Scott James’ Trial by Fire is published today. He shares five books to help us understand the rise of Trump, noting, “Trial by Fire recounts the 2003 Station nightclub fire that killed 100 when the rock band Great White set off fireworks to starts its show. As I dug deeper, I realized there was another story that paralleled the whodunit, true crime tragedy—it was about the plight of poor and working class Americans. The victims of the fire, mostly white and blue collar, are betrayed at nearly every turn. When checking the backgrounds of my subjects, more often than not, I discovered they were registered Republicans. That surprised me, since most were partying, free-spirited rock fans from very blue states. When I finished telling the story, I had a better grasp of why working class Americans are drawn to a figure they see as someone who understands how they’ve been spurned by our nation’s institutions. Here are five other books that have nothing to do with Trump, but give us insight into poor and working class Americans who support him. Some are true stories and others are novels. It’s no coincidence many of these books have gained huge readerships in recent years—I’m not alone in a desire to understand how American got to this place.”
A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr
A local factory sickens residents of a small Massachusetts town and powerful forces try to ensure that no one is held accountable. One man stages a Sisyphean fight on the victims’ behalf that succeeds against all odds, but he is destroyed in the process. When you are poor in America, even when you are right and win, you don’t really win.
Jane Ciabattari: A Civil Action won the National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction in 1995. It pitted Jan Schlichtmann, the lawyer representing families in Woburn, Massachusetts whose children had died of cancer caused by water pollution, against two of the country’s largest corporations. In the opening chapter, when a sheriff has come to repossess Schlichtmann’s Porsche, we learn has poured his energies into the case at the risk of personal bankruptcy. How does Harr’s narrative focus on this flamboyant, risk-taking lawyer help us understand the injustice of the legal system?
Scott James: One of the challenges of writing long-form journalism is transforming the story into something more than just a lengthy newspaper article. Harr’s A Civil Action is a master class. The layers of details are remarkable—something you’d typically get only in a novel—and they’re used in the service of constructing vivid characters we can invest in as readers.
To sustain a whole book, however, you need to go one step further. You need compelling central characters whose storylines can sustain the entire story. Harr could have picked any number of victims as main subjects, and indeed he tells many of their stories, but the lawyer Schlichtmann’s narrative has a clear, compelling beginning, middle and end, plus unexpected twists, including an exposé of the legal system. He’s the thread that ties everyone together, and he’s fascinating.
As the saying goes, you’ve got to get people into the church if you expect them to hear the sermon. Schlichtmann’s journey puts us in the pews, and through storytelling (not preaching), we hear what Harr has to say about injustice.
Educated by Tara Westover
We’ve seen news accounts about right-wing anti-government extremists hunkered down in their compounds waiting for the end times. For Westover, that’s dad.
JC: Westover and her five siblings were raised by fundamentalist Mormon survivalist parents near Buck’s Peak in Idaho, where she was home schooled and worked in her father’s junkyard. She was able to break away at seventeen, going on to study at Brigham Young University and earning a Ph.D. at Cambridge. What insights does her memoir give us about America’s anti-government extremists?
SJ: Westover puts a face on a story that we typically only hear about when it reaches a boiling point, like an armed standoff. The reality is that there are whole swaths of America that live with these thoughts as part of their daily existence. Westover reveals how these alarming views—not supported by facts—are forced by parents onto their children in a type of insidious brainwashing. It makes you wonder if thousands are locked into a hopeless cult of paranoia that feels like mental illness.
Yet Westover herself breaks free, so while illuminating a troubling situation, the story is also inspiring. That combination makes a tough subject easier for readers to grasp. That’s why it’s such a satisfying read.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
You won’t find many characters in fiction that are as poor and disenfranchised as Kya Clark. Society tossed her away as trash, and millions have been glued to the pages to see if she can prevail.
JC: Kya is known as the “Marsh Girl,” abandoned by her family and raising herself amongst wild creatures who live in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. What does she represent for the poor and disenfranchised?
SJ: In America, research has shown that disdain for less educated people is the last acceptable prejudice. Looking down on people based on their race, religion, orientation, gender or economic status is widely condemned, but someone who didn’t finish high school or college? Well, that’s their own damn fault.
The truth is that two-thirds of Americans do not have four-year degrees. Democrats, once the party that represented working class folks, are now seen by many as the party of elites—and Republican pundits (who are no less elite), have successfully smeared Democrats as snobs in many minds.
So it’s no wonder that book readers, who tend to be better educated, (because reading tends to do that) are so fascinated by Kya. She brings us into the world of someone officially uneducated. We quickly learn that Kya is not an idiot, and in some ways is actually quite brilliant—and she resents that others see her as stupid because she did not receive formal schooling. When Trump, an Ivy League graduate, said in 2016, “I love the poorly educated,” his message was aimed at the vast number of Americans in the spectrum that includes Kya. Few politicians have so directly spoken to this group and so effectively connected.
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
This memoir about one man’s journey from an Appalachian holler to Ivy League law was seen as a crystal ball into Trumpian mindsets, and Vance found himself a Fox News fixture.
JC: Vance notes that his grandparents were “dirt poor and in love” when they left Kentucky for a Rust Belt town in Ohio. They carried with them scars that could not be healed. What elements of this legacy links them to Trump’s followers?
SJ: The rise of Donald Trump was in full swing when Hillbilly Elegy was published in June 2016 and conservative writers embraced the book as a venue for understanding why so many Americans felt disenfranchised. Then, after Trump was elected, many wondered why they didn’t see that coming, and turned to the book to gain insight. Vance and his memoir became phenomena.
Hillbilly Elegy showed how our nation’s institutions have continuously failed certain folks, and that has led to deep resentment. Vance explored the tribalism that has existed in the Appalachian communities for generations. Add that to the feelings of betrayal and there’s a political sea change. And these communities tend to dig in their heels. West Virginia, for example, mostly voted for Democrats for president from 1932 to 1996. In 2016 Hillary Clinton lost to Trump by an astounding 42 points.
In my own book I document how working-class people were failed by institutions that were supposed to protect them. There was enormous rage and people responded in ways that were troubling and sometimes self-destructive. If you push people to their limits, there are consequences.
The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things by Laura Albert under the name JT LeRoy
This was one of the greatest literary hoaxes of all time, with Albert pretending to be a poor white boy author when it was published. Perhaps so many were duped because they craved an authentic voice from America’s underclass. Despite the scandal, twenty years later this remains a brutal, fictional account of the failed foster care system, poverty, abuse and addiction. People in these situations are looking for a savior.
JC: “JT was an avatar,” Laura Albert says in her presentation for The Moth. She also says, “Oscar Wilde says, ‘Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.'” If you set aside the pseudonym and the hoax, you have a series of linked short stories about a four-year-old boy who is ripped away from foster parents by his mother when she reaches eighteen, launched into a life of neglect and abuse. The hoax worked because narrative voice felt authentic. Which of the stories strikes you as most telling about boys like JT?
SJ: First, let me confess that the hoax worked on me personally. JT LeRoy blurbed my first novel, SoMa (written under the pen name Kemble Scott). We talked on the phone. My writer friends were fascinated that I’d spoken to the mysterious JT and wondered what it was like. I told them, “I couldn’t tell if the person was a man or a woman.” A story was there and I didn’t see it.
That’s because I was among the readers ensnared by the work. I was especially stunned by the subcultural of the “lot lizards” depicted throughout LeRoy’s work. “Lot lizard” is the nickname given to a truck stop prostitute—a world of survival sex work, substance abuse, child neglect and endangerment, and extreme poverty.
The American system isn’t exactly working out for characters like JT. It’s understandable that they reject social norms, and if the world blows up, well, then there’s a chance life could be better for them if everything is thrown out and we all start over from scratch. It evens the playing field.
Trump promised to upend our institutions. In many ways he’s done that, although the results have not exactly benefited the poor and working class. In the pandemic, these are the people who have disproportionately suffered. But many remain hardcore Trump believers, because he’s still speaking to them.