to recognize that government can bring in funding and raise morale by showing that poor communities have not been abandoned. Public schools, which serve as ideal community-builders, need to be properly funded, early intervention programs for children need to be introduced, jobs need to be lured through well-targeted government initiatives, and so forth.

Even in the worst of circumstances, government does more than it gets credit for. Vance does not consider, or takes for granted, the role of  tax dollars in providing at least base-line support in depressed communities: Social security, Medicaid, Medicare, and welfare provide a fundamental lifeline for their inhabitants. Moreover, he ignores the role of government in his own success. The Marine Corps, which taught him responsibility, is a tax-supported institution. To a lesser extent, so is Ohio State University. Even Yale Law School is funded partially with public dollars and is known for the public servants and justices it has produced.

Vance’s book helps to draw our attention to a problem that has been shrugged off for too long. His own life is an example of how personal initiative allows some to escape it. But to ignore the potential aid that we as a nation can bring to such communities is to condemn the vast majority of their inhabitants to a future of frustration and despair.

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