Sociologist discusses appeal of Tea Party, Donald Trump
Professor Arlie Russell Hochschild discussed the roots of right-wing anger.
Attempting to make sense of the paradoxes that define our modern political reality, Arlie Russell Hochschild discussed her sociological research into the appeal of the Tea Party and Donald Trump in the Deep South during a lecture on Thursday. Hosted by the Women’s Studies Research Center, Hochschild’s lecture, “Strangers in Their Own Land: The Sequel for Some White Blue-Collar Men,” was part of the Cascading/Downward Mobilities workshop series.
Hochschild is a preeminent sociologist and professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley. Her most recent book, “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right,” draws on five years of interviews with Tea Party supporters in Louisiana and explores the emotional roots of their political beliefs.
Hochschild’s lecture engaged with two paradoxes that have emerged in American politics. The primary paradox she examined is the Red State Paradox, which concerns America’s poorest states, with the worst rankings in health, educational and environmental measures. According to Hochschild, these states take in more money from federal aid than they give back in federal taxes, yet their politicians often rail against the federal government. Louisiana, which Hochschild focused on for her research, is the second poorest state in the nation and exemplifies this paradox, she said.
Yet Hochschild began her lecture by examining another paradox: that “the most politically intolerant Americans tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban and more partisan” — a statistic that implicates what Hochschild calls “her bubble,” or the progressive cosmopolitan community typified by Berkeley, California. She explained, “While we may be … the most out-reaching [part of the population], we seem to be reaching past a group of people” — the very people at the heart of the Red State Paradox.
At the intersection of these two paradoxes lies Hochschild’s most recent project. Around 2011, wanting to learn more about the emerging Tea Party and its revilement of the federal government, Hochschild decided she wanted to get out of her “Berkeley bubble” and find “an equal and opposite bubble” of far-right partisanship. She found this bubble in Louisiana, where only 14 percent of white Americans voted for President Obama in 2012, according to Hochschild.
“The project was to take my alarm system off,” she said, so that she could stay respectful and curious as she entered spaces where she would “have profound differences” with the people around her. Over a series of visits to Louisiana in the next five years, Hochschild met with church congregations, Republican women’s group members, fishermen, politicians and many others.
During one of these conversations, a woman explained to Hochschild that she loved the conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh because he hates “feminazis” and “environmental wackos.” But at one point, the woman paused to acknowledge that Hochschild disagreed with her beliefs. “Is it hard for you to listen to what I’m saying?” she asked. Hochschild said no and explained that she had turned off her “alarm system.” She emphasized how grateful she was to the woman and to the other people she spoke with for helping her learn about people different from herself.
Hochschild tried to talk to people about her Red State Paradox, but they waved it off. She came to recognize that the paradox was her way of seeing them, rooted in her own beliefs about government — not in their way of seeing themselves. This realization pushed Hochschild to develop what she calls the “deep story.”
A deep story is a “story about a salient situation that is emotionally evocative,” she explained. “You throw facts out of the deep story, you throw moral precepts out of the deep story — it’s just what’s left.” For Hochschild, the right wing’s deep story is centered around the idea that their supporters are waiting in line for the American Dream, which they think they deserve, but the line has not moved in years. “You are looking at those in front of you,” she said. “You are not looking at the much longer line behind you.”
The key moment in this deep story occurs when one notices what one sees as “line-cutters,” or marginalized groups who have been given jobs through affirmative action that were historically reserved for privileged groups. As Hochschild explained, in the right-wing belief system, Barack Obama was the line-cutters’ president. In this deep story, the system is rigged against these Republicans, who are being “pushed back in line,” feel hated and are “like strangers in their own land,” she said.
According to Hochschild, conversations with Louisianans validated and developed her understanding of this deep story. She also analyzed what she calls the Blue State Paradox: that the Democratic party, allegedly the working class party, does not appeal to this specific population of workers. She resolves this paradox by characterizing the people she spoke with as “the elite of the left behind,” those who have lost economically to globalization and who have responded by choosing an out-group — people they negatively define as Other — to demonize and blame.
In March 2016, Hochschild went to a rally held by then-candidate Trump in New Orleans. She described how the mood in the crowd was one of people realizing, “I’m not alone” because massive numbers of other people felt the same way about the world as they did. “I felt like I had been studying the dry kindling, and I saw the match,” she said of Trump’s rally.
Hochschild said she believes that Trump has earned his loyal supporters by tapping into key emotions that these Southerners experience, especially shame. “I think they feel ashamed that they are not achieving the American Dream,” she said, adding that they were blaming themselves for their lack of upward economic mobility.
Hochschild theorizes that Trump exercises a “daily shame ritual” in which he says something “transgressive,” is attacked by the media and then rails against the media for shaming him. This ritual is “relieving” for those that experience shame themselves, she argues.
Trump has also given his supporters recognition of their struggles and hope for the future, tapping into other key emotions to secure their loyalty.
Looking forward to the 2020 presidential election, she stressed the need for a combination of policies that value the local community with rhetoric that acknowledges people’s emotions. She urged Democrats to reach out to the six and a half to eight million voters who switched from voting for Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. This outreach will involve having respectful conversations with people one disagrees with and acknowledging people’s practical and emotional needs, a combination that lies at the heart of Hochschild’s research.