Why We Need Empathy in the Age of Trump by Jeremy Adam Smith, 11 November 2016
The election of Barack Obama marked the emergence of the Tea Party, a radical right-wing movement that challenged the Republican establishment and ultimately fueled the rise of Donald Trump.
Where did the Tea Party come from? That’s the question renowned sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild set out to explore in her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.
She traveled from her home in Berkeley, California—educated, affluent, liberal, and diverse—to one of the poorest, least educated, most conservative, and most racially divided states in America: Louisiana. There she spent five years listening to Tea Party conservatives who later came to support Donald Trump—mainly working-class whites.
Hochschild was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, during the tumultuous period of the 1960s—one that shaped her values, politics, and academic research. Unlike many sociologists—who tend to study how societies are organized—Hochschild has focused on the role of human emotions in shaping relationships and political behavior. She is probably best-known as the author of The Second Shift, a pioneering exploration of the division of labor between men and women at home.
We discussed her research for Strangers in Their Own Land, what it could tell us about how divided America has become—and how we might begin to bridge our differences.
Jeremy Adam Smith: Most of the people profiled in your book regard Donald Trump as a hero. Why?
Arlie Russell Hochschild: They didn’t at first. Most came to him ambivalently, at first. They didn’t think he was a truly good, moral person. One evangelical was very horrified by him mocking the disabled. Another woman feared he would start a war. But they all voted for him eventually.
And the reason, I think, is that he spoke to their “deep story.” Emotions are at the bottom of anybody’s political beliefs. Those emotions are evoked by a story that feels true. So a deep story is a story that feels true. You take facts out of a deep story, you take moral judgments out of a story.
Their deep story is that you’re waiting in line, as in a pilgrimage. At the top of the hill is the American Dream. The line hasn’t moved. You really deserve to move forward, because you’ve done what everyone said you should do. Why isn’t it moving?
Then you see people who are cutting into line ahead of you—they’re blacks, women, immigrants—who are taking jobs formerly reserved for white men. Then you see Barack Obama, who is supposed to be supervising the line, actually signaling to the line-cutters. He’s their sponsor. He looks like them. He’s a line-cutter himself.
Then you realize that the federal government is actually their government—the government of the line-cutters. He’s their president. He’s supporting them. And in essence, he is the instrument of your marginalization, pushing you backwards. And then you see someone ahead of you in line who turns around and adds insult to injury by saying, “Oh, you’re just a redneck.”
All of this is going on while you, in fact, are not feeling good about yourself. In a way, you’re kind of in mourning for a lost identity and way of life—a life with good, union-supported industrial jobs. And you feel like there’s no one who sees your distress. You’ve been in line for a long time, and each of those line-cutters seems to be saying, through identity politics, “Poor me, oh, poor me.”
You do not believe in identity politics. You don’t say, “I’m a white man and I’m waiting in line, too.” Because you have an ethic that says you shouldn’t call on people’s pity or sympathy. You just obey the rules and work hard. And so there’s something dishonorable about what they have done. At the same time—and here’s your conflict—you do feel like a forgotten minority group. So without believing in a culture of victimhood, you feel like a victim.
And then you have Donald Trump come along and say, “Hey, you are a victim, and it’s OK. You are a stranger in your own land, and I am your guy. I’m representing you.”
JAS: In your book, you write: “Race seemed everywhere in the physical surroundings, but almost nowhere in spontaneous direct talk.” Barack Obama’s election catalyzed the Tea Party movement, and you describe, in your book, some racially-charged attitudes toward the president. Based on your interviews, to what degree do you think the Tea Party and Trump’s campaign were fueled by racial fears?
ARH: I think, definitely, they were fueled by racial fears. But you have to understand the deeper story that those racial fears are embedded in. When you say, “Oh, it’s racism,” then you’ve suddenly objectified the person. “Oh, they’re an evil racist and sexist, and they’re not educated.” I think I embed an understanding of race in a larger story.
JAS: On the day after the election, I published a letter to my son, who was pretty upset by the outcome. I thought and thought about what I needed to tell him, to help him make sense of what happened. And I realized I just needed to tell him the truth, as I saw it: This is an example of a time when racism won. Now, I have a cousin who is a Trump voter. He read this letter on Facebook, and he basically said what you just said. He didn’t say, “Don’t objectify me.” But he did say, “There’s more to it than that.”
ARH: I think he’s right. I obviously don’t agree with what’s he concluded, but he’s right that there’s more to it than racism.
Here’s the thing. The people I interviewed spoke freely about Mexicans, who are four percent of Louisiana. And Muslims, who are one percent. They were silent about blacks because they were terrified I would see them as racist. They’re used to being criticized—and have been, historically: “There’s the moral North, wagging its finger at us, and we’re wrong once again.”
They would all say in the end, “I’m not racist.” But how did they define racism? They would define it as a person who uses the N-Word or who hates blacks. They would say, “I don’t use the N-word and I don’t hate blacks.” Or the older whites would say, “I used to use the N-word in 1966, but I don’t anymore, and, anyway, blacks use that word, too. But I think it’s wrong. If someone uses that word on Facebook, I block them, that’s not what I believe.” One guy described himself as a “former bigot.” He said, “I look forward to a day when color just won’t matter anymore, and I think we’re half the way there.”
I don’t think that was a lie. But…he’s pitting himself and his whole way of life against a set of line-cutters. The very paradigm suggests he’s deserving of one thing, and they’re not. That is wired into his deep story.
JAS: I feel like a lot of liberals and progressives like you are trying to understand how Tea Partiers and Trump supporters feel and think. Do you see any similar effort on the right? Is there a sociologist from Louisiana State University parachuting into Berkeley to try to understand the strange exotic creatures who live here?
ARH: No. They think they know, because we’ve had the more dominating culture. They have felt culturally colonized by us. And they know us better than we know them.
JAS: Do you believe that?
ARH: Somewhat. We’re stereotyped, too. But they hear more about us, let’s put it that way.
JAS: In the wake of the election, what do you want liberals and lefties to “get” about what’s going on inside the American Right, based on your research?
ARH: I think there’s a group that has felt silenced, who are the losers of globalization. And they found a guy who pointed to them and said, “You’re not losers and you’re not silenced, and I’m your guy.” They found a guy who’s very good at brand promises, magical promises, who says he’s single-handedly going to reverse the trends in globalization, who’s quick with blame and shame.
What is not in the conversation, and what is taking their jobs away, is automation. Progressives are silent on it, and so is the right-wing. But Louisiana is a great example of the impact of automation. These big petrochemical corporations were promising jobs. They said, “Give me $1.6 billion in tax money and we’ll come to Louisiana instead of Texas and we’ll give you jobs, jobs, jobs.” Well, there were very few permanent jobs. The jobs are done by giant machines. You just need people to build them, temporarily, and then go away. What you really need are MIT-trained chemists and engineers to come down and show how they operate, and then some people to maintain them.
Who’s to blame? The line-cutters. What I most dread about a Trump presidency is that when his magical promises prove to be illusory, people will become disappointed and disillusioned. And then he will turn to what he’s so good at: blaming and vilification. Pick your racial group. Mexicans will be primary targets, but anybody will do. The blame will be racialized. There will be not a word about automation and technology.
JAS: Today, I saw a phone video of Michigan middle schoolers chanting “build the wall” to Latino classmates, in celebration of Trump’s victory. And that puts a wall between me and them, right there. I can’t help but feel it’s an either-or: Either I empathize with the people who are suffering or I empathize with the people who cause the suffering. How can I feel empathy for both and still hold to my moral compass?
ARH: This goes to the core issue. If you are climbing an empathy wall, aren’t you giving in to racists and bigots who are shouting, cruelly, at Latino classmates? Are you giving in to that, when you climb the empathy wall?
And I actually don’t think that empathy gets in the way of solving this problem. I had five years there. Did I come back with different politics? No, I didn’t. I’m exactly, politically, the person I was five years ago. But it enables you to do your thinking with more understanding. Feelings and empathy open up a deeper level of thinking.
JAS: I’m feeling a lot of pressure to become more politically engaged, now that Trump is president. Why should I expend my precious energy to scale the empathy wall?
ARH: That’s a great question. My book is the long answer to that short question.
I started with the red-state paradox. These are the states with the least education and the shortest lifespans, which receive more federal money than they give—and yet so many people there hate the federal government.
But I ended with a blue-state paradox. How could the Democratic Party—the party of the working man or woman, the party that’s supposed to get us all together against the one percent—be hemorrhaging so many of its workers? It’s hemorrhaging nearly all of the high-school-educated workers. Well, what’s wrong? That’s a problem progressives have to look at in the face. As long as that is going on, we are all going to be strangers in our own land. We are already. And I think what’s called for is some outreach, some basis of understanding. We need to ask: How did you get there? Why aren’t you listening to someone like Bernie Sanders?
In fact, they are very friendly toward Bernie Sanders, these people on the far right. Bernie is standing back and asking some big questions. Now, they’ll say, “He’s a socialist. We’re Americans, we can’t be socialists.” But they sense him as a populist. There are possible connections we can make across class—and perhaps re-connect with people we have lost.
We are not looking at that loss. And we feel morally armed to not look at the reasons for that loss, because we are anti-racist, anti-sexist, and so on. Our moralism—our moral convictions—are getting in the way of really understanding people that are making the Democratic Party a shadow of its former self. I think we need to dig deep. That’s the hard thing. It doesn’t mean giving in to it. It’s just the opposite. It means looking at people who feel alien to you, and understanding how they think.
We have to reach out. We need school-to-school crossovers. We need church-to-church crossovers, union crossovers—people on different sides of the political divide learning to listen, and turning their own moral alarm system off, for a little while. They don’t need to turn into somebody else. It’s just listening, and getting smart about what you’ve learned.
JAS: In the book, you sound grateful to the people you interviewed, as though they have given you a gift. Are you grateful? What is the gift?
ARH: They didn’t slam the book on me: “Oh, you liberal, Berkeley, self-satisfied person who is wagging your moral finger at me.” Instead they said, “You’re open and curious, and I will share my time and experience with you.” That was huge. They gave me a lot of their time, and let me in on their lives.
I could have written a book entitled “The Inside Story of Southern Bigots.” They let me in: Ha ha! That would have been the last thing that could help our country. That would made it 1000 times worse. I didn’t do that. Because I’m interested in healing this divide.
Thanks to Laura Saponara for helping formulate the questions in this Q&A.