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Hillbilly Insurgency


Hillbilly InsurgencyJournal abstract

A growing number of people worldwide share the fear that an anxiety-free night’s rest, let alone dreams of any kind, is becoming a luxury afforded only to the rich, connected and worldly.

There was a time when America's heartland was seen as critical to the nation's strength. Its food, factories and coal powered the nation; its men and women fought its wars; and its white-picket-fenced small towns evoked the American dreams of foreigners. During the Cold War, none other than Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev visited one such town – Ames, Iowa – because he was ‘curious to have a look’ at America while in the country for meetings in 1959.

US president Dwight D. Eisenhower used that curiosity to his advantage by strategically scheduling his summit with Khrushchev at the end of the Soviet leader's grand tour. By using Camp David as a carrot, Eisenhower hoped to keep the fiery premier on his best behaviour. But the president also wanted Khrushchev to visit an American factory town that was ‘universally and exclusively inhabited’ by its workers, to see ‘decent, fine, comfortable homes’, and to meet a ‘happy … free people, doing exactly as they choose’.

Khrushchev did not visit Middletown, Ohio – a town that would have fit Eisenhower's description six decades ago – but readers can do so today in J.D. Vance's bestselling memoir Hillbilly Elegy. Although Vance describes his life story as ‘superficially boring’ (p. 204), the memoir is a searing look into a part of the United States that is ‘hemorrhaging jobs and hope’ (p. 1), and a startling introduction to the friends and family he affectionately calls ‘hillbillies’ – who, the book makes clear, are not the happy people of Eisenhower's America but instead increasingly ‘isolated, angry [and] distrustful’ (p. 148).

‘Hillbilly’ is an American term, but the fears and frustration Vance sees in Middletown and communities like it across the country are not unique to the US. The same ‘stress, sadness, fear, anxiety’ that many working-class Americans feel about a world that they believe no longer serves their needs can also be seen in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere (p. 224). American hillbillies and others like them around the globe, as well as the populists some tend to support, have something else in common: they are now taking steps – such as voting for US President Donald Trump – to upset the global order and the globalists they blame for their struggles.

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