Author Jared Yates Sexton Calls 'Hillbilly Elegy' 'Traditional Right-Wing Propaganda'

J.D. Vance's memoir Hillbilly Elegy, which has been slammed by critics branding the book as part of the right wing agenda, is being adapted for the screen. The book's back cover reads that it is "a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of poor, white Americans," adding: "The disintegration of this group, a process that has been slowly occurring now for over forty years, has been reported with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside." Glenn Close and Amy Adams are set to star in the drama, which will hit Netflix next month.

Although many praised the book for its importance and as a provocative tale when it was published in 2016, Hillbilly Elegy appeared to generalize the author's upbringing in Ohio, according to Jared Yates Sexton, author, political commentator, and outspoken J.D. Vance critic.

Newsweek recently spoke to Sexton about the book ahead of the Netflix adaptation. He explained why he believes the book is right-wing mythology, elaborated on the deliberate mistruths he alleges it contains, and how the upcoming election could change how the memoir is viewed.

What was your first impression reading Hillbilly Elegy?

"You know, it was an interesting thing. I come from southern Indiana, in this really, really small town. I come from a very poor family, factory workers, laborers, miners... And, I had been waiting for a very long time for someone to write about this experience that I had. And I was especially frustrated for years by how particularly the media just, sort of ignored Middle America, people like my family, and I saw a big problem emerging. I saw a lot of anger emerging. So I have to tell you that when I heard this book was coming out and gaining steam, I was really relieved and excited.

"So, I picked it up and started reading it, and J.D. Vance's childhood, at least parts of it, read a lot like my own. I came from a really dysfunctional, abusive family. A lot of the issues he addressed in the beginning of the book — I felt a real kinship to him. But that actually made the experience that much more infuriating as the book went on, when it sort of made this pretty incredible authorial, editorial shift. It became very clear that this book had been written with a political bent, that was just barely obscured. I started to realize that this was pretty traditional right-wing propaganda that was being pushed through by this book.

"And then I became, honestly, incredibly angry that the media had latched onto it because they spent so much time ignoring Middle America that they needed a 'White Rural Poverty for Dummies' because of the Donald Trump emergence. It was a pretty incredibly turbulent roller coaster ride, is what I would call it."

What parts of the book stood out to you, that made you think the memoir "actively promotes Reaganomics"?

"There are some really incredible moments where obviously there is this indictment of poor people, that they don't want to change, and that they get caught in cycles of self-destruction and helplessness. And it's that cycle that they chose that doesn't allow them to escape their positions in life. On top of that, he goes so far as to advocate for things like payday lending stores. He talks a lot about choices like drinking too much Mountain Dew and eating bad food, as if poverty is some sort of a symptom of not just personal choice, but personal and societal decay.

"Those are the moments that the text really starts to fray. It feels like the tone shifts very abruptly and you suddenly start to realize that Vance has written this book, not as a memoir of his time in this place, but as a thinly veiled, self-help, self-congratulatory text."

Glenn Close Amy Adams Hillbilly Elegy
Glenn Close and Amy Adams in still from "Hillbilly Elegy." Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX © 2020

You wrote in Salon in 2017 that Vance "totally discounts the role racism played in the white working class opposition to President Obama." Could you elaborate on that more?

"I want to make this clear — the people I'm talking about, my family, I love them very much. I will love them to my dying day. But I have to be honest and tell you — they have racist, misogynistic and even fascistic tendencies. These are things that are not hidden in these homes. These are conversations that used to happen when the door was closed, and now in the Trump era, it's out in public and has escaped into the public sphere.

"This line about how white critics in Middle America about Barack Obama disliked him because he dressed well, was a good father, and because he and his family ate good food, is not just untrue, but it is an obvious, deliberate mistruth. This is something J.D. Vance has to understand. By the way, in recent years, obviously, we discover he spent less time in Appalachia than the book makes it seem.

"If you have spent any time around these populations, you understand that this white supremacy or racism is an integral part of that culture. The backlash against Barack Obama was predicated on racism and white supremacy to push it as some sort cultural marker, the idea that he made better of himself than other people had, and that made them feel bad about themselves.

"Maybe there is a personal psychology there that maybe you could try and tie that to? But to throw that in and make that general assumption is not just untrue, but it's an intentional lie in order to obscure politics that is convenient for the author."

Do you think Hillbilly Elegy was an accurate depiction of growing up in poverty?

"I think it is in point. I think when you actually look at the cycles of dysfunction, I think that is absolutely true. There were moments where I felt very, very close to J.D. Vance. It was strange, when I started the book and was reading it, I couldn't wait to reach out to him and be like, 'I'm so glad I found a member of my tribe. I'm so glad that you wrote this book.'

"But one of the things the book does is — and one of the tricks that it pulls — is that focuses on this idea that all you need to escape poverty is to find a stable situation and to pull yourself up by your metaphorical bootstraps. Well, it's almost impossible for a lot of people in poverty to find that stable situation, or to find a middle class grandmother or distant relative to live with. It's also predicated — and this is one of the more offensive things — that J.D. Vance basically said, 'why didn't you go to the military and enroll at Yale?' Which is not only not a path that is inaccessible to a lot of poor people, but it's also to a lot of poor people, unimaginable.

"One of the things he doesn't talk about in the book is when you move between stations and classes, you start to understand that there are ways to power and influence and wealth that when you were in the working class or the impoverished class, you couldn't even have imagined that these ways were there. But when you get into the next class, you realize they've always been there and that the door was always there.

"The way that he describes his ascent out of poverty, he treats it as if everyone should just know this and the fact that they don't do it is somehow their personal failing. When, in fact, I think he completely obscures what it means to be in different classes from this country."

Hillbilly Elegy
Haley Bennett as Lindsay, Gabriel Basso as J.D. Vance, and Amy Adams as Bev in a still from "Hillbilly Elegy." Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX © 2020

An article from The Guardian said that Vance "is comfortable with explanations of white pathology that rely on psychology and 'culture,' but not on structural economic inequality." How could this angling in his book be misleading?

"Well, the bigger question that doesn't get asked in Hillbilly Elegy is why was Vance's family impoverished, and why was the community impoverished? The larger questions of systems of control and power are, why are they in place, who constructed them, and how do they operate? Hillbilly Elegy never once even engages in that idea. It more or less engages in a little bit of misery tourism. It allows you to see how hard it is for people in these communities, and then diagnoses them with learned helplessness and moves on.

"Any honest critique of poverty in rural America has to start engaging with everything from Reaganomics, top-down economics, the growth of multinational, international corporations, tax cuts, tax codes, modern American politics. This is something that he obviously wasn't even interested in. And the reason he's not interested in it is because the book is part of the right wing, Republican mythology, which is that none of those things actually exist, and that it's an equal playing field, and that the meritocracy exists. If you don't manage to climb up into the next class, that is a personal indictment of you. It says something about your ambition, it says something about your intelligence, it says something about your capability.

"Because according to right wing mythology, all of the playing field is level, everything is fair, the systems that I described don't actually exist, and so it's up to you in order to make your way."

Some folks think that after Donald Trump's election in 2016, the book took on new meaning for those who lean more liberal. How do you think this would change if he doesn't get reelected next month?

"The sad truth is that I think we go through cycles in this country where we don't pay necessary attention to major, crucial issues. And going back to the idea about poverty in rural America, this is one of those issues that has festered for decades. I know that I watched my family really begin to suffer when globalism took shape in the early 1990s, and for decades I've seen my small hometown absolutely dismantled and destroyed. It wasn't something that someone really wanted to talk about outside of things like the opioid epidemic.

"Then of course, with Donald Trump, in a lot of ways the people who supported Donald Trump did so in those communities in part because they believed that they could finally get their voice heard in the public sphere. It was more or less like a middle finger and a gnashing of the teeth; it was finally like pay attention to what's going on, even though they elected someone who doesn't care about them or their faiths, and totally misrepresents his politics.

"I think that the problem is that if Donald Trump isn't re-elected, I think that we could be looking at another cycle, possibly moving forward, and I hope that this isn't true. But we could be looking at another time the attention that has been focused on those people goes away again, which will once more not only lead to more personal suffering, but will lead to more of an angry uprising. It could lead to another Donald Trump, or possibly something worse."