Wondering how in the world Trump ever happened? A sociologist spent five years immersed in Trump’s white, working-class base, and she’s coming to Seattle to talk about what she found.
“How can half the country be voting for that guy?”
This is the number one question I hear these days in our blue bubble. It’s typically asked with about four parts disgust and, if we’re being charitable, maybe one part genuine curiosity.
Donald Trump himself said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and it wouldn’t faze his backers a bit. Has half the country — or more accurately, about 41 percent — become completely unmoored?
One woman, to her credit, spent five years immersed in the roots of this question. It started as Arlie Hochschild’s quest to just get out of her Seattle-like liberal enclave (she lives in Berkeley, Calif.). She wanted to go as far as possible to “the opposite end.”
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So she spent five years on and off in Louisiana, chronicling the lives of 60 tea-party members and eventual Trump supporters — the so-called “deplorables.” She’s reading from her National Book Award-nominated book about them, “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right,” next Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the downtown Seattle Public Library.
A sociologist, Hochschild wanted to understand what motivates the rising right. She was curious about working-class, red-state voters who, as has been noted before, seem to vote for corporate-backing, government-slashing politicians even as they themselves rely increasingly on government aid.
First off, the label “deplorables” is unfair, she says. They’re complex, mostly generous but flawed people — kind of like people everywhere. She laughs that some of the people featured in her book have taken to wearing T-shirts that read “adorable deplorable.”
“They are perfectly aware of their reputation,” she said.
Hochschild’s big insight about Trump’s core base (i.e., not just the partisan Republicans) is that it’s responding less to specific ideas than to feelings — a “deep story,” she calls it. They know Trump isn’t a normal candidate or even presidential. But he speaks to them on a primal level.
That deep story is this: We’re all standing in a line, the progress line, and at the end is the American dream. But the line hasn’t been moving. Sometimes it even lurches backward. Then, up ahead, egged on by liberals and President Obama, other people, such as immigrants, are allowed to cut in.
“So they feel pushed back in the line, marginalized, unseen,” Hochschild says. “They’ve developed a visceral dislike for what they see as the ally of the line-cutters — the government.
“I know we can say they aren’t seeing this right, or we can say it’s irrational to support a danger like Trump. But that’s how they feel. It’s potent. It was sitting out there as kindling, for someone like Trump to just come along and light it.”
This metaphor of a line is useful, I think. The Bernie Sanders movement on the left was also a reaction to line-cutting — only in that view the people getting unfairly ahead are Wall Street, the 1-percenters and tax-avoiding billionaires like Trump.
“They’re both incensed by injustice,” she said, “but they define injustice very differently.”
Maybe we define it by where we are in line? Because no one much cares about line-cutting if it’s happening behind your spot in the line.
In that sense, Trumpism sure can sound like straight racism or xenophobia. But “it’s also more complicated than that,” Hochschild says. If you’re a dry-waller, a Mexican immigrant jumping the line may have a different emotional impact on you than if you’re, say, a newspaper columnist.
“It’s mixed up with feelings of shame and powerlessness and not getting ahead,” she says.
If liberals are serious about their slogans of “stronger together,” then they ought to try to understand how all this came to be, she urges. Same as Republicans need to get a grip on how alienating they have become to people of color and women.
“How did the Democratic Party, the party of the working man, suffer such a hemorrhage of working men? That’s a serious question the left ought to be asking itself.”
It’s the Republican party that has careened off the rails in this election. But she’s right — when it’s over, it isn’t the only one that could use some therapy.