In 2007, after he finished the Marines, Vance attended Ohio State University. Although he was older than the majority of students, he found that most of the people he met came from similar places as him. Having learned intensity and discipline in the Marines, he applied himself to his studies with incredible energy, often sleeping only several hours a night. To avoid debt he worked at the Ohio Statehouse, and when this income wasn’t enough, he took a second job at a nonprofit doing advocacy working for abused and neglected children. Though he didn’t mind his busy schedule, it took a toll on his health. After finding out that her son was running a fever of 103º, Bev drove to Columbus and took him to the emergency room, where they discovered he had a staph infection and mononucleosis. Bev took him home, where he recovered for several weeks while feeling conflicted about his mother’s kindness, since he didn’t know how to reconcile her current loving attitude with her past mistakes.
Vance’s inability to reconcile his mother’s kindness with her past misdeeds is uncharacteristic of the author, who normally gives people the benefit of the doubt. Nonetheless, his hesitancy is understandable, given the fact that his mother was once so neglectful and self-centered. Above all, his reluctance to accept Bev’s care illustrates just how emotionally scarring parental abuse and instability can be. Having become upwardly mobile and self-sufficient, Vance naturally dislikes allowing his mother to dote on him, as it symbolizes a regression into childhood—and moreover, a regression into a fantasy childhood of nurture and support that never really existed.
When he returned to Columbus, Vance took a third job as an SAT tutor. It paid so well that he quit his job at the statehouse, figuring that despite the fact that it was the job he liked the most, he would have to wait until later in life to choose rewarding occupations. In his second year of college, Vance worked even harder than he had during his first. He also found himself annoyed with some of his fellow classmates, who were younger, inexperienced, and judgmental of the military. One classmate in particular went on a rant during class about how soldiers tended to be unintelligent and bloodthirsty. Shortly after this incident, Vance decided to finish college as quickly as possible, plotting with his guidance counselor so that he successfully graduated from Ohio State in only one year and eleven months.
It should come as no surprise that Vance bristled against his classmate’s narrow-mindedness, considering the fact that he himself is so willing to consider multiple different perspectives. In addition, his decision to put off rewarding work until he was more financially stable shows the extreme discipline he developed in the Marines—now he fully embraced a kind of determination that took into account the reality of his situation. This greatly contrasts with the attitude of many of Vance’s fellow hillbillies, who constantly ignored reality and the economic constraints placed on them, instead choosing to do whatever they wanted despite the financial consequences.
Vance moved back to Middletown to prepare for law school, to which he had already been accepted. He stayed with Aunt Wee—who had taken Mamaw’s place as the family matriarch—and worked at a tile factory. From his new vantage point, he was able to observe the cynicism most Middletonians had about their prospects. He writes that the culture had no heroes to look toward, and “certainly not any politician.” Although Barack Obama was admired throughout the country, hillbillies were suspicious of him. “Nothing united us with the core fabric of American society,” he writes. Nonetheless, one of the strongest elements of hillbilly culture, Vance says, is patriotism. When he was growing up, Mamaw and Papaw taught him that he lived in “the best and greatest country on earth.” He writes that this gave meaning to his childhood. The fact that working-class whites no longer have any sort of political hero, Vance points out, means that they are losing what previously “bound them to their neighbors, that inspired them in the way [Vance’s] patriotism had always inspired” him.
Yet again, Vance suggests that hillbillies are isolated from the greater American cultural landscape. Politically estranged and economically disempowered, they find it difficult to remain a cohesive community even within the bounds of their own culture. This is significant, considering that Vance has elsewhere emphasized just how strong and cohesive the Scots-Irish culture has remained throughout the years. Now, he suggests, things are changing, and it is because of the political, economic, and cultural isolation hillbillies are experiencing due to the deterioration of things that used to bind “them to their neighbors.” Even patriotism, Vance upholds, is no longer able to unite the community. And as Vance’s personal history exemplifies, a lack of support and communal stability leads to incredibly unfavorable circumstances.
Vance explains that many white conservative voters believe Barack Obama is a Muslim. He says that he has heard from multiple acquaintances and family members that Obama “has ties to Islamic extremists, or is a traitor, or was born in some far-flung corner of the world.” “Many of my new friends blame racism for this perception of the president,” he writes. “But the president feels like an alien to many Middletonians for reasons that have nothing to do with skin color.” He proceeds by arguing that working-class whites distrust Obama because he attended two Ivy League schools, “is brilliant, wealthy, and speaks like a constitutional law professor.” This, in combination with the fact that Obama “is a good father” and “wears suits to his job,” makes it impossible for working-class whites to identify or relate to him; he is so far removed from the hillbilly life, Vance maintains, that hillbillies are inclined to distrust him.
Although Vance’s theory about Obama’s impressive credentials and sophisticated personality make sense when trying to determine why so many working-class whites distrust him, it fails to take into account that many white presidents have similarly astounding credentials and personalities. Indeed, the last five presidents (including Donald Trump) graduated from Ivy League schools. So while it seems logical that hillbillies distrust Obama because he is the antithesis of the hillbilly identity—to which they are so loyal—the fact that other white presidents have not been met with the same suspicion indicates that there is, in fact, a racist element to the white working-class’s rejection of the first black president.
Vance outlines the idea that the “anger and cynicism of working-class whites” has to do with misinformation. He notes that a mere 6% of American voters think the media is “very trustworthy.” As a result, people turn to the internet, where conspiracy theories run rampant. According to Vance, if a community doesn’t trust the evening news or its politicians—or any of its other core institutions—it is unlikely to succeed. A narrative of isolation and pessimism has proliferated throughout the white working-class, one that seems to ask: “if you think it’s hard to get ahead even when you try, then why try at all?”
Yet again, Vance returns to the idea that the isolation of the white working class leads to complacency and a loss of personal agency. When an entire community distrusts something as nationally accepted as the evening news, it’s clear that they don’t feel as if they’re living in the same context as the rest of the country. This means that the idea of the American Dream—the idea of hard work leading to success—probably also seems suspicious, ultimately leading to an overall sense of apathetic complacency.