What Trump voters believe: a Berkeley sociologist goes to the source

Trump voters

In her ninth book, UC Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild confronts her alarm “at the increasingly hostile split in our nation between two political camps.” Strangers in Their Own Land, a Finalist for the National Book Award, reflects five years of Hochschild’s field research in Louisiana. “[A]s a sociologist I had a keen interest in how life feels to people on the right—that is, in the emotion that underlines politics. To understand their emotions, I had to imagine myself into their shoes. Trying this, I came upon their ‘deep story,’ a narrative as felt.”


Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

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Interviews with Tea Party advocates

Bypassing what she terms the “empathy wall” that gets in the way of understanding other people, Hochschild sought out members of the Tea Party at meetings of the Republican Women of Southwest Louisiana, at campaign events for Republican candidates, and in private gatherings. Over the course of five years, she “accumulated 4,690 pages of transcripts based on interviews with a core of forty Tea Party advocates and twenty others from various walks of life,” returning to the region again and again. Several of her interviewees became friends.

Red states vs. blue states

Hochschild set out to understand “The Great Paradox” that underlies the right-left split, inspired by Thomas Frank’s 2004 bestseller, What’s the Matter with Kansas? “Across the country,” she writes, “red states are poorer and have more teen mothers, more divorce, worse health, more obesity, more trauma-related deaths, more low-birthweight babies, and lower school enrollment. On average, people in red states die five years earlier than people in blue states.” Yet the politicians supported by voters in red states consistently vote against policies and programs that successfully address many of these issues in blue states. And they seek to slash the “very large proportion of the yearly budgets of red states—in the case of Louisiana, 44 percent—” that comes from federal funds. And, she notes, “Virtually every Tea Party advocate I interviewed for this book has personally benefited from a major government program or has close family who have.” Nonetheless, Governor Bobby Jindal offered $1.6 billion in incentives to attract more industry while firing 30,000 state employees, cutting funds by 44 percent for the state’s 28 public colleges and universities, lowering corporate as well as individual taxes, and rejecting Medicaid funds available under the Affordable Care Act. “Only after public outcry did the governor restore some funds to public education—and cut public health and environmental protection instead.”

The keyhole issue: environmental pollution

To focus her research, Hochschild shaped her interviews around the “keyhole issue” of environmental pollution that looms so large in Southwestern Louisiana, a region that is home to some 300,000 people (approximately three-quarters of them white and most of the rest African-American). There, enormous factories supply oil, natural gas, plastics, and other industrial products to consumers throughout the nation—and produce prodigious quantities of toxic byproducts, much of which has leached into the soil or poisoned the water. There have been numerous reports of cancer from contaminated water and, even more commonly, among the workforce at the region’s factories who have worked for years without adequate protection. The region’s once-prosperous fishing industry has been virtually eliminated. And, over the years, gargantuan sinkholes have appeared, most recently a 37-acre sinkhole at Bayou Corne that swallowed whole trees and forced 350 local residents to evacuate. Yet Hochschild found only one of her interviewees was willing to talk freely about the issue of pollution, an environmental activist who, unaccountably, is also a Tea Party member and (probably) a Trump voter. “Everyone I talked to wanted a clean environment. But in Louisiana, the Great Paradox was staring me in the face—great pollution and great resistance to regulating polluters.”

The deep story of the Right

Hochschild’s research led her to a greater appreciation for her interviewees as people and to a better understanding of their worldview. Influenced by Fox News, industry, state government, church, and the regular media, “[p]eople on the right seemed to be strongly moved by three concerns—taxes, faith, and honor.” The “deep story” she crafted provides a window onto this mindset. She calls it “Waiting in Line.” The line leads up to the crest of a hill. On the other side is the American Dream. Though they’re patient and never complain, the “white, older, Christian, and predominantly male” people in the middle of the line notice that others are cutting into the line ahead of them: blacks benefiting from affirmative action, women who take “men’s jobs,” immigrants, refugees, “overpaid” public sector workers who are mostly women and minorities, “the brown pelican”—and President Obama! “But it’s people like you who have made this country great.” There’s a lot more to this deep story, but that’s the gist of it: “you are a stranger in your own land.” And Hochschild reports that practically all her interviewees claimed it fairly represented how they felt.

How Trump voters feel

“His supporters have been in mourning for a lost way of life,” Hochschild writes about a Trump rally. “Many have become discouraged, others depressed. They yearn to feel pride but instead have felt shame. Their land no longer feels their own. Joined together with others like themselves, they now feel hopeful, joyous, elated . . . As if magically lifted, they are no longer strangers in their own land . . . Trump was the identity politics candidate for white men.”

Are Trump voters ignorant?

Woven throughout the story of Hochschild’s interviews is a running account of the damage done by Right-Wing policies. She does note that media on the Right—Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and others—have helped to sway public opinion against what others have called the “liberal consensus.” Yet when Hochschild uses the word “ignorance,” it’s almost always in the context of identifying Northern and liberal stereotypes of Southern whites. There’s no recognition in evidence that much of what Tea Party supporters believe is, indeed, based on ignorance: for example, denying the reality of climate change, believing that the economy got worse under Obama, insisting that a huge percentage of those who receive federal assistance are cheating, and in many cases holding fast to the “birther” fallacy. It’s no wonder we can’t all get along!

For further reading

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