East-coast professional-class whites have a barely-banked contempt for poor rural white people from the South that is visceral and obvious to Ron Dreher. J.D. Vance has felt it too:
My grandma (Mamaw) recognized this instinctively. She said that most people were probably prejudiced, but they had to be secretive about it. “We” — meaning hillbillies — “are the only group of people you don’t have to be ashamed to look down upon.” During my final year at Yale Law, I took a small class with a professor I really admired (and still do). I was the only veteran in the class, and when this came up somehow in conversation, a young woman looked at me and said, “I can’t believe you were in the Marines. You just seem so nice. I thought that people in the military had to act a certain way.” It was incredibly insulting, and it was my first real introduction to the idea that this institution that was so important among my neighbors was looked down upon in such a personal way. To this lady, to be in the military meant that you had to be some sort of barbarian. I bit my tongue, but it’s one of those comments I’ll never forget.
The “why” is really difficult, but I have a few thoughts. The first is that humans appear to have some need to look down on someone; there’s just a basic tribalistic impulse in all of us. And if you’re an elite white professional, working class whites are an easy target: you don’t have to feel guilty for being a racist or a xenophobe. By looking down on the hillbilly, you can get that high of self-righteousness and superiority without violating any of the moral norms of your own tribe. So your own prejudice is never revealed for what it is.
A lot of it is pure disconnect — many elites just don’t know a member of the white working class. A professor once told me that Yale Law shouldn’t accept students who attended state universities for their undergraduate studies. (A bit of background: Yale Law takes well over half of its student body from very elite private schools.) “We don’t do remedial education here,” he said. Keep in mind that this guy was very progressive and cared a lot about income inequality and opportunity. But he just didn’t realize that for a kid like me, Ohio State was my only chance — the one opportunity I had to do well in a good school. If you removed that path from my life, there was nothing else to give me a shot at Yale. When I explained that to him, he was actually really receptive. He may have even changed his mind.
What does it mean for our politics? To me, this condescension is a big part of Trump’s appeal. He’s the one politician who actively fights elite sensibilities, whether they’re good or bad. I remember when Hillary Clinton casually talked about putting coal miners out of work, or when Obama years ago discussed working class whites clinging to their guns and religion. Each time someone talks like this, I’m reminded of Mamaw’s feeling that hillbillies are the one group you don’t have to be ashamed to look down upon. The people back home carry that condescension like a badge of honor, but it also hurts, and they’ve been looking for someone for a while who will declare war on the condescenders. If nothing else, Trump does that.
This is where, to me, there’s a lot of ignorance around “Teflon Don.” No one seems to understand why conventional blunders do nothing to Trump. But in a lot of ways, what elites see as blunders people back home see as someone who — finally — conducts themselves in a relatable way. He shoots from the hip; he’s not constantly afraid of offending someone; he’ll get angry about politics; he’ll call someone a liar or a fraud. This is how a lot of people in the white working class actually talk about politics, and even many elites recognize how refreshing and entertaining it can be! So it’s not really a blunder as much as it is a rich, privileged Wharton grad connecting to people back home through style and tone. Viewed like this, all the talk about “political correctness” isn’t about any specific substantive point, as much as it is a way of expanding the scope of acceptable behavior. People don’t want to believe they have to speak like Obama or Clinton to participate meaningfully in politics, because most of us don’t speak like Obama or Clinton.