Art for Beverly Hillbilly Elegy.
Our intrepid reporter takes a journey into his own past. / Filmways
David V. Johnson,  October 14, 2016

Beverly Hillbilly Elegy

A(nother) memoir of a family and culture in crisis

Our intrepid reporter takes a journey into his own past. / Filmways


Imagine if you discovered one day that your father was a closeted polygamist, that your brother secretly sold meth, or that your sister the schoolteacher had an affair with one of her fifth graders. A similarly dark family secret confronted me recently, when I learned that my very own mother, the woman who brought me into the world, planned to cast her ballot in November for Donald J. Trump.

When my parents were younger, they excitedly voted for JFK and brimmed with optimism about the future. But then Camelot came crashing down, followed by Vietnam, hippies, race riots, social welfare, and inflation. By the late sixties, they registered Republican, voted for Nixon and never looked back. Reagan became their hero; they adored him the way ethnic Catholics venerate the saints. But my father, a pro-business conservative who abhorred cruelty and boorishness even more than taxes, told me he could not in good conscience vote for the GOP nominee this year. So I had honestly expected that my mother was going to take the same stance. No, my father corrected me over the phone: she was going to support the Donald.

If this revelation were merely about politics, I would have asked my mother for her reasons. But this obviously went far deeper than the epiphenomena of electoral debate. No, this transcended the flashy rhetoric, policy wonkery, and fact-checks of cable news. It began to dawn on me that we lived in two different worlds, and that in abandoning the community of my childhood, I had also lost touch with my roots.

My very own mother, the woman who brought me into the world, planned to cast her ballot in November for Donald J. Trump.

So I decided to return to my hometown, deep in the heart of Trump Nation (as the Atlantic and USA Today have christened it) to re-immerse myself in its culture and inhale its values. I would need to open my toolkit and brush off the dusty implements that my college education bestowed upon me. I would call on anthropology, sociology, psychology, and the keen insight possessed only by seasoned practitioners of immersion journalism. I would return on the pretext of celebrating my father’s eightieth birthday. (Birthdays were important occasions for my family, just as they were for many of their neighbors in their tight-knit community.) But I was venturing into this exotic social world with the true purpose of embedding myself in the lives of my forebears and relearning their odd tribal rituals.

In pursuing this project, I knew I was following the footsteps of giants with whom I could barely compete. The New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar could have gone to southern Staten Island to write about Trump voters. (My colleagues and I at the Staten Island Advance newspaper used to refer to the 278 expressway that cuts the island in two as the Mason-Dixon line.) But there, the Trump voter is really a stand-in for the Giuliani voter, and we already know what those folks are like—fuggetaboutit. MacFarquhar’s editors knew that if she was going to report on the Trump voter, it had to be in a much higher-risk setting: they dispatched her up West Virginia’s Guyanodotte River into the heart of darkness. And my fellow Berkeley resident, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, could have driven to California’s gold country or central valley to find Trump voters for her book and Mother Jones cover story on the sullen tribes of the Tea Party, but Bay Area residents have all driven through these parts on our way to and from Tahoe or Los Angeles. We’ve visited their 7-Elevens and even chatted with them about the Giants. No, the best specimens of Trumpism could only be hunted down in the Bayou.

As for me, I had to settle for a cheaper excursion: a short flight on Southwest Airlines for a weekend visit. My father picked me up at the airport on a hazy fall morning, which instantly transported me back to my youth, when the air quality got so bad that government officials would frequently issue health alerts, and playing outdoors would leave me gasping for air. The oil industry had left our hometown so cloudy with smoke and soot that on some days you couldn’t see three miles. We got into his car and he turned the radio to Rush Limbaugh, who was ranting about how the liberal media was out to make Trump unlikable. We would head to town to meet my mother, drop off my bags at home, and go out for lunch. As we got off the highway, we passed a poster with a naked, tattooed Hillary that read “First Female POTUS, Above the law and out of touch, Hillary Rotten Clinton.” I took a picture and posted it to my Instagram. Wouldn’t my followers be shocked to learn of the backwater where this cosmopolitan lefty writer came from?

I grew up in Westwood Village, a small, ever-depressed college town west of Los Angeles with scores of boarded-up stores and restaurants, whose saving grace was a burgeoning community of Persian immigrants. (“Tehrangeles” was a frequent object of scorn among the white working class in Westwood Village and Beverly Hills, the sleepy next-door community that once served as the locale for a famous show about hillbillies.) Many of my current friends and colleagues don’t believe me when I say I hail from a place even redder than the Deep South. But I do. A little known fact: Los Angeles County had more Republican voters in 2012 than all of Mississippi.

My parents, married for more than fifty years, still live in the same house I grew up in, with the same watering hole (albeit rectangular and chlorinated) out back that I used to swim in with friends. My mother greeted me at the front door, hugged me warmly, as she was wont to do when I visited, and smiled. Where I come from, though we locked our doors and ignored the knocks of strangers, guests were welcomed with physical displays of affection such as handshakes and hugs. I walked into the foyer to be greeted by many photos of me and my family over the decades. Memories were always important in our family.

I would be embarrassed today to take my friends there: pepperoni, but no pancetta or prosciutto; spinach, but no arugula, kale, or nettles.

I dropped my bags off in my little bedroom-cum-sitting-area, which had a fireplace one could roast marshmallows in (granted, natural gas was not as good for the purpose as wood or coal). We were then off to one of our favorite joints, California Pizza Kitchen, which is sort of the Cracker Barrel of Southern California. I would be embarrassed today to take my friends there: pepperoni, but no pancetta or prosciutto; spinach, but no arugula, kale, or nettles; crimini mushrooms, but no morels. The chain restaurant was within walking distance from our house. So was our grocery store, our church, the parochial school I attended, and everything else important to us. But my parents always insisted on driving everywhere, just as all of their neighbors did. Everyone we knew drove. Walking to places was what the “elites”—those who ruled over us from Manhattan and Washington—did. We were going to drive; that’s who we were.

I would have to slow-play my inquiry into my mother’s voting preference, in order to avoid raising suspicion. She had done a lot over the years to support her son, who was chronically underemployed in a depressed industry, but she was wary of the liberal media. Over lunch, I turned the conversation to college football, our second religion. I was the product of a mixed marriage: my mother rooted for USC, while my father revered UCLA. Things were going poorly for our teams, which cast a pall over our meal. Washington and Stanford were now the best programs in our neck of the woods. It was as if we were living in Alabama and the good football had been outsourced to Vanderbilt and Kentucky.

They also filled me in on the local gossip. I hadn’t kept in touch with my classmates since leaving town. It was sad to hear the stories of broken dreams, the many kids I knew who envisioned law or medicine for themselves, but wound up in dead-end jobs, such as selling real estate or insurance, or even worse, working as “producers”—which really meant they were unemployed and living off family handouts. One woman from my neighborhood, who had aspired to be an actress but ended up divorced, disfigured, and alienated from her mother, was expecting her fifth child with her philandering second husband. A local one-time football star was arrested after trespassing into someone’s backyard naked and high on meth; he had relapsed again. Was it this sort of social disintegration that was driving folks like my mother into the arms of Trump?

The conversation then turned to the two local police shootings on consecutive days. My mother dismissed the incidents, insisting that in both cases, the victims deserved it. Insensitive, perhaps, in the age of Black Lives Matter, but in her eyes the LAPD kept our hamlet safe, and personal safety was vitally important for “security moms” like mine. Where I grew up, crime was constantly in the news and felt as though it was all-enveloping. In my last year of high school, two local brothers shotgunned their parents for the money, and after they were arrested, they revealed years of sexual molestation and incest. Our community became a national joke; even Saturday Night Live produced a sketch about the case. Classmates tuned out by listening to the local ethnic folk music (“gangsta rap”), which was filled with horrific tales of drugs, violence, and misogyny. Others smoked pot. Many of us were pissed off and self-medicating, in the prime of our youth yet lacking motivation for advancement, downcast about Iran-Contra, Japanese imports, and hair metal. But I was glad to get away from the social dysfunction, and remained ever thankful that my parents shielded me from the worst of it.

Friends were shocked when I told them my dark family secret, but I insisted to their guffaws that my mother was not the sexist, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, OxyContin-popping deplorable you would expect a Trump supporter to be. Yes, she does read the New York Post and watch Fox News regularly, and she spouts off at times about “the liberals.” But despite all this, she volunteers for local charities and has a rich social life. She even enjoys Mexican food, has Jewish friends, and employs a gay decorator. And she actually evinces great concern that her granddaughters grow up and pursue careers of their own—something she was not able to do as a young woman in 1950s America. She keeps a clean home, albeit with some help, and supports her family with a keen devotion bordering on obsessiveness.

I would call her an Italian mother, except she identifies as an American of Italian descent. Her father came to this country from Naples, learned the French horn, taught the male members of his family how to play, and they all became professional musicians. My grandfather had a union job with one of the big movie studios, in the days when every lot had its own orchestra. But all those union jobs are now gone. Once she was out of college, my mother worked for one of the big department stores that’s now shuttered. She gave up that life to marry my father, who had steady work at one of the “Big Eight” accounting firms (of which there are only four today), and raise a family.

Since my parents are older and collecting Social Security, I like to avoid unpleasant topics such as politics so that we can enjoy the remaining time we have together. They took me to their local equivalent of the Elks Lodge, one that abuts the beach, has a strict dress code, and serves brunch. Swimming in the ocean was one of my favorite things as a child: it was fun and it was free, though pollution was still a problem. We whittled our cares away in the sand and surf. That evening we celebrated my father’s birthday with some good eats at another favorite local restaurant, whose chef-owner happened to be an immigrant. I didn’t point out the irony to my mother.

But I finally found the courage to pop the question the next morning. I tiptoed by my parents’ bedroom, where my father was loudly snoring (obesity is a scourge in Westwood, too), and walked downstairs to the living room, where I found my mother on the couch, huddled under a blanket. (People in our community didn’t use the heater much, which saved money.) She was watching an old black and white, It Happened One Night. When she wasn’t tuned to Fox News, she had the dial turned to Turner Classic Movies, as if trying to conjure the past glories of Hollywood, when men were men and her father had a union job. I sat down and asked her, point blank, whether it was true she was voting for Trump.

“Well, first of all, Hillary Clinton is a crook and a liar,” she said defensively. I had to admit, she had a point. All my friends who insisted that Hillary was honest clearly hadn’t read FBI Director James Comey’s report, which basically demonstrated to any literate person that she had lied for over a year about the email scandal. But many of my friends, alas, were not literate—at least not at the high tide of election season. Nevertheless, I told her what I had read, that Hillary scored as more honest than Donald Trump with the newspaper fact-checkers.

“The media is in the tank for Hillary,” she replied, again scoring a point. “Do you know what David Geffen said about the Clintons?” she asked. Yes, I did recall his pronouncement. How could I not? Everyone in our community revered this village elder for his wisdom and grace. “Everyone in politics lies,” she repeated, “but they do it with such ease, it’s troubling.”

I sat down and asked her, point blank, whether it was true she was voting for Trump.

She then told me the story of how a local friend agreed to donate money—a princely sum for hardscrabble folk like us—to Hillary’s New York senate campaign in exchange for an appearance at a charity event, only to have Hillary bow out of that event at the last minute, citing ill health. That friend then saw Hillary on TV, perfectly healthy, the day she needed her. Hillary had chosen instead to attend the annual Italian-American Dinner, an all-important commitment for someone aspiring to represent the Empire State. It then hit me like a lightning bolt. You see, where we come from, honesty is important. A person’s word is his bond. I then began to understand why my mother could never vote for Clinton after the candidate had broken a sacred trust like that.

But that didn’t mean she had to vote for Trump. What did she make of his comments to a local TV reporter (Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush) about grabbing women’s pussies?

“That’s all locker room talk,” she said, repeating Trump’s own excuse. “Do you know how men used to talk in the old days?” I had an inkling, since I had heard the stories of my grandfather hunting with Clark Gable, who had his own penchant for showering unwelcome affection and bad breath on women. I admit they don’t make men and movies the way they used to. In the old days, alpha males used to be satisfied with private womanizing and small parties with friends; nowadays they marry human rights lawyers and host huge fundraisers for serial liars. Sad.

But what about Trump’s Islamophobia? His hatred of immigrants? Wasn’t grandfather an immigrant?

“He came through Ellis Island and was vetted carefully,” she said. “Obama and Clinton don’t get it. They want open borders, more refugees and uncontrolled immigration. It’s changing our society. We didn’t used to have all this crime and violence and terrorism. This is not the country I grew up in.”

Terrorism. It was a specter that haunted all of us, even our family’s small town. Over the summer, a murder-suicide happened at UCLA, just a short walk from my parents’ house. I had called my mother that morning to warn her of an “active shooter” situation, and she had “sheltered in place,” worried about a terrorist on the loose. As it turned out, a disturbed graduate student, Mainak Sarkar, had shot and killed one of his former professors. It was the sort of thing that never happened before Obama.

And then I recalled the San Bernardino attacks last December. My parents sometimes passed through San Bernardino on the way to Palm Springs, where they had a humble abode to get away from things. It was a sort of dugout carved into the hills of Palm Desert, except it more closely resembled a two-bedroom townhouse in a gated community lined with palm trees and rooted in the non-native fescues of a golf course. They liked it out there. My father would hunt—for people with whom to play tennis—and the two of them would often play bridge with friends. They clung to their cards as their guns and religion; perhaps it was this very American card game, with its signature “trumps,” that made the Republican candidate resonate with her.

At any rate, I now better understood why she was voting for Trump. Hillary Clinton had broken the code on which our community depended, and now that community was under mortal threat from terrorists and mediocre politically correct movies scored by computers. I got up, sat beside my mother, and held her close. I thought, this was where I came from, and although I had left it all behind, its decline saddened me. Trump may rightly horrify many of us, but one thing is certain to the people of my tribe: the man knows entertainment, and will make America great again, if not in reality, then at least on the screen. Where I grew up, that means everything.

David V. Johnson is senior editor of Stanford Social Innovation Review. He has also written for The New York TimesUSA Today, AeonThe New RepublicBookforumJacobin, and Dissent, among other publications. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford University. You can find him on Twitter @contrarianp.

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