Strangers in Their Own Land: The 'Deep Story' of Trump Supporters

Jan 24, 2017
Originally published on September 27, 2017 3:22 pm

Researchers have long been confused by what seems like a paradox: many people in America vote against their economic self-interests. Whether it's the working class conservative who wants a tax cut for the wealthy, or a member of the liberal elite who fights for safety nets that raise his own taxes — we don't always act in the way that would help us the most.

In her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land, sociologist Arlie Hochschild tackles this paradox. She says that while people might vote against their economic needs, they're actually voting to serve their emotional needs.

Hochschild says that both conservative and liberals have "deep stories" — about who they are, and what their values are. Deep stories don't need to be completely accurate, but they have to feel true. They're the stories we tell ourselves to capture our hopes, pride, disappointments, fears, and anxieties.

Hochschild spent years in Louisiana trying to understand the deep stories of conservative, white, heterosexual, working-class Americans. Their deep story focused on the American Dream: the idea that, if you work hard and play by the rules, you can have a better life. But what happens when that dream doesn't come true? When people see "line cutters" getting ahead while their own lives don't seem to be going anywhere?

According to Hochschild, Donald Trump was able to tap into these deep stories. He offered a narrative that confirmed how these people feel. His rhetoric gave them a way to talk openly about their deep stories — perhaps for the first time.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, and Renee Klahr. Our intern is Chloe Connelly, and our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

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SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

When we think about politics, many of us think it's all about debates, arguments about things like immigration.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's called extreme vetting.

HILLARY CLINTON: There are children suffering in this catastrophic war.

VEDANTAM: Or perhaps we think politics is a way to achieve our economic goals.

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LESTER HOLT: Secretary Clinton, you're calling for a tax increase on the wealthiest Americans, and, Mr. Trump, you're calling for tax cuts for the wealthy.

TRUMP: Well, I'm really calling for major jobs because the wealthy are going to create tremendous jobs.

CLINTON: Trickle down did not work. It got us into the mess we were in in 2008 and '09.

VEDANTAM: But here's the thing - economists, psychologists and journalists have long noted a paradox. Millions of Americans seem to ignore their ideologies and their economic interests when it comes to voting. Working-class people often vote for conservatives who promise tax cuts for the wealthy. Liberal elites, who might personally benefit from a less progressive tax code, are often the ones arguing most strongly for higher taxes and economic safety nets.

In the 1990s, Democrats who decry the powerful taking advantage of the weak rallied behind President Bill Clinton after he was caught having an affair with an intern. More recently, family-values conservatives supported the thrice married Donald Trump even after he boasted about groping women. Why do people seemingly vote against their interests and their values? One hypothesis - voting is less about ideology and economics and more about expressing our emotional needs.

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LESLIE HARGER: I've watched my country go from a place where I felt safe to a very unsafe world. I don't feel safe anymore here.

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TRUMP: The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.

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SOPHIE: I also want to tell the children not to be afraid because we are not alone.

VEDANTAM: This week on Hidden Brain - what if politics is less about getting what you want and more about how you feel? This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. We all have stories, stories about our traditions, stories about our setbacks, stories about our dreams. These stories shape our identity. They help us define who's on our side and who's not. My guest today explores how such stories shaped the way we think about politics.

Arlie Hochschild is a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of the book "Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger And Mourning On The American Right." She's a liberal who has spent years talking to people who politically disagree with her in an attempt to understand what she calls their deep story. Arlie, welcome to Hidden Brain.

ARLIE HOCHSCHILD: Well, thank you very much. I'm delighted to be here.

VEDANTAM: So you decided a few years ago to head out from Berkeley and spend extended amounts of time in Louisiana to understand the views of conservatives. Tell me what motivated this project. Why did you go?

HOCHSCHILD: Five years ago, I already felt like a lot of others that I was living in an enclave and that other Americans with different political views were living in their enclaves and that I didn't understand the people with whom I knew I had deep disagreements. So I decided to get out of my enclave in Berkeley, Calif., kind of a progressive Democratic town, and find an equal and opposite enclave which was as far right as Berkeley, Calif., is left.

I looked in 2012 at the proportion of whites that voted for Barack Obama in his re-election. It was about half in California. For the whole region of the South, it was a third. And in Louisiana, it was 12 percent. So I thought, wow, let me go there.

VEDANTAM: So you went out to Louisiana long before Donald Trump announced that he was running for president, but you say that he happened to come along at a point when three distinct forces were in place. Many older, heterosexual married whites feel their economic lives are unstable, that their cultural views are often painted as outmoded and that demographic changes are turning them into a minority.

Together you say these produce a sense of pervasive anxiety, a feeling that they are strangers in their own land. Can you give me a couple of specific examples of how the people you spoke with expressed those anxieties?

HOCHSCHILD: Yes. I met a woman whose husband hadn't had a raise in 20 years. She hadn't had one in a decade, so they were doing OK, but they weren't advancing, even though they worked extremely long hours. And she said, you know, I know you people on the coasts think that we in the South are old-fashioned and ill-educated. And we know the epithets that you people apply to us that we are homophobic, that we're racist, that we're sexist.

So she felt, you know, humiliated and put down and, like, a whole way of life and a kind of people was going out. They almost felt like Native Americans - felt like another minority group that didn't have a name.

VEDANTAM: You talk to many people for many hours on end. You made repeated visits back to Louisiana, and then you constructed something that you call a deep story. It's a story that you say feels emotionally true. It captures, as you say, the hopes, fears, pride, shame, resentment and anxiety of people. And since the story is so central to your book, I want to spend some time with it. It's a story that you tell in three scenes. And part one is something you call waiting in line.

HOCHSCHILD: Right. In this scene, you're waiting in line as in a pilgrimage. It's facing up a hill at the top of which is the American dream. Your feet are tired. You've been in that line a long time. The line is not moving, and you don't have any ill will as you experience yourself toward anyone, but you are quite riveted on the goal of getting some reward for the hard work that you've put in. In scene two, you notice ahead that somebody seems to be cutting in line, and you think how unfair. That's just not right. I obey the rules. I'm not cutting in line, and somebody else is.

So who are these line-cutters? Well, they are blacks who through affirmative action have access to jobs formerly reserved for whites. They're women - a much larger group - who now have access to jobs formerly reserved for men. They're immigrants, refugees. And in your perception, even public sector workers actually also cutting in line for these Louisianans would be the endangered brown pelican with its oil-drenched wings because I many times heard people say, well, you know, these environmentalists are putting animals ahead of us people.

So all of this happens, and then you turn around, and you see that the supervisor of this long line, the person designated to keep order in it, Barack Obama, seems to be signaling to the people who have cut in line. He seems to be sponsoring them and egging them on, encouraging them. So you think, well, wait a minute. He's not taking care of me. He's setting me back because my position in line is going backward. And then they felt in this line as they're pushed back, an injustice had been done.

VEDANTAM: So when people sort of internalize the story, this feeling that you're waiting in line, that people are cutting in line and that the people who are supposed to be minding the line and maintaining order are in some ways betraying how the line is supposed to operate, that this deep story - when you ran the story by the people you met and befriended, many of them told you that you had captured something that felt true to them. So many liberals, for example, might say that conservatives are being brainwashed by Fox News. You would say, no, the appeal of Fox is that they confirm to people that the deep story is true.

HOCHSCHILD: Yes. Well, I think it's a cyclical relationship because Fox News is a deep story news source. It begins with it. It affirms it. It passes it on. But, yeah, it's a fit for them. They watch it to confirm this world view.

And there's another part of what emerges from this deep story is that government is now suspect in all of its manifestations, and that's a Fox News story, too, that the government had become an instrument of the line-cutters. That's the implication of the deep story.

VEDANTAM: As you point out, there's an irony here because, of course, many conservative states are poorer than liberal states. They use more government benefits than liberal states. As you point out, nearly half of Louisiana state budget comes from federal spending. So how do people reconcile the deep story, this antipathy toward people who are being helped by the federal government with their own deep dependence on the federal government?

HOCHSCHILD: Well, it's interesting. I spent five years asking that question, and when we think about tensions between social classes, liberals tend to look up at the 1 percent, the Wall Street, the people that caused the 2008 crash, and that's where the tension is, you know, Occupy Wall Street. They look up this class ladder. People I came to know, the Tea Party advocates in Louisiana, look down the class ladder. The big tension line was between the middle-class, blue-collar class on one hand and the welfare recipients and poor people on the other.

And it's not that they don't know that their state is very poor. I asked people about that, too, and the conclusion I came to is that they know about the red state paradox. It's not a matter of not knowing, but it's just less important than the deep story. The deep story has to do with people getting ahead of you unfairly who probably don't work as hard as you do and obey the rules as well as you do. That just loomed larger.

VEDANTAM: When we come back, I'm going to talk to Arlie specifically about Donald Trump. Our conversation will be informed by a single stark fact. Fifty-three of Louisiana's 64 parishes are majority white. Hillary Clinton won 10 of the 11 parishes where whites are not in the majority. Of the 53 majority white parishes, Donald Trump won all 53. Stay with us.

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VEDANTAM: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Arlie, you say that regardless of whether Donald Trump was making an argument that was in the economic self-interest of his audience, he was making an argument that was in their emotional self-interest. He made many of the people you talk with feel like they were no longer strangers in their own land.

HOCHSCHILD: He seemed to be the guy against all of the line-cutters - against blacks, against women, against immigrants, against refugees, against public sector workers. I went with a member of the Tea Party to a Donald Trump rally in March a day before the primary in New Orleans. And she coming out of this rally said, gosh, there aren't very many black people here. And, in fact, the only black people I saw were in security and selling Donald Trump T-shirts out on the front lawn. And I asked her about that, and she just avoided the topic.

VEDANTAM: So one of the points that you make is that conservatives feel that liberals have morally boxed them into a corner to express how you really feel about the poor, about people of color, about women or about gays can expose you to charges that you are an uncaring person or even a bigoted person. And one of the things that I think you're saying is that Trump's rhetoric gave people a way to talk openly about their deep story, perhaps, for the very first time.

HOCHSCHILD: I think that's right. But, you know, I got a sense of the complexity of racism. First of all, people did not feel that they were racist. One man, for example, said, well, a racist is someone who uses the N word. I don't ever use that word. Somebody uses that word on my Facebook, I take them off my Facebook page. I'm offended by it. And the other definition of a racist is someone who hates blacks. He said I don't hate blacks. But that, of course, leaves out a lot of kind of institutional expressions of racism, and they fell to the side given the primacy of this deep story.

VEDANTAM: So speaking of the institutional ways in which race might play out, you point out that there are relatively few government regulations for things like guns or motorcycles or liquor. But there are lots of regulations when it comes to abortion or how low someone can wear his pants over his underwear. It seems to me this isn't sort of a one-size-fits-all, I-don't-want-the-government-in-my-life philosophy.

HOCHSCHILD: Not at all. It's fine if the government controls women or blacks in Louisiana. It has a kind of a image of itself as state, as a political culture of bravado and freedom, the Wild West. But, as you say, that didn't apply to women. If an adult accompanies a teenager - say, a rape victim, something - to a nearby state to get an abortion, they can be jailed.

So for people who don't want big government, they certainly allow an enormous role for government to make choices for the individual with regard to abortion. And there were a number of - in local parishes ordinances about how low your pants could go, and this applied to black teenagers, so very strange in what would seem like government intrusion.

VEDANTAM: Many of the women you spoke with obviously endorsed the conservative deep story, but you also point out that in some ways, they are the victims of this deep story, that the deep story in some ways is resentful of women for being in the workplace, advancing in the workplace, perhaps, at the expense of men. How did the women you speak with reconcile this tension between being subscribers to the deep story and also having the deep story essentially trying to exclude them?

HOCHSCHILD: They handled that paradox in a variety of ways. Every woman that I spoke to worked - blue-collar women, you know, had to work, middle-class women. They all worked. And they believed in equal pay for equal work. At the same time, I think many of them felt protective of vulnerable blue-collar, white men. And, as a class, this group was doing badly.

Studies have shown outside of my book that they're more depressed, a higher suicide rate, more likely to not live with the mother of their children. So some of the women who feel, OK, these high school-educated white men - they're the kind of men I'm going to marry, have married. They're my brother, my father, my uncle. And let's get someone to answer the economic issues that face such men. So in this regard, they're thinking not of themselves as workers, but as wives and mothers.

VEDANTAM: It feels like you're laying out for me something that is actually a paradox. Many of the people you spoke with - they're older, they're mostly white, many of them are men. They tell you they feel like they're strangers in their own land, but that's also the way the African-American man who gets repeatedly pulled over by the police also feels. That's also the way, you know, the undocumented Latina teenager who was brought to the country by her parents when she is a baby - that's how she feels, too.

And I feel like in many of our political debates each side is saying I feel so anxious that I am not welcome in this country. I must do something to take my country back. And both sides feel this, and they feel this intensely. And they feel the other side is responsible for their anxiety.

HOCHSCHILD: Yes. I think that's right. You know, I started this book with the red state paradox in mind, but I ended it with the blue state paradox in mind. What has been missing in the Democratic Party that it does not speak to the anxieties, the desire for recognition, the actual economic dilemmas in Rust Belt states, rural states, the South that it's lost blue-collar and white voters. What's missing? Why didn't the Democratic Party stand up and make sense to the people I came to know? That was the paradox I ended up with.

VEDANTAM: Arlie Hochschild, I want to thank you for talking with me on Hidden Brain today.

HOCHSCHILD: Thank you. My great pleasure.

VEDANTAM: This week's podcast was produced by Maggie Penman and edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Jenny Schmidt, Renee Klahr, Rhaina Cohen and Chloe Connelly. Our unsung heroes this week are Sarah McCammon, who helped us with this podcast and her colleagues on the NPR Politics team. For the last 18 months, they have covered the political campaign tirelessly, and as a new administration takes office, they're still at it. You should check them out at the NPR Politics podcast.

For more Hidden Brain, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter and listen for my stories on your local public radio station. If you like this episode, please tell one friend who doesn't know about us to follow our show. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.