Empathy Walls: Thinking about People Who Are Oppressed But Love Trump

There isn’t much point in sending readers from this little blog to the American Academy of Religion’s review portal, Reading Religion—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 Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.Strangers_in_their_Own_Land 4

The review boils down my key points to a tight word count, and I won’t repeat them. But I want to say a few 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. How can we find the right balance among three goals that are all crucial to understand right-wing discourse: accurate and reasonably empathetic description, well-framed historical contextualization, and critique that is both pointed and constructive? Accurate accounts of conservative self-understandings, offering the maximum benefit of doubt, are often in tension both with defensible critiques and essential kinds of contextualization that conservatives may prefer not to notice.

Of course this balancing act is relevant far beyond my classroom, given that we live in a country where a wide spectrum of Republicans either support Mr. Trump’s behavior outright or voice tepid critiques while enabling his policies. But my classrooms are very different from a liberal media bubble where one can mock conservative views or rage against them from a safe distance. Thus I am always looking for resources to enable constructive face-to-face discussions that do not skimp on empathy or critique. Hochschild is among the best recent books I know.

The self-understanding propounded by so many conservatives, religious and otherwise, that they are marginalized and embattled cultural underdogs—oppressed by secular liberals—is continually amazing to me. When such complaints are voiced by affluent white people—above, all, by elite leaders of the Republican Party or the religious right—I compare them to a prison warden or a CEO of a large corporation feeling oppressed because he is introverted and left-handed. In many cases it is hard for me to believe that such talking points can be sincere, as opposed to a hypocritical debating tactics that ought to be ruled out of bounds for honest discussion. I suspect that most “news personalities” in right-wing media are smart enough to be hypocrites rather than self-deluded in this sense.

But of course many Trump supporters are not privileged and I suppose most are sincere (however much we reserve the right to critique double standards or half-willful blind spots.) I have vivid personal memories of being badly taught by conservative media though no fault of my own—I’m not proud of it but not too ashamed either, since everyone has to start somewhere—and I know many people who are good-hearted but 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. By extension, a conservative religious person may simultaneously be an underdog in certain cultural spaces—for example, there can be real and powerful disdain for conservative religion in parts of Hollywood or a university sociology seminar—even if they are straight white Republicans in places dominated by God-and-country politics.

Emphatically, many people in the Republican base have serious grievances with long-running economic trends that have increased wealth inequality to obscene extremes while increasingly making health care and decent wages unattainable—however much they may enjoy the privileges of white U.S. citizenship compared to non-whites and/or non-citizens.

We must not forget how such grievances both are, and are not, keys to Trump’s success. Media framing makes it 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—and, 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—that is, not assuming that conservative populist grievances are always well founded or sincere, nor that people who do have serious grievances represent more than a small part of the Republican coalition—a question arises about the many remaining grievances that are sincere and well-founded:

How and why are such grievances so often channeled rightward—to votes for politicians whose agendas will 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 their best to defund things like Social Security, public schools, and Medicare? Why not channel this 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?

Hochschild joins a long tradition of scholarship about this matter that I have followed for years, 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 (in a lifetime achievement category) 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 highly underappreciated contribution that switches the scene from Kansas to West Virginia. Tied with Frank for fame (switching to an overhyped category) but least insightful unless approached as something symptomatic to critique, is J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Tied for underappreciated is pushback against Vance in the recent Appalachian Reckoning, featuring this fine essay by my friend Bob Hutton. Anyone who joined the Hillbilly Elegy bandwagon—hopefully because they naively trusted the hype and not after they actually read it!—should be required to read Hutton.

Another worthy recent entry is Sara Smarsh’s Heartland, which reads in some ways like Hillbilly Elegy in its memoir form and narrative of escaping poverty through individual discipline. (Smarsh believes she would have been trapped in poverty if she had become a young mother, and includes a running dialogue with the imagined [non] daughter.) But she has far greater critical and contextual self-awareness than Vance, and is eloquent and insightful about how structural class issues impacted her identity and life prospects as a woman growing up in rural Kansas.

There are other regional variants like Katherine Cramer’s fine book, The Politics of Resentment, on divides in Wisconsin between rural conservatives and urban liberals. If we cannot stop the industrial hog CAFO that threatens to derail my own life plans, the dynamics of struggle will have been affected by long-running resentments toward the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, not to mention simmering tension between “real” local folks, liberal bureaucrats, and relatively non-rooted city people with nice summer houses at the lake. But it will be the local small farmers—along with local business owners who cater to farmers and lake people—who will be hurt most.

As I think of pig shit despoiling my grandparents’ lovely landscape of rolling hills and lakes, as well as my hope to pass some of this land along to my own children, Hochschild’s book hits 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 found public discourse being reframed to Republican advantage by a “deep story.” According to this way of seeing the world, virtuous hard-working people wait their turn for the American Dream—but continually see undeserving people cut in line in front of them, helped by liberal elites.

Because Hochschild focuses on people whose lives are blighted by unregulated pollution, she is able to bracket a core analytical complication. How often does white rightwing populism actually serve the short-term material self-interest of such populists? This was largely true, paradigmatically, for the suburban “tax revolts” of California that were part and parcel of white flight from the inner cities, as well as for many affluent Republicans who supported Trump largely to get tax cuts. Building on this train of thought, one could also argue that conservative populists have cultural self-interests alongside economic ones, with the cultural ones sometimes winning out although they dovetail only partially with the economics. (This carries the crucial implication that what now runs together can later come apart—as Connolly’s Capitalism and Christianity. American Style excels at pointing out.)

This train of thought can boil down into extremely harsh media 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 sincere and truly aggrieved, such attacks can deepen 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. How much of conservative discourse is simply a bait-and-switch for working-class voters? The paradigmatic argument is What’s the Matter With Kansas, and the paradigmatic case is Trump’s pivot from his campaign rhetoric about investing in infrastructure jobs and better health care (remember, his rhetoric was more [white] worker-friendly than that of any other Republican candidate, which in my view was the decisive reason he won the nomination) to actual policies that did little besides give tax breaks to the super-rich. Frank famously described this 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 decisive conflicts as a mere sideshow of false consciousness. Such critique can have traction in some cases (some involving Trump, no doubt) without negating the traction of Frank’s analysis in other cases, so—graduate students please pay attention!—it is not smart to pose these issues as a zero-sum choice. Especially it is dangerous to traffic in a one-size-fits-all logic of “Trumpism equals racism.”

Hochschild is somewhat less vulnerable to this standard critique of Frank than he is, given her stress on cultural narratives. Her “deep story” includes race, and some of her Tea Party friends who have become ecological activists to defend their interests nevertheless vote for Republicans largely due to their stance on abortion. However, Frank and Hochschild are alike in that they both can imagine anyone—whether with perceived self-interests in cultural conservatism or cultural liberalism—embracing economic policies that far better serve both their self-interest and the common good than Republican austerity politics do.

Hochschild calls the failure to vote for such basic self-interests “The Great Paradox.” Without denying that some Republicans benefit from white nationalism and/or neoliberalism, she zeroes in on cases where they are not benefitting—certainly not materially—from voting with 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 deregulation and corporate tax cuts.

Unlike Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas?, which can be rather snarky, and Bageant’s Deer Hunting With Jesus which is extremely snarky (but with fascinating levels of irony that make it compassionate), Hochschild bends over backward to portray her Tea Party friends with maximum sympathy and compassion. In fact, at times she may take this too far. Since her informants tactfully refrain from complaining about undeserving black people amid the groups they perceive cutting in line—although they are outspoken about Muslims and immigrants—the looming issue of race can be slightly out of focus, although just below the surface. It is hard to overstate how important race is for understanding Louisiana! In this regard, the tradition in American Studies of critiquing people like Frank for overstressing class over culture does “bite” on Hochschild. We need to think carefully about such matters case by case. Although the critique sometimes overreaches, it does also hit 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 issues 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 contender. Emphatically it is a recent milestone in the crossover territory between academia and public discourse.

Nevertheless, her gentleness circles back to the challenge I earlier noted—the triple goal of accurate and empathetic description, smart contextualization, and critique. Hochschild excels at the first, is good on the second (she is a sociologist and I’m a cultural historian so I 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.

One thought on “Empathy Walls: Thinking about People Who Are Oppressed But Love Trump

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

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