© 2024 WLRN
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Examining Trump's Appeal To Voters


J.D. Vance is on the line. He wrote one of the more talked about books of this year. It's called "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir Of A Family And Culture In Crisis." It's about his upbringing in Appalachia. And it was published just as Americans were asking about disaffected white voters supporting Donald Trump, who is now the president-elect. Mr. Vance, welcome back to the program.

J D VANCE: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: What did you make of the result overnight?

VANCE: Well, I think like a lot of people I was surprised, maybe not as surprised as everybody else. But, yeah, it was a pretty big shocker.

INSKEEP: When you talked with people back home - which I guess we should explain for people is both Kentucky and southern Ohio for you - did you have a lot of conversations with people about Donald Trump this year?

VANCE: I had some conversations with people about Donald Trump, absolutely (laughter).

INSKEEP: What kinds of things did you hear?

VANCE: Well, I think I heard a lot of the things that people have talked about. I heard a very large amount of frustration, a feeling that things weren't going especially well, also that the elites didn't care necessarily about a lot of the folks living in middle America. So I do think that feeling of alienation and frustration really drove a lot of people to make a political decision that obviously a lot of people don't quite understand.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm thinking about the way that Trump in his speeches - his convention speech and perhaps almost every long speech you gave this year - was spectacularly dark about the state of America. He was described as being way too pessimistic if you looked at the economic numbers and anything else. But did his dark vision make more sense if you were in a small Ohio town that didn't have a lot of jobs or had a meth problem or had any number of other cultural signs of trouble?

VANCE: Yeah. I think it's important to ask, too pessimistic for who? And my sense, if you look at the polling, is that the most pessimistic of sub-demographic in our entire country is the white working class. And so, yes, he was very pessimistic. He was very critical of the direction of the country. But there was one group of people in the country for whom that message really made sense and rang true.

INSKEEP: So stay on the line because NPR's Scott Detrow is with us from our studios in New York City. He's been covering this election all along. And, Scott, I'm thinking about Appalachia...


INSKEEP: ...Which Mr. Vance knows so well. Ohio is an Appalachian state, the southern part of the state. Pennsylvania - Appalachian State. And you have a lot of people who are culturally from there, their ancestors are from there in places like Michigan. Is there some connection between what J.D. Vance is saying and the results that you were seeing?

DETROW: I think the results do say that. I mean, no poll - no poll - showed that Donald Trump could win Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, but he did. You know, let's just talk about Pennsylvania for a moment. There's been a formula in Pennsylvania for decades. Democrats run up big margins in big cities and the suburbs. And the rest of the state, the rural part of the state, the Appalachian corner of the state - it goes Republican.

But the Democrats get the numbers they need from the cities. And the thing is that yesterday Democrats in Pennsylvania talking to me said they felt good. They felt like they had the numbers they needed from Philadelphia and its suburbs. They did not anticipate the swell of support that Donald Trump got from more rural parts of the state.

INSKEEP: J.D. Vance, I want to ask about another aspect about this we - of it. We heard from pollster, Margie Omero, earlier in the program about a fear that many people on the left have that this election is an endorsement of racism, of sexism because of remarks that Donald Trump made, because of the fact that he was endorsed by a newspaper that is connected with the KKK. He received all kinds of support from the so-called alt-right. There's a fear that it's an endorsement of all that. Do you feel that this election is an endorsement of that kind of thinking?

VANCE: I don't think in a wholesale way. There is obviously an element of sort of racial anxiety that animates at least part of Trump's appeal. But, you know, my sense is the gross majority of people who voted for Trump were not primarily motivated by anything like racial animus. And if we talk like it was, then I think we do ourselves a disservice because we sort of discredit some of the very real things that are going on in this area of the country.

INSKEEP: What is the racial anxiety? Because you said that you thought there was some.

VANCE: Well, you know, I think some folks - and again, I wouldn't say that everyone or even most people feel like that. But I definitely think that there are some people who are motivated by a certain fear that other people are getting ahead of them in the proverbial line. And that's some of what's going on. But again, I think that a lot of folks are more motivated by the sense that things just aren't going especially well and nobody really cares about them.

INSKEEP: Scott Detrow, let me ask if you have any information on it. I heard anecdotal stories. I can't cite a number, but anecdotes of people who voted for Barack Obama and then were going to go ahead and vote for Donald Trump, people in the white working class. Did that happen?

DETROW: I think we still need to dig into the numbers to find how much of a shift there was for that. But I think we can say - especially if you look at cities like Milwaukee and Detroit, cities that Hillary Clinton needed to win last night - that she did not do as well in those cities as Barack Obama did in 2012 and 2008. And I think if you look at the gap between Obama's vote margins there and what Hillary Clinton did, that could have been enough to swing both of those states. So one way or another, there was less enthusiasm from her from voting groups that typically go Democrat.

INSKEEP: J.D. Vance, does it make sense to you that some people in America might have voted for Obama and then voted for the guy who questioned his birth certificate?

VANCE: Yeah, that definitely makes sense to me. I mean, again, I don't know how large the population is. But my suspicion is that there are a lot of people who were at least relatively attracted to the optimistic message of Obama. And over the last eight years they've really had their optimism shattered, and so were willing to go for somebody like Trump.

INSKEEP: Just because he was so different?

VANCE: Just because he was so different. Because he was offering a very harsh critique of sort of mainstream elite opinion. And he was offering it at a time when a lot of folks felt like the elites had failed in various ways.

INSKEEP: J.D. Vance, it's always a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you very much, sir.

VANCE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's the author of "Hillbilly Elegy." And we are also hearing this morning from NPR's Scott Detrow in New York, who's covered the campaign all along. Scott, thanks to you.

DETROW: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

More On This Topic