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Real Americans

Daniel Geary

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild, The New Press, 288 pp, $27.95, ISBN: 978-1620972250

I will never forget the night Donald Trump was elected. I needed my sleep and was confident of the result, so I decided against watching Hillary Clinton become the first woman president. It would be the first election I missed as an American transplanted to Ireland. But then my sick son woke in the middle of the night. After giving him some medicine, I made the mistake of checking the internet. The news grew increasingly alarming. Trump took not only Florida but won a swathe of states assumed to be safely Democratic: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

When I told my wife the results in the morning, she thought I was joking. Then she burst into tears. On future nights I lay awake wondering which of my Republican family members, friends and former neighbours had voted for this racist, misogynist, authoritarian, narcissistic and thoroughly unqualified man to the most powerful office in the world. How did this happen? And how should we feel about the sixty-odd million Americans who voted Trump in?

The source of Trump’s appeal remains baffling. Here is a man who won a presidential election despite being a pathological liar, a serial sexual molester caught on tape bragging about how he “grabbed [women] by the pussy” and a racist who claimed that Mexico was sending its “rapists” to the United States. He mocked a disabled reporter, threatened to jail his opponent, showed little grasp of basic facts of domestic and foreign policy and made it perfectly clear that he will use the office of president to further enrich himself and his family. He alienated much of his own party. He was the most unpopular presidential candidate in polling history, with roughly 60 per cent of the electorate holding an unfavourable view of him at the time of his election.

In case there was any doubt, it is now obvious that Trump will govern just as recklessly as he campaigned, alienating most Americans in the process. He has historically low favourability ratings for a president so early into his term of office. But his power remains intact. Because Republicans have control of both houses of the US Congress, they are the ones who ultimately must check Trump. Yet Republicans are content to overlook Trump’s egregious failings so long as he carries out their agenda of dismantling the vestiges of the liberal welfare state, reducing taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and nominating a Supreme Court justice who supports outlawing abortion.

Republican support for Trump, however, is based on more than just a Faustian bargain and a shameful lack of moral courage. Trump has the Republican Party in a political bind. Though congressional Republicans may dislike some of Trump’s actions, openly breaking with him risks angering the sizable section of their party that backs him. Trump’s grass-roots base has already demonstrated the ability to punish Republican congressmen by deposing them in party primaries. No amount of scandals, incoherent news conferences or gross acts of incompetence will make it easy to remove Trump from office. 

Trump’s power thus rests primarily on his passionate core of supporters, who make up nearly half of the Republican Party and as much as one-fifth of the overall American population. In demographic terms, Trump supporters are disproportionately white, male, rural and old. Though less likely to have a college education, they are mischaracterised as working class. Trump supporters are wealthier than the average American, predominantly own their homes rather than rent them and are concentrated in small business and skilled trades. (Working class whites were crucial swing voters in Rust Belt states but do not constitute Trump’s main constituency. Those at the bottom of the economic ladder in the US tend toward political disengagement and by and large do not vote.)

Trump’s support comes from the “Tea Party”, a radically anti-government group that emerged in opposition to President Obama and to mainstream Republicans. Trump became a hero to the Tea Party as the leading exponent of the racist conspiracy theory that Obama was born outside the US and was hence constitutionally unable to be president. The Tea Party is but the latest manifestation of the movement conservatism that has energised the base of the Republican Party since the 1960s. But unlike earlier movements, it has proven impossible for established Republican leaders to control. In the Republican Party today, the inmates are running the asylum.

If you want to understand the sources of Trump’s power, you need to understand how Tea-Partyers think and feel. That is the major accomplishment of Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Land, cited by The New York Times as one of the key books for understanding Trump’s victory. Hochschild spent several years getting to know Tea Party activists in the Lake Charles region of Louisiana, tracking a small group in the period from just after dramatic Tea Party gains in the 2010 US Congressional election until Trump’s steamroll through the Republican primaries in early 2016.

Hochschild tries to explain what she calls a “Great Paradox”: that people who clearly stand to benefit from government programmes still blame government for all their problems. Indeed, one of the things that puzzle observers about Trump’s supporters is that many of them back him despite the fact that his policies do not serve their economic interests. Though having promised to “drain the swamp” of corporate lobbyists, no president has ever been more committed to enriching corporations and the very wealthiest Americans. Most Americans will lose out from Republican policies that will take away their health care and other benefits.

What Hochschild concludes is that right-wing politicians like Trump successfully appeal to the emotional needs of their constituents but not their material ones. Few states benefit more from federal taxation than Louisiana, which receives nearly half its funding from the federal government. And few states are in such bad need of social spending: the state ranks second to last in the US in general well-being. And yet Louisiana is a hotbed of Tea Party politics.

Hochschild focuses in particular on the issue of environmental pollution, which reveals the pathological nature of the Tea Party’s anti-government sentiment. Lake Charles is a region of exceptional natural beauty that has been despoiled by the petrochemical industry that dominates its economy. The industry treats public waterways as its own private waste dump for toxic materials. Dangerous underwater drilling led to a sinkhole in 2012 that spewed toxic mud and displaced three hundred and fifty residents, who received no compensation. The strip of petrochemical plants in the region is commonly called “Cancer Alley”. A poignant story Hochschild tells is that of Lee Sherman, who illegally dumped chemicals into the Bayou at his boss’s request. After suffering health damage from chemical exposure, he was fired for “absenteeism”. He later got his revenge by publicly exposing the company’s actions.

Yet Sherman is a member of the Tea Party, supporting candidates who promote environmental deregulation and serve the interests of Big Oil. The individuals in Hochschild’s book keenly feel the effects of toxic pollution: the destruction of wildlife that destroyed their favourite pursuits of hunting and fishing, the destruction of property values and the reduced life expectancy that comes from exposure to carcinogens. Yet they save their resentment for Big Government rather than Big Business. State and federal governments admittedly have done little to protect them from pollution, but Tea Partyers don’t accept that effective government regulation is their only remedy. As one person tells Hochschild, “Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism.” The conservative values of Lake Charles make it an ideal location for oil companies that, according to a leaked industry memo, prefer to locate in places with the “least resistant personalities”: conservative, Republican regions that advocate free market values.

Even if Louisiana Tea Partyers let the polluters off the hook, it is no wonder they feel their communities are under attack and that things are getting worse rather than better as the American Dream promised. They need to channel their frustrations somewhere. And they do so against a government that they see ignoring them and their interests while aiding others who do not deserve its help. The US government’s main role, as they see it, is to “take from people of good character and [give] to people of bad character”. Fed by misinformation from Fox News and other right-wing media, they grossly exaggerate the social welfare functions of the US government, wrongly assuming that a vast proportion of their tax dollars are passed on to lazy welfare recipients and an army of government workers with cushy jobs. And they blame urban liberals for looking down upon their religion and way of life. As one Tea Partyer puts it: “Liberals think that Bible-believing Southerners are ignorant, backward, rednecks, losers. They think we’re racist, sexist, homophobic, and maybe fat.”

Hochschild crafts a “deep story” based on her interviews and confirmed by her subjects to explain the underlying emotions that shape the political responses of the Tea Party. In her metaphor, they are waiting patiently in a line for the fruits of the American Dream. But they are stuck. They are playing by the rules, but they are not getting ahead. Meanwhile, people are jumping the queue: racial minorities, women, immigrants, refugees and public sector workers. The government is seen as aiding and abetting the queue-jumpers, especially during the presidency of Barack Obama. So they turn their anger and frustration towards these people and those who support them: “So you have to have your guard up against requests for sympathy. People complain: Racism. Discrimination. Sexism. You’ve heard stories of oppressed blacks, dominated women, weary immigrants, closeted gays, desperate refugees, but at some point … you have to close the borders to human sympathy … You’ve suffered a good deal yourself, but you aren’t complaining about it.” Uncomfortable with describing themselves as victims of capitalism, the Tea Partyers’ deep story positions them as victimised at the hands of undeserving Americans and the government.

Donald Trump’s appeal rests on his ability to appeal to the emotions contained in this deep story. His calls to “make American great again” acknowledge the pain that rural white Americans suffer and promise to relieve it. His attacks on immigrants and refugees confirm that he cares about real Americans, not the others. His violation of political norms and his openly expressed racism and misogyny appeal to contempt for “political correctness”: “The right seeks release from liberal notions of what they should feel ‑ happy for the gay newlywed, sad at the plight of the Syrian refugee, unresentful about paying taxes.” Hochschild describes the ecstatic high that participants in a Trump rally felt. The feeling was created partly by reviling and expelling outgroups; at this particular rally, Black Lives Matter protesters were removed to chants of “USA” But the high also emerged from an affirmation of group pride. Not all the Tea Partyers Hochschild interviewed supported Trump in the Republican primary; others backed the even more right-wing candidate Ted Cruz. But they all backed Trump in the general election and almost surely continue to do so today.

Hochschild tells us not only what to think about Trump supporters but also how to feel about them – empathetic: we should try to understand where they are coming from and acknowledge their legitimate grievances. The narrative of Strangers in the Land recounts her own attempts to cross the “empathy wall” to understand her subjects. Empathy is indeed a worthy value and one essential to ethnographic research. But Hochschild pushes beyond the analytical, emotional and political limits of empathy. Her analysis is generous to a fault. She did not wish her book to offend those who befriended her across the political divide. No doubt the individuals in her book can be perfectly nice if you happen to be in their social circle. Most people are. But how significant in her subjects’ acceptance of her were the facts that she was white and heterosexual. However much Tea Partyers might hate the idea of the liberal University of California at Berkeley professor in the abstract, they could still recognize Hochschild as one of society’s “winners”, someone who had succeeded on the basis of hard work and ability.

Hochschild consistently minimises the mean-spirited nature of Tea Party politics. And her “deep story” does not in fact go very deeply into her subjects’ psychology. She interprets the story about “line-cutting” (queue-jumping) as a response to downward social mobility, which it certainly is. We should thus, it seems, feel bad for them because of their genuine economic plight. But Hochschild fails to fully explore what her deep story clearly reveals: the anger that her subjects have for the “line-cutters”, especially racial minorities. They are more worried that some poor person behind them will get something that they don’t deserve than that a rich person ahead of them would steal it from them. They were so pleased to see the Louisiana governor cut public sector jobs for supposedly lazy and overpaid workers that they didn’t care that the money went to tax incentives for oil companies who hardly need them and who increased environmental pollution.

It seems that in order for Trump supporters to feel they have earned something, they need a group that deserves nothing. Hochschild compares the “deep story” of her subjects to belief in the Rapture, an eschatological belief held by many Christian evangelicals. But she misses that the story of the Rapture is not just about anxiety and hope of being saved; it is also about cruel Schadenfreude for the unworthy who will be damned. This is Trump’s vision of a world sharply divided between “winners” and “losers”.

Hochschild’s empathy can be patronising. Perhaps it is a subliminal form of revenge on her subjects, who pride themselves on self-reliance and would be horrified at the thought that anyone would pity them. Does the fact that Hochschild felt she needed to cross an “empathy wall” to understand Tea Party supporters suggest that she had never encountered anyone in the course of her ordinary life who thinks like they do? If some of her own family members and neighbours had voted for Trump maybe she would feel how I feel about them: angry. Anger is a more honest emotion than empathy and it is one that does not set oneself above Trump supporters. Anger is what you feel when you think your family members and friends are acting stupidly against their own interests and in ways that harm others. It is an appropriate way to feel about your fellow citizens when they do the same. Clearly anger is an inadequate political response; but so is empathy. What we need instead is solidarity. Unlike empathy, solidarity is reciprocal and requires action as well as feeling. It involves identifying others’ problems with your own, not pitying the unfortunate but believing that an injury to one is an injury to all.

Hochschild’s sharp contrasts between Louisiana and the California bay area, where she lives, are of little help. She portrays California as a liberal utopia of public services and technological innovation. It seems incredible to me that a professor at the University of California, a great university that has been perpetually stripped of funding by the state, could paint such a simplistic picture. The divide between “winners” and “losers” is readily apparent in an area where housing prices are among the most expensive in the world. And, as we in Ireland well know, Silicon Valley companies do everything they can to avoid paying their fair share of taxes to contribute to the public good. Yes, California is better off than Louisiana in important respects, including environmental regulation. The struggle nonetheless remains the same: taking on the few whose profits come at the expense of the welfare of the many. And the problem is not just the Republican Right but also the abandonment of any robust social democratic vision among Democratic leaders.

The situation that led to the rise of Trump and of the far right in Europe can best be described as a crisis of social solidarity. The right can only be defeated by rebuilding that solidarity on the basis that everyone, by virtue of their humanity, deserves dignity and respect, fair wages, good housing and education, freedom from the horrors of war and violence, and a clean environment.

Much of the liberal discourse about Trump supporters since the election has assumed a false choice. Either, like Hochschild, we try to understand their legitimate grievances. Or we recognise their xenophobic worldview and write them off as racist bigots. In order for Trumpism to be defeated it is necessary that liberals appeal to the demographic groups who backed him. We cannot look down on people because they are white, older and rural. But we cannot be naive either about the challenge the Tea Party ideology poses. It is difficult to conclude that the people described in Hochschild’s book are anything but political enemies of social solidarity, for they believe that only “winners” deserve the basic necessities of a good life. Realistically, the one-fifth of Americans who passionately back Trump cannot be persuaded otherwise. But liberals must nevertheless try to appeal to rural white Americans, something the Hillary Clinton campaign conspicuously failed to do. Not everybody in the regions that voted for Trump is committed to the Tea Party. Only if liberals reach out the hand of solidarity will they find enough allies to defeat not just Trump himself, but everything that he represents.

1/3/2017

Daniel Geary is Mark Pigott Associate Professor of US History at Trinity College Dublin.

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