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Strangers in Their Own Land

Donald Trump and the Selling of Resentment

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
Arlie Russell Hochschild
(New York, The New Press, 2016)

Many liberals find it baffling that so many of the people most likely to be seriously hurt by the policies of the Republican Party are among its most enthusiastic supporters. Respected sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild calls this the “Great Paradox” and sets out to solve the mystery. She travels to Louisiana bayou country, one of America’s reddest regions and a Tea Party stronghold, to get to know and understand the people. She listens to them with respect, attention, and compassion in an effort to provide insight and understanding to those on the other side of the “empathy wall.” An explanation of the “Great Paradox” does in fact emerge from these journeys - and it is not comforting.

Hochschild begins with the devastating effects of chemical dumping and other forms of pollution on the environment. Incredibly, Louisiana loses a patch of wetland the size of a football field every hour. Hochschild tells story after story of environmental catastrophe. For example, there was the Bayou Corne Sinkhole.

In the summer of 2012 people started noticing tiny clusters of bubbles on the water surface. This was accompanied by a strong smell of oil. Then the ground began to shake: incredibly, an earthquake had hit Louisiana. One man found a crack in the concrete beneath his living room carpet snaking its way across the room.

The bayou began breaking apart. A huge gaping hole opened at the bottom and swallowed trees and shrubs and grassland. An oily sheen covered the water surface. In place of the disappearing forest the bayou regurgitated a polluted oily sludge, which expanded to threaten the drinking water supply. The sinkhole grew to over thirty-seven acres.

The guilty party was a drilling company called Texas Brine. In total disregard of regulations it began drilling underneath the bayou for concentrated salt deposits used for fracking. The drilling caused underground structures to collapse, creating the sinkhole.

Then there is the picturesque story of the “Rubberized Horse,” as told by a retired schoolteacher about when he was a young boy growing up in the 1950’s:

“I was riding my palomino horse, Ted,” he recalls. “Normally Ted cleared ditches five feet across just fine. But this time the horse fell back into the water and sank down. He tried to climb up but couldn’t. We tried to pull his reins, but couldn’t get him up. Finally my uncle hauled him out with a tractor. But when Ted finally scrambled back out, he was coated all over with a strange film. I hosed him off but that only hardened the film on him. It was like a terrible glued­-on wet suit. It was like rubber. The vet tried but couldn’t save him, and Ted died two days later.” The ditch was downstream from a Firestone polymers plant (p. 163).

In many parts of bayou country other types of industrial carelessness have resulted in undrinkable water, inedible fish, and increasing cancer rates. People would try to minimize their chances of being poisoned by cutting out and throwing away the fatty parts of the fish, where toxins tended to concentrate. An entire culture of fishing suffered severe damage. Nevertheless, voters in this region have repeatedly elected politicians committed to deregulation and dismantling the EPA. To them no villain is worse than “big government,” even at the expense of their health.

The antipathy towards “big government” is especially ironic, since Louisiana is one of the states that receives more from the federal government than it sends in taxes. In fact, 44% of the Louisiana state budget comes from the federal government. Yet Louisianans tend to oppose big-government “meddling” and regulating everything. This is why industrial interests like to locate in red states, putting their environments at risk. They have a much easier time getting away with abusing the environment than they would in blue states where community opposition is likely to be fierce.

Nevertheless, big government is the enemy, and the reasons are revealing. Of course one big reason is taxes. Nobody likes taxes, even if your state gets back a disproportionate share of them. But there are more compelling, deeply emotional reasons for this anti-government attitude, which ultimately provide the solution to the “Great Paradox.” The federal government is perceived to be the ally of people whom this working-class white population deeply resents.

To many of these people federal taxes represent both insult and injury. It’s bad enough that people have to pay them; what’s even worse is that the money goes to welfare beneficiaries who “laze around days and party at night.” Hochschild found this to be a very common sentiment:

As one man explains, “A lot of us have done okay, but we don’t want to lose what we’ve got, see it given away.” When I ask him what he saw as being “given away,” it was not public waters given to dumpers, or clean air given to smoke stacks. It was not health or years of life. It was not lost public sector jobs. What he felt was being given away was tax money to non­working, non­deserving people - and not just tax money, but honor too (p. 60).

As one continues hearing these sentiments, one cannot help noticing how race so often plays a role in them.

“I don’t like the government paying unwed mothers to have a lot of kids, and I don’t go for affirmative action. I met this one black guy who complained he couldn’t get a job. Come to find out he’d been to private school. I went to a local public school like everyone else I know. No one should be getting a job to fill some mandated racial quota or getting state money not to work” (p. 92).

Sometimes, as above, one might hear race explicitly mentioned. More often it was not. The acceptable phrase, which Hochschild heard over and over, was “line cutter.” The real problem with this country is the “line cutters,” people who jump their place in line for the American Dream, while those in the poor white working class have been patiently waiting their turn for years. The “big government” that oppresses them gives unfair advantages to the line cutters, in the form of welfare payments, affirmative action, and recognition of special status. People who have worked hard all their lives with little to show for it must witness the undeserving “line cutters” moving ahead of them, and we all know who those are: blacks, foreigners, and anyone who receives government handouts. This even includes Medicaid: there is a widespread but mistaken belief that people on Medicaid do not work, even though it is documented that most Medicaid recipients do work (and of course many are children, or are too old, sick, or disabled - especially the nursing home population). So if Republicans want to do away with Medicaid, don’t expect much outcry here: let everybody work for what they get instead of leeching off the public dole.

As Hochschild describes it, this resentment of the line jumpers has been simmering for years:

The 1960s and 1970s set off a series of social movements, which, to some degree, shuffled the order of those “waiting in line” and laid down a simmering fire of resentment which was to flame up years later as the Tea Party. During this era a long parade of the underprivileged came forward to talk of their mistreatment - blacks who had fled a Jim Crow South, underpaid Latino field workers, Japanese internment camp victims, ill-­treated Native Americans, immigrants from all over. Then came the women’s movement. Overburdened at home, restricted to clerical or teaching jobs in the workplace, unsafe from harassment, women renewed their claim to a place in line for the American Dream. Then gays and lesbians spoke out against their oppression. Environmentalists argued the cause of forest animals without forests. The endangered brown pelican, flapping its long, oily wings, had now taken its place in line (p. 211).

It seems that every group favored by liberal Democrats has offended these people in some way - including the pelican. But there is more. This simmering resentment has acquired the power of an erupting volcano because of a seismic demographic shift:

All these social movements left one group standing in line: the older, white male, especially if such a man worked in a field that didn’t particularly help the planet. He was - or was soon becoming - a minority too (p. 212).

We could hardly have expected the country to experience such a transformation without political consequences. So after eight years of a black President it is hardly surprising to see instead a regime seemingly sympathetic to white supremacy. Some interviewees compared the present situation to the Civil War: that too was an example of an overbearing Northern government with far too much power dictating to people how they should live.

Whatever their family’s view or their own, however much sympathy they may have personally felt for blacks at the time, the public narrative was that the North had to come to the South, as it had with soldiers in the 1860s and during Reconstruction in the 1870s, to tell Southern whites to change their way of life (p. 213).

Culturally speaking, the entire North had “cut in” and seemed to move the South to the back of the line, even as - and this was forgotten - federal dollars had steadily moved from North to South” (p. 215).

Overthrowing the liberal black President was a long overdue swipe at the carpetbaggers.

This explains why arguments that Republican policies exploit the poor in favor of the rich, and that these policies increase income inequality, have no persuasive power. The people whom these policies victimize have it coming.

Liberals were asking them to feel compassion for the downtrodden in the back of the line, the “slaves” of society. They didn’t want to; they felt downtrodden themselves and wanted only to look “up” to the elite. What was wrong with aspiring high? That was the bigger virtue, they thought. Liberals were asking them to direct their indignation at the ill-­gotten gains of the overly rich, the “planters”; the right wanted to aim their indignation down at the poor slackers, some of whom were jumping the line (p. 219).

To Hochschild’s credit, these observations came to light through her efforts to listen sympathetically and try to understand people with whom she did not agree. Her success in drawing them out makes this book an important contribution to understanding the anomalies of our current political situation.

Conclusion: White Resentment and the Rise of Trump

In my own debates with Trump supporters (and I’ve gotten into more of those than I probably should have), I’ve been struck by something odd. Appeals to moral principles that I believed we shared had absolutely no effect. So my conversation partners had no response to the immorality of throwing millions of people off health insurance in order to make rich people even richer, or to tearing apart the families of undocumented immigrants who have committed no offenses and who fled to this country seeking asylum. And they didn’t care that they had no response. This baffled me, until reading this book helped me finally understand how to resolve the “Great Paradox.“

So many of us who tried to fathom the outcome of this bizarre election had no clue about an important dynamic that drove the result. In light of Hochschild’s research, the outcome now seems to have been almost inevitable.

Looking back at my previous research, I see that the scene had been set for Trump’s rise, like kindling before a match is lit. Three elements had come together. Since 1980, virtually all those I talked with felt on shaky economic ground, a fact that made them brace at the very idea of “redistribution.” They also felt culturally marginalized: their views about abortion, gay marriage, gender roles, race, guns, and the Confederate flag all were held up to ridicule in the national media as backward. And they felt part of a demographic decline; “there are fewer and fewer white Christians like us” (p. 221).

Donald Trump read this mindset better than any other candidate. And being the great salesman that he is, he won by selling a product, a very potent one, more powerful even than this country’s sense of morality, tradition, and decency. Trump won by selling resentment.

This is why behavior that under normal circumstances would have disqualified any other candidate only seemed to make Trump’s candidacy stronger. The apparent sympathy with white supremacists, the overt appeals to racism, the misogyny and the hatred of immigrants and Muslims, all resonated with a large segment of the voting public. If Trump insulted Obama with his birther lie, insulted blacks by insinuating that all black neighborhoods are hotbeds of crime, insulted women by bragging about how he could freely abuse them, or repeatedly expressed hatred of Latinos and Muslims, it did not delegitimize him. It strengthened his appeal.

In other speeches Trump said, in reference to a protestor, “I’d like to punch him in the face” (February 23, 2016). “In the good old days they’d have ripped him out of that seat so fast” (February 27, 2016). “Knock the crap out of him, would you? Seriously . . . I promise you I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise” (p. 224).

What other presidential candidate in modern history could have gotten away with speaking like this? And yet not only did enough voters find this acceptable, it energized and inspired them. Trump hated all the people they hate. It was about time.

Trump’s cruelty did not count against him; instead it was considered a virtue.

Trump jovially imitated a disabled journalist by physically shaking his arm in imitation of palsy - all deeply derogatory actions in the eyes of Trump’s detractors but liberating to those who had felt constrained to pretend sympathy. Trump allowed them both to feel like a good moral American and to feel superior to those they considered “other” or beneath them (p. 228).

Trump gave people permission to feel sorry for themselves instead of for others who might need help but who are not like them. So not only could he get away with his outrageous statements and behavior, it was just what his voters wanted.

How naïve Michelle Obama’s words now seem: “When they go low, we go high.” How did that work out for the Democrats? The voters who gave us Donald Trump did not want to go high. Going high had no attraction for them. They wanted low and Trump gave it to them, while astonished Democrats watched and wondered why Trump’s excesses did not destroy him. In retrospect the reason is obvious.

Perhaps the deepest irony of this entire phenomenon is that the resentment that blew Trump into office was tragically misplaced. It is not the fault of black people or of Mexicans that manufacturing jobs no longer exist in abundance. The world is changing, and either one adapts or gets swept away. Scapegoating, taking it out on others is always self-destructive. And so it will be again. The Republicans’ anti-environment and financially predatory policies will hurt most the poor white voters who looked to them for salvation.

We are now left with the incalculable damage this election has done. Internationally, we have placated our enemies and alienated our friends. Our standing in the world has plummeted, and hatred of the “ugly American” has no doubt risen dramatically. We have gone on record as the only industrialized nation not to care about the state in which we leave this planet for future generations, but to care only about ourselves. “America First,” no matter the cost to anyone else. Domestically, we are pursuing policies that punish the most frail and vulnerable members of our society. Republicans, who have succeeded in demonizing a health care program that actually works if given a chance (and if Republicans do not sabotage it), are pushing their own “health” bill that is nothing of the kind. It is not about health care, but rather about seeing how many services for poorer Americans they can get away with cutting. Meanwhile the honor and prestige of the Presidency have been torn to shreds by a President who would rather spend his time composing adolescent tweets and watching himself on TV than actually studying policy and attending to governance. One great horror in all this is that we may actually come to accept it as the new normal.

Whenever policy is driven by resentment, the result is self-destructive. The people who elected Trump bear an ethical stain. Too many of them have allowed resentment to drive their policy. Everybody knew what Trump was. He made no attempt to hide his dark side; in fact, he flaunted it. And that is what people voted for. They voted for someone who was clearly inexperienced, emotionally immature, consistently dishonest, and with a mean streak deep as a chasm. And they voted for him not in spite of that but because of it.

Hochschild’s is perhaps the deepest of many efforts people have made to understand Trump voters, to sympathize with their plight, and to record their grievances. I have not seen even one comparable attempt made by the other side. The Republicans won both houses of Congress and the Presidency, and now even the Supreme Court, yet somehow only those who lost the election and who feel devastated by that loss have an obligation to understand and sympathize with the other side. That moral inequivalence speaks volumes. But as we have seen, against resentment morality may be powerless.

Finally, it is undeniable that racism played a significant role in Trump’s victory. People who harbor ill feelings towards other races or ethnic groups always have reasons for feeling the way they do, and there are always things we can try to “understand.” In this case the predominant rationalization is that members of the disliked groups, and their black President himself, are “line cutters” who are reaching beyond what they deserve, and we need to understand why poor working whites may feel that way. The term “line cutters” is code. It suggests a hierarchy of privilege, that people should know their place and stay in it, and clearly has racial overtones. Is this supposed to elicit our sympathy?

In the end racism is either justifiable or it is wrong. And as we keep witnessing the destructive consequences of this administration’s policies and values, it will not do to cast those who brought us here as victims of a changing world whom we should feel sorry for. People are responsible for the choices they make and for the ethical consequences of those choices, no matter how much they may believe they have suffered in comparison to others. It is not just everybody else who has a duty to “understand” those who bear strong feelings against other races and ethnicities; it is the duty of those who entertain such sentiments to examine them and correct them. Only then can we achieve a healthy society that works for all.

To a large extent this election was a repudiation of eight years of a nonwhite President by a group that feels threatened because its numbers and power are shrinking. It is hard to understand in any other way the intense and unprecedented hatred thrown at Obama since the very first day of his administration. Republicans shamelessly declared that their highest priority was not to work together to improve American lives, but to thwart him at every turn and make him a one-term President. Likewise the unceasing efforts to demonize and make unworkable a health care bill whose greatest sin is to bear the name of a black Democratic President. But I believe that the growing diversity in this country is actually a great strength. Hopefully the turmoil of this election is a temporary phase this country must work through as it learns to accept this diversity. Hochschild has laid bare the underlying dynamic of the resistance aganst it. We just need the willingness to confront the meaning of these findings.

July 2017