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‘He’s Dangerous. So Is His Book.’

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Hillbilly Elegy was published in the summer of 2016. It became a New York Times bestseller and a cultural sensation — and it made a celebrity of sorts out of J.D. Vance. He was for a time one of the main explainers to those on the left of what was to them the inexplicably successful presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. In the last six years, though, the title has turned into but a piece of Vance’s resume, a part of a quick clause that says who he is — Yale Law, venture capitalist, author of …

In the wake, though, of Vance’s victory this week in the wild and tightly contested Republican Senate primary in Ohio — one that makes him a favorite to get elected to the U.S. Senate come November — Hillbilly Elegy is newly relevant. And while legions of pundits and commentators focused the last few days on Trump’s role in boosting Vance, Silas House went back to the book.

House, the Appalachian Studies chair at Berea College in Kentucky, one of the premier thinkers in and about the South and a bestselling writer in his own right, considers Hillbilly Elegy offensive and inauthentic. He sees it, and saw it from the start, as not a memoir but a treatise that traffics in ugly stereotypes and tropes, less a way to explain the political rise of Trump than the actual start of the political rise of Vance. And it’s as meaningful now as it was when it first came out, House believes, because it helps show what kind of candidate Vance has been and what kind of senator he might be.

“He’s dangerous. So is his book,” House said about Vance in a Tuesday night tweet.

“When I criticize it, sometimes conservatives accuse me of wanting to keep it out of readers’ hands,” he told me Thursday. “I want to make it clear that I am in no way saying the book should be banned or anything remotely like that. But I am saying that I hope people who read it seek historical and cultural context. Every family story has value, but I wish he’d told that story without generalizing an entire place and people to fit his agenda.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Michael Kruse: Why is he dangerous and why is his book dangerous?

Silas House: It’s a dangerous book because it’s a treatise in disguise. Lots of times when I would voice my opposition to the book, well-intentioned people, often liberal people, would say, “But it’s a memoir, it’s his family story — how can you negate his own story?” My response to that is I don’t negate the family story, and I think that if it had just been a memoir, it would be a powerful piece of writing and it would be his own proof. But the problem is it is woven through with dog whistles about class and race, gender. And if your ears are attuned to those dog whistles, you know exactly what he’s saying. If you’re not, then it can read like a heartwarming rags-to-riches story. And everything that we’ve learned since the book came out sort of proves that it was just laying the groundwork for this political career.

There’s a lot of talk right now about how he was so anti-Trump, and now, of course, he’s riding on the Trump bump and all that. But even if he was anti-Trump from the beginning, he was always pushing ideas that Trumpers really latch onto — like........

© Politico

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