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What is the appeal of Donald Trump to millions of American voters? In the best explanation I have seen, Rod Dreher interviews J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis.

Vance is hardly unique in locating Trump’s success in the way he connects with those who feel marginalized by the ‘metropolitan elite’ – an argument that has also been used to explain the Brexit vote in the UK. There can be little doubt that we are seeing the results of a new class divide being played out in Western politics, but one standout paragraph in the Dreher-Vance interview is the role the US Marines played in Vance’s personal development:

The other thing the Marine Corps did is hold our hands and prevent us from making stupid decisions.  It didn’t work on everyone, of course, but I remember telling my senior noncommissioned officer that I was going to buy a car, probably a BMW.  “Stop being an idiot and go get a Honda.” Then I told him that I had been approved for a new Honda, at the dealer’s low interest rate of 21.9 percent.  “Stop being an idiot and go to the credit union.”  He then ordered another Marine to take me to the credit union, open an account, and apply for a loan (the interest rate, despite my awful credit, was around 8 percent).  A lot of elites rely on parents or other networks the first time they made these decisions, but I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.  The Marine Corps ensured that I learned. 

Both the old and new aristocracies ensure the success of their offspring by providing ready made networks of access and privilege into which they can easily slot. The middle-classes, too, have worked hard to give their children the best possible outcomes in life, and these advantages are self-perpetuating. A small example: I became a school governor at the beginning of the year and at my first training event was struck by how it was instantly apparent who were the governors from the ‘good’ schools, and who from the tougher, poorer, ones. Inevitably the better schools will have governors who are more educated and more prosperous than tougher schools; in turn, the better schools will enjoy advantages that other schools do not – and so the cycle perpetuates.

For Vance, the Marines offered a way out of this perpetuating cycle, and eventually to a place at Yale Law School. It was the Marines who helped him avoid being an idiot, to make good choices, learn discipline, and stay out of debt. But it is not only the military that can do this – nor should it be! Surely of any organization on the face of the earth it is the church that should be helping those from chaotic or marginalized backgrounds out of negative perpetuating cycles – not so that they can enter the middle-classes, but as part of the process of discipleship. The local church should be a place where young men and women are told to stop being idiots, and helped to learn discipline, and make good choices.

An obstacle to this is that local churches are often more nervous of ‘hillbilly’ young people than are the Marine Corps. We can be apprehensive about the chaos they bring with them, whereas the military is effective in channeling it. It has become very frowned upon to talk about muscular Christianity and ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, but perhaps we need some more of that, to help break cycles of poverty and chaos – and make it less likely that the future will be Trump-shaped.


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