Empathy Walls: Understanding Oppressed People Who Love Trump

There isn’t much point in sending readers of this little blog to Reading Religion, the American Academy of Religion’s review portal—I wish I could send traffic the other way—but I want to link to a review I recently published there, on Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book, Strangers in Their Own Land.Strangers_in_their_Own_Land 4

The review boils down my key points to a tight word count. I won’t repeat them here, but if you haven’t read the book, the review might be a good place to start. Here I want to say a few additional things that did not fit within my word limits.

Because I teach in Appalachia about U.S. culture, an evergreen issue arises in my classrooms. What is the proper balance among three goals that are all crucial to understand right-wing discourse: (1) accurate and reasonably empathetic description, (2) well-framed historical contextualization, and (3) critique that is both pointed and hopefully constructive? Accurate descriptions of conservative self-understandings may be in tension with critiques and contextualizations that conservatives prefer not to notice.

This balancing is relevant far beyond classrooms, since we live in a country where most Republicans either support Mr. Trump’s behavior outright or voice tepid critiques while enabling his policies. But my classrooms are different from liberal media bubbles where one can safely mock conservatives or rage against them from a distance. I am always looking for resources to facilitate face-to-face discussion that doesn’t skimp either on empathy or critique. Hochschild is among the best recent ones I know.

A self-understanding that is propounded by many conservatives, that they are marginalized and embattled cultural underdogs—oppressed by secular liberals—continually amazes me. When such complaints are voiced by wealthy white people—especially elites in the Republican Party or the religious right—I compare it to prison wardens and corporate CEOs who feel oppressed on the grounds that they are introverted or left-handed. Often it is impossible to believe that such talking points can be sincere, as opposed to cynical debating tactics that should be ruled out of bounds for honest discussion. Surely most news personalities in right-wing media are smart enough to be hypocrites, not self-deluded, in this sense.

But not all Trump supporters are privileged, and I suppose most are sincere, although having said that we should reserve the right to critique double standards or half-willful blind spots. I have vivid personal memories of being badly taught by conservative propaganda in my youth. I’m not proud of it but not too ashamed either, since it was no fault of my own and everyone has to start somewhere. I know many people who are good-hearted but simply badly-informed. Anyway, even a shy left-handed CEO might really be disadvantaged at certain times, in circumscribed ways—say, within a roomful of charismatic and extroverted right-handed CEOs. Conservative religious people really are underdogs in certain cultural spaces—for example, there may be powerful disdain for white evangelicals in parts of Hollywood or university sociology seminars—even if, on balance, they are rich white straight Republicans who live in states dominated by Republicans.

More importantly, many people in the Republican base have serious economic grievances with long-running trends that have increased inequality to obscene extremes, while at the same time increasingly making health care and decent wages unattainable. This is true even if they enjoy important benefits of whiteness and/or U.S. citizenship that are lacking for people of color and/or non-citizens.

The Overall Trump Base Vs. Questions About Part of It

We must not forget how such grievances both are, and are not, keys to Trump’s success. Media framing makes this hard to remember: most poor people didn’t vote for Trump and most people who voted for Trump are not poor. Nevertheless non-trivial numbers of people who did vote for Trump—who, in fact, may have voted for Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, and Trump in successive elections—do have major grievances. This is a key swing fraction within Trump’s base.

Weaving our way through this field—neither assuming that conservative populist grievances are always well-founded or sincere, nor that people with valid grievances are the majority of Republicans—a question arises about the people whose grievances are both sincere and well-founded.

How are such grievances channeled rightward—to votes for politicians who make problems worse by shifting wealth distribution upward, pushing wages down, letting bridges crumble for lack of repair and pollution go unregulated for lack of enforcement, and trying to defund Social Security, public schools, and Medicare? Why not channel this anger leftward, to things like Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth movement or the Farmer-Labor parties in the upper Midwest during the 1930s, as well as movements like the Sanders campaign or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal today?

What’s the Matter with Kansas, Appalachia, Louisiana, and Wisconsin?: Hochschild’s Place in a Tradition

Hochschild joins a distinguished tradition of writing about this, with brilliant contributions such as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Fear of Falling, Doug Rossinow’s Visions of Progress, and William Connolly’s Capitalism and Christianity, American Style. Easily the most famous is Tom Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? More recent and highly engaging to read, especially in Appalachia, is Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting With Jesus, an underrated contribution that switches the scene to West Virginia. Close to Frank in fame (in this case overhype) but not worth reading except as something symptomatic to critique, is J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Anyone who joined the Hillbilly Elegy bandwagon—hopefully because they naively trusted its unwarranted hype, and not after actually reading it—should be required to ponder the pushback in the recent book, Appalachian Reckoning, especially this fine essay by my friend Bob Hutton.

A worthy recent entry is Sara Smarsh’s Heartland, although this pick is tricky because parts of it might, if we aren’t careful, be pulled into the orbit of Hillbilly Elegy—at least in its form as a memoir and its narrative of escaping poverty through individual discipline. (Smarsh believes, sensibly, that she would have been trapped in poverty if she had become a young mother, and she uses a narrative device, less compelling, of a running dialogue with the imagined daughter she never had.) But I champion Smarsh because she has far greater critical and contextual self-awareness than Vance does. She is eloquent and insightful about how structural class issues impacted her identity and life prospects as a woman growing up in rural Kansas. She also has the best insights about religion in any of these books except Connolly’s.

There are other regional variants in this same ballpark, including Katherine Cramer’s fine book, The Politics of Resentment, which explores divides between rural conservatives and urban liberals in Wisconsin. If it turns out that we can’t stop the industrial hog factory that threatens to derail my own life plans in rural Wisconsin, the dynamics of this struggle will have been strongly affected by what Kramer diagnoses: long-running resentments toward the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, not to mention simmering tension between self-styled “real” local folks, liberal bureaucrats, and relatively non-rooted city people with nice summer houses at the lake. But it will be mainly be the local small farmers—along with local business owners who cater to both farmers and lake people—who will be hurt the most if the industrial farming comes in (writ smaller) or Republican policies control Wisconsin’s future (writ larger). As I think about the looming disaster of air pollution and poisoned water despoiling my grandparents’ landscape of rolling hills and lakes in northern Wisconsin, crushing my hopes to pass some of this land to my own children, Kramer’s and Hochschild’s books hit close to home.

Front and center for Hochschild is a related dynamic in Louisiana. Bayous and family cemeteries are despoiled by oil industry pollution linked to neoliberal ideologies. But the resentments of hard-working people are weaponized in ways that make bad things worse. Hochschild continually finds public discourse being reframed to Republican advantage by what she calls a “deep story.” According to this way of seeing the world, people are patiently waiting in line, working hard for the American Dream, only to see undeserving people supposedly cut in line in front of them. Republicans harness the ill will from appalling grievances related to environmental and economic quality of life—rampant cancer and poisoned food, a town literally sucked into a sinkhole caused by an oil company, and so on—and attach it to this deep story to demonize liberals, thus strengthening a Republican rule that is enabling if not promoting the problems in the first place.

Trying Again Where Tom Frank (Allegedly) Failed

Because Hochschild focuses on people whose lives are blighted by unregulated pollution, she is able to partially bracket a core analytical complication.  This arises at a juncture where a vociferous tradition of critics will be tempted to tune her out. They feel this is a place where Frank misled us, at least for seeing a big picture.

Let’s call this a tug of war between paradigms X and Y for answering a question: how often does white rightwing populism actually serve the short-term material self-interest of its populists? Paradigm X—which says “very often, and Frank doesn’t get it”—is the one that works best to describe the paradigmatic case of suburban “tax revolts” in California that were part and parcel of a larger pattern of white flight from inner cities. It also fits the affluent Republicans who support Trump largely to get tax cuts. Extending this train of thought, we can also posit that conservative populists have cultural self-interests alongside their economic ones, with the cultural ones sometimes winning out although they only partially dovetail with the economics. This implies that Frank may overplay the idea of duped conservatives undermining their self-interests while at the same underplaying the salience of race and racism along both economic and culture war lines—although it is important to notice that such a linkage of cultural and economic interests carries a key implication that what currently runs together could later come apart if either the economic or cultural calculus changes. This is a point that Connolly’s Capitalism and Christianity, American Style excels at pointing out.   

A “paradigm X” train of thought can boil down to very harsh talking points: “Trumpites are greedy and callous Neanderthals. Fuck them and their racist anti-women cultural agendas!” Unfortunately, to whatever degree that Trump voters are both truly aggrieved and reasonably sincere, this line of attack deepens a sense of being misunderstood victims. The feedback loop—built into Hochschild’s deep story—is self-reinforcing and extremely hard to break, especially with FOX-centric media orchestrating the discussion.

Contrast this to another train of thought, paradigm Y, which stresses that for many or most working class populists, conservative discourse is largely a bait-and-switch. This is a core claim of What’s the Matter With Kansas and its whole tradition, and a classic example is how Trump pivoted from a campaign rhetoric of investing in infrastructure jobs and better health care, only following through with policies that did little other than give tax breaks to the super-rich. It is crucial to recall how Trump’s campaign rhetoric was more worker-friendly than that of the other 2016 Republican candidates. I believe this factor, and not how his racism was more flagrant than the others, was the decisive reason he won the nomination. Frank famously described the paradigm Y dynamic as follows:

Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive energy deregulation … Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetime.

Frank has taken heat for underplaying “cultural” issues (especially race and gender, both entangled with religion)—in effect, for framing central substantive conflicts as a sideshow of false consciousness. Such a critique, aligned at its strongest with a paradigm X diagnosis of the economics, can have traction in many cases (some of them involving Trump, no doubt) without negating the simultaneous traction of a paradigm Y analysis in other cases, or even at different levels of the same cases. So—graduate students please pay attention!—it is not smart to pose cultural and economic issues as a zero-sum choice. Especially it is dangerous to traffic in a one-size-fits-all logic of “Trumpism equals racism.”

A key strength of Hochschild is that she is less vulnerable to such critique, compared to Frank, because of her stress on cultural narratives. As already noted, she emphasizes a “deep story,” featuring undeserving line-cutters, which animates people on the right. Of course this is highly racialized, and by extension it brings race closer to the heart of her analysis as compared to Frank. Also, some of her Tea Party friends who became ecological activists in an (unduped) effort to defend their material self-interests nevertheless vote Republican due to their (cultural not economic) interests in abortion policies.

Nevertheless for both Frank and Hochschild the center of gravity is paradigm Y. Both emphasize how anyone—of any race and with perceived cultural interests trending either left or right—could embrace economic policies that would far better serve both their self-interest and the common good, as compared to Republican deregulation and austerity politics.

The Great Paradox and the Evergreen Question of Race

Hochschild calls the failure defend self-interests “The Great Paradox.” Without denying that certain Republicans may benefit from white nationalism and/or neoliberalism, she centers on cases where they are not benefitting—certainly not in material ways—from voting on the Republican team. Rather they are getting cancer from poisoned fish, seeing their town sucked into a toxic sinkhole, and so on—yet they go on demonizing liberals and voting for corporate tax cuts.

Unlike What’s the Matter With Kansas?, which is snarky, and Deer Hunting With Jesus, which is even snarkier on the surface (it uses a complex ironic voice that is funny and ultimately compassionate), Hochschild bends over backward to portray her Tea Party friends straightforwardly with maximum sympathy and compassion. In fact, at times she takes this too far. Since her informants tactfully refrain from complaining about undeserving black people amid the groups cutting in line—they are outspoken about Muslims and immigrants—the looming issue of race can be somewhat out of focus, although it is clearly just below the surface for anyone paying attention. It is hard to overstate how important race is for understanding Louisiana. In this regard, the long-running tradition in American Studies of critiquing Frank for underplaying race does “bite” on Hochschild. We need to think carefully about such matters case by case. Although this critical tradition sometimes overreaches, it hits home all too often.

Hochschild’s willingness to extend her Tea Party friends a maximum benefit of doubt—and I mean in general, not solely on questions of race—emerges partly as a limitation of her study. Yet at the same time it is a strength. If I were asked to recommend just one book for an average reader from among those I’ve mentioned —alongside Frank, Smarsh, Bageant, and a range of higher-octane scholars like Connolly—hers would be a strong contender. Emphatically it is a recent milestone in the crossover territory between academia and public discourse.

Nevertheless, her gentleness does circle back to a challenge I noted at the outset—the triple goal of accurate and empathetic description, smart contextualization, and critique. Hochschild excels at the first. She is good on the second (she is a sociologist and I’m a cultural historian so I do have quibbles, but let’s not go there today). But she leaves the third goal open-ended. I as noted in my shorter review:

Insofar as we climb with Hochschild over her empathy wall and accept her analysis, it is not entirely clear what practical consequences follow. Should we try harder to conciliate, compromise, and triangulate, in the style of so-called moderate Democrats? Or will we come away more inclined to fight—in the style of Bernie Sanders or those further to the left—but now equipped with better tools to debate persuasively and widen cracks in a conservative coalition? Hochschild definitely advises against demonizing her subjects, but beyond this the implications are open-ended. Sometimes she seems to be writing for her Berkeley friends to “explain conservatives” while at other times she seems to frame Bernie-style arguments in a way that she hopes her Louisiana friends can hear.

I have a few more things to say about Hochschild and religion, which fit neither in my review or this comment about it. Stay tuned.

2 thoughts on “Empathy Walls: Understanding Oppressed People Who Love Trump

  1. Pingback: Remembering | MBE: Mark's blogging experiment

  2. Pingback: The “Least Resistant Personality Profile” and Factory Farms | MBE: Mark's blogging experiment

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