Understanding Trump voters

The US election, like the EU referendum in Britain, was replete with the language, imagery and discussion of emotion. The masses have been portrayed as an irrational mob, easily swayed by lies and false promises; broken hearts have been worn on sleeves and paraded on social media; downright nasty insults have been traded on all sides.

The emotional response to these two momentous events has revealed two important aspects of politics today. On one hand, it has confirmed that politics, in its real sense, is not a dry debate in a lecture theatre, or a formal bickering over evidence and legal principles. It is a lived and felt reality: something that is shaped by people, and gives meaning to our lives.

On the other hand, the deep emotions that have guided how much politics means to people have been hidden beneath a shrill performance of emotionalism. This has acted as a barrier to understanding the reasons why people voted the way they did – reasons far more varied and complex than the pat diagnoses that have too often been offered. In understanding the current moment, we need to delve beneath this emotionalism and try to understand what really matters to people, and why.

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, the new book by renowned US sociologist Arlie Hochschild, seeks ‘a full understanding of emotion in politics’. The book is the culmination of a ‘five-year journey to the heart of the American right’, which took her from Berkeley, California to Louisiana – a ‘red state’ wracked with poverty and pollution, with low levels of education and many men and women who support the Tea Party.

In spending time listening and talking to these individuals, Hochschild aimed to ‘scale the empathy wall’ she sees between people like her – highly educated, self-styled liberals living in coastal states, who eat organic food, recycle their garbage, use public transport and work in public or non-profit sector jobs – and the people for whom Donald Trump became the more appealing presidential candidate. Although it is clear throughout the book that she does not agree with the political arguments put forward by the people she interviews, she neither dismisses the arguments nor dehumanises their purveyors. Indeed, she reveals how, in the context of these people’s lives, the politics of the Tea Party has come to make rational sense. As such, her study is a rare example of sociology at its best.

Hochschild’s method, which she has used to great effect in her other work, builds on the insights of Max Weber and, later, C Wright Mills, in attempting to understand the relationship between the wider social context and how individuals make sense of that context in shaping their own lives. The main concepts that she uses in Strangers in Their Own Land – empathy walls, feeling rules, and deep stories – are not about reflecting people’s misery, to show why they make what many would see as the wrong choices, or about listening with a view to manipulating people’s decisions. Rather, these are concepts designed to understand how social conflicts are internalised and mediated, with a view to pursuing the debate about how such conflicts may best be resolved.

So, when it comes to the bitter divisions revealed by the US election, it is not enough just to weigh up the rights and wrongs of specific arguments. What drives people to take sides in political conflicts goes much deeper than a particular view on, say, immigration policies, or the extent of environmental regulation. Rather, it is about the extent to which a particular view of the world connects with people’s sense of themselves and where they are headed, or whether it is experienced as an assault on their way of life and sense of self.

At play here, explains Hochschild, ‘are “feeling rules”, left ones and right ones. The right seeks release from liberal notions of what they should feel – happy for the gay newlyweds, sad at the plight of the Syrian refugee, unresentful about paying taxes. The left sees prejudice.’ By dismissing people’s rejection of orthodox ‘feeling rules’ as mere prejudice, the left fails to understand ‘the emotional core of right-wing belief’, which is rooted in social, economic, and cultural factors that are far more significant in framing people’s outlook.

These factors include the realities of life for many working-class Americans, which are now finally coming to light: insecure jobs, stagnant wages and debilitating working conditions. But more than that, they include having little control over the world around you and being despised for doing your best to support your family and community. This is the core of right-wing belief Hochschild approaches through her pursuit of what she calls ‘a “deep story”, a story that feels as if it were true’, and one that would take her to ‘the should and shouldn’ts of feeling, to the management of feeling, and to the core feelings stirred by charismatic leaders’.

The kind of terrain that Hochschild is entering here is usually dominated by literature, not sociology. Great literature achieves its insights on the human condition by penetrating the veneer of appearance and dialogue to cast light on the passions, compromises, hopes, dreams and relationships that make individuals what they are. But where sociology attempts genuinely to understand the world, rather than merely describe or prescribe it, it can take us to the heart of things in a similar way.

In describing a story that, for the Tea Party supporters she interviewed, ‘feels as if it were true’, Hochschild is neither dismissing that story as misguided ignorance, nor accepting it as a counter-narrative that explains the world as it is for everybody. She is explaining that people with whom she has little in common, and whose political outlook she objects, have logical, rational reasons for engaging in the way they do. Her version of the deep story goes like this:

‘You are a stranger in your own land. You do not recognise yourself in how others see you. It is a struggle to feel seen and honoured. And to feel honoured you have to feel – and seen as – moving forward. But through no fault of your own, and in ways that are hidden, you are slipping backward.

‘You turn to your workplace for respect – but wages are flat and jobs insecure. So you look to other sources of honour. You get no extra points for your race. You look to gender, but if you’re a man, you get no extra points for that either. If you are straight you are proud to be a married, heterosexual male, but that pride is now seen as a potential sign of homophobia – a source of dishonour. Regional honour? Not that either. You are often disparaged for the place you call home. As for the church, many look down on it, and the proportion of Americans outside any denomination has risen. You are old, but in America, attention is trained on the young. People like you – white, Christian, working and middle class – suffer this sense of fading honour demographically, too, as this very group has declined in numbers.

‘You have the impulse to call out, “I’m part of a minority, too!”. But you have criticised just such appeals for sympathy when others have made them on similar grounds. You feel stuck between a strong desire to be recognised for who you really are and all you’ve really done, and dread at joining the parade of “poor mes”. You want to rise up against these downward forces. There is a political movement made up of people such as yourself who share your deep story. It’s called the Tea Party.’

Anyone who has read some of the more intelligent commentary about the Trump vote will have some sense of the resonance of this deep story. Crucially, it is not just about disaffection – being insecure, marginalised, and cut out of the mainstream; it is also about pride, and a sense of self.

While many on the modern left can accept the problem of disaffection, and see how economic trends over the past three decades have punished the white working class, they struggle to see something positive about the narrative of pride. Feeling sympathy for victims is one thing; feeling empathy with people trying to fight back, with the limited range of tools they have, is another thing entirely.

The biggest strength of Hochschild’s book is the extent to which it recognises this tension. ‘To some degree, the community had become the site of local production without being the site of local producers’, she writes. ‘They were victims without a language of victimhood.’ Even where oil companies operate and employ people in local regions, they are based elsewhere – people’s sense of control over their work, and their workplace, is further away than ever. But rather than seeing themselves as victims of these faceless corporations, and looking to politicians and regulations for protection, Hochschild’s interviewees were most concerned about having a job, and saw the activities of governments and regulators as providing a threat to their livelihood.

Hochschild is clearly bothered by this aversion to state regulation. For example, throughout the book, she questions why those suffering most directly from environmental damage seem to be the most hostile to regulatory measures designed to clean things up. Yet her insights into people’s deep stories help to illuminate the problem. In another time, the kind of environmental problems that directly affect Hochschild’s interviewees – polluted water, industrial accidents, sinkholes – would have been seen as problems of poverty and poor working conditions, over which workers would have fought to gain more control. Now, however, they are seen as problems afflicting the natural environment, with regulation as something that is done to protect other interests, and which penalises the very people one might hope it would protect. As Harold, one of the interviewees, puts it:

‘The state always seems to come down on the little guy … Take this bayou. If your motorboat leaks a little gas into the water, the warden’ll write you up. But if companies leak thousands of gallons and kill all the life here? The state lets them go. If you shoot an endangered brown pelican, they’ll put you in jail. But if a company kills the brown pelican by poisoning the fish he eats? They let it go. I think they over-regulate the bottom because it’s harder to regulate the top.’

In the modern language of elite environmentalism, individuals working for a dirty, polluting industry are often presented as dirty and polluting themselves. Yet these are people who, in their own lives, are working in the jobs that are on offer, as part of communities that they love. It is not only that they feel disenfranchised by a political system that seems to concern itself with problems ‘over there’ rather than those outside their front doors; they feel attacked by a political culture that seems to see them – their work, their values, their families – as the problem.

Hochschild recognises the injustice here. As she explains:

‘Like nearly everyone I spoke with, Donny was not one to think of himself as a victim. That was the language of “poor mes” asking for government handouts. The very word “victim” didn’t sit right. In fact, they were critical of liberal-sounding talk of victimhood. But I began to wonder whether the white, older conservatives in south-west Louisiana… were not themselves victims. They were braving the worst of an industrial system, the fruits of which liberals enjoyed from a distance in their highly regulated and cleaner blue states.’

The question we are left with, however, is whether understanding the deep story behind the Trump vote will lead to a political vocabulary on the left that is able to transcend competing narratives of victimhood. In one sense, Hochschild’s interviewees are, indeed, victims of the ravages of late capitalism – they are not to blame for poverty or pollution, and they have little control over their circumstances. But their rejection of the victim narrative is vitally important to understanding not only what informed support for Trump, but also where we can go from here.

To debate with people and challenge their political views requires a willingness to engage and a refusal to patronise. With a few exceptions, both these qualities have been markedly absent in the anti-Trump camp, and Democrat supporters have paid a bitter price. Now is the time for a lot more people to scale the empathy wall – not to feel the pain of the Trump voters, but to understand their concerns and, from there, to argue the case for a genuinely progressive, liberal politics.

First published by spiked, 25 November 2016.

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