Books

Why Are So Many White Americans So Fearful These Days?

Published just as many white American conservatives embrace a xenophobic demagogue as their savior, Hochschild’s emotive and empathic study provides guidance for how the US came to this crisis point.


Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right

Publisher: New Press
Length: 288 pages
Author: Arlie Russell Hochschild
Price: $27.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-09
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Trump and the 2016 Clown Car

When Arlie Russell Hochschild set out in 2011 to research her perceptive ethnography of the frustrated white American conservative, Strangers in Their Own Land, she didn’t realize how many of her subjects would later be driving off a cliff in a fume- and insult-spewing conveyance with “Trump 2016” stenciled on the side. How could she? Few of us knew it would come to this.

This crisis of white conservative identity is a feeling thing, not a thinking thing.
That Donald Trump would win the 2016 Republican presidential primary was always a possibility. But then, even a shallow and charmless ideologue like Bobby Jindal technically had a chance. So primary watchers could be forgiven for assuming that Trump was just one more sideshow. Surely, after the Republican “base” had been tossed enough red meat (about taxes, Muslims, and the like), it would simmer down and turn, albeit reluctantly, to one of its party’s grownups to lead its supporters to victory, or at least an honorably close defeat.

The most dedicated Republicans in today’s America remain suburban and rural whites who lustily cheer any time a right-wing pundit or leader excoriates big-city liberals and “the elites” with their supposedly amoral and anti-American value-free modernism. How could those voters nominate a billionaire New York tycoon and pseudo-Democrat whose tabloid marriages and smashmouth pro-wrestling mannerisms -- not to mention eager usage of big-government tools like eminent domain and corporate tax loopholes -- were the antithesis of everything the party of supposedly small-town modest values and self-reliance stood for? Surely, it was believed throughout the never ending campaign, cooler heads would prevail.

As we all now know, and are reminded of every time we look at the news in these last desperately sad weeks before the election, things didn’t turn out that way.

Consider this from an article in the Boston Globe (15 October 2016 ) about a Trump rally in Cincinnati:

[Trump’s] supporters here said they plan to go to their local precincts to look for illegal immigrants who may attempt to vote. They are worried that Democrats will load up buses of minorities and take them to vote several times in different areas of the city. They’ve heard rumors that boxes of Clinton votes are already waiting somewhere.

If Trump doesn’t win, some are even openly talking about violent rebellion and assassination, as fantastical and unhinged as that may seem. “If she’s in office, I hope we can start a coup. She should be in prison or shot. That’s how I feel about it,” Dan Bowman, a 50-year-old contractor, said of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee. “We’re going to have a revolution and take them out of office if that’s what it takes.”

Apparently, part of the electorate was just waiting for a reality TV con man and alleged sexual predator to come along spitting racist and quasi-insurrectionist conspiracy theories while at the same time promising to lead them to a low-tax and ethnically homogeneous promised land. Never mind that the “good old days” that Trump likes to wax poetic about in his speeches are of course nothing more than the creation of his own fervid imagination.

Trump likes to imagine a mystical time when apparently protestors he doesn’t like could be beaten with impunity, journalists who wrote things he doesn’t like could be sued or otherwise shut up, and women who accused him of sexual assault could be ignored or vilified. For their part, his adoring crowds like to imagine that the “good old days” will be here again, and all the minorities and liberals and feminists and Black Lives Matter activists and government regulators and elites can be cast into the outer darkness.

In what way does all of that bilious discourse square with the almost universally hardworking and decent-seeming conservatives whom Hochschild writes about in Strangers in Their Own Land? It’s difficult to square that circle.

What’s the Matter With Louisiana?

Much like Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas? tried to comprehend the illogical phenomenon of conservatives voting against their economic self-interests after buying the moral crusade snake oil (pro-life, anti-government) being pushed by their leaders, Hochschild set out to investigate a particular phenomenon that she refers to as “empathy walls”. She writes that these are the obstacles to understanding others, “that make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs.” If there was a singular vision of the 2016 Trump demographic, a purposeful separation behind an empathy wall seems to cover it.

To get over that wall, Hochschild embedded herself in white conservative Louisiana, particularly around the Lake Charles area in the southeastern part of the state. With its generally low education rates (about a quarter of the population has a college degree) and a medium annual household income of $36k, it’s fairly typical of Louisiana, which is one of the least educated and lowest income states in the nation. It’s also typical of the state in that the oil and petrochemical industries are crucial parts of both the local economy and avatars of the pro-corporate conservative mindset that has splashed Republican red all over this once deeply Democratic state.

She made friends with all manner of locals. What with that still-true phenomenon of Southern hospitality, Hochschild is welcomed into the houses and places of worship of people she would seem to have very little in common with. It’s not hard to understand how she does this. She is warm and companionable, even when tangling with the minutiae of demographics and environmental regulations. As the author of bestselling sociology books who hails from the anti-GOP nexus of liberalism that is Berkeley, California, she gets a lot of ribbing from her subjects about commies and hippies, but it’s mostly in good fun. One gets the sense that, like most people, Hochschild’s subjects are perfectly happy to generalize and vilify groups of people from a distance but more willing to overlook differences on a one-to-one basis.

Still, while Hochschild works to understand where her staunchly conservative interviewees are coming from, the disconnect is difficult to bridge. The specter of pollution is prevalent, as she sees so many once-beautiful places in this bayou region now turned into sickly dead zones by local industry. Yet she has a difficult time finding anybody who thinks that the polluters should be held responsible. No matter the fish kills and dead trees reaching to the horizon, her subjects prefer to rail against government regulators. Somehow the company that gives their neighbors cancer is preferable to the EPA stopping that cancer-causing pollutant from being spilled in the first place. Hochschild’s research even found that, incredibly, counties with higher rates of pollution actually correlated to higher percentages of people believing that there was “too much” concern about the environment.

Part of this passivity has to do with the demographics of the group Hochschild is studying. She cites a 1984 industry study commissioned determine which communities wouldn’t resist “locally undesirable land use”. The study created a “least resistant industry profile” whose characteristics (conservative; Republican; Catholic, high school education; longtime residents of small towns in the Midwest or South) read like a description of Hochschild’s Lake Charles friends, except for the high percentage of evangelicals (who often believe the end is nigh anyway, so why bother cleaning the environment).

For these people to admit that they need help to defend themselves from exploitative industries, the same ones that many wished they could work for, would risk contradicting what Hochschild described as her subjects’ “deep story”. This is the structural narrative that many people tell themselves about their world and how things are. Hochschild creates a deep story about people waiting patiently in a long line to success, following the rules, only to see others who supposedly didn’t follow the rules (women, immigrants, blacks, government workers, President Obama) somehow cut in line in front of them, leading to a deep sense of suspicion, betrayal, and rage.

After crafting this story, which greatly resembles the superior yet defeatist cultural mythologies of white Appalachia that J. D. Vance so vividly described in Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, Hochschild went to her subjects to see if it resonated with how they saw modern America. They emphatically agree. They are unable, of course, to imagine that anybody besides small-town white Christians were and are a legitimate part of the American Dream that they feel belongs to them only. Hochschild notes that “missing from the image of blacks in the most of the minds of those I came to know was a man or woman standing patiently in line next to them waiting for a well-deserved reward.”

In the last and most sobering part of the book, “Going National”, Hochschild broadens her remit to examine how these traits were replicated around the country. One illuminating part of her focus is the Trump campaign. She visits a Trump rally in New Orleans where she sees how “the scene had been set for Trump’s rise, like kindling before a match is lit.” For Hochschild, the rally is a culminating event where three trends she witnessed in white Christian conservatives came together to form a toxic brew.

First was their economic anxiety, leaving them nervous when hearing anything about redistributing wealth. Since they tend to see economics as a zero-sum game, any program that might put more money in the pockets of minorities or “others” must by definition mean less for them. Second is the sense of cultural marginalization, that the American mainstream has not only left them behind but looks down its nose at what they think about abortion, race, gun rights, same-sex marriage, and so on. Concurrently, they also believe that white Christians are “in demographic decline”.

All of these fears and resentments slurry together into an embittered sense of being a “besieged minority” with everything to lose but little constructive desire to move forward. Making this an especially attractive point of view is the fact that all of these elements are to some degree correct. Economic growth has slowed for most Americans; the majority of the country today is mostly pro-choice, intolerant of homophobia, and in favor of common-sense gun regulations; and Christians are a smaller percentage of the population than they used to be. Not that any of those realities make a convincing case for electing a Mussolini-like strongman to the most powerful elected office in the world.

Hochschild is at pains to point out the yawning gaps between reality and myth (the latter delivered by a steady diet of Fox News, talk radio, and email forwards filled with urban myths and paranoid fantasies) in what she hears from her subjects. To help in this, she includes a wonderful selection of fact-filled appendices that should be made available to send to everyone’s conspiracy-minded right-wing friends and relatives.

For example: Environmental regulations don’t lead to fewer jobs; most people on welfare get very little money; the government employs a tiny percentage of Americans; and unemployment is actually lower and the gross domestic product higher under Democratic presidents, not Republicans.

Of course, none of this matters in the current American political and cultural tumult, because as Hochschild makes clear, this crisis of white conservative identity is a feeling thing, not a thinking thing. If it was the latter, conservative Louisianans wouldn’t be voting en masse to ensure that the oil and chemical companies destroying their landscape and sickening residents and employees are given ever larger subsidies and protected from any responsibility, ever.

They’re angry because they feel trapped behind enemy lines in a country they don’t recognize. They’re mournful because the brighter economic futures they once believed to be their birthright are slipping away. But instead of blaming the actual culprits, like the companies that slash their wages and the politicians who enable such companies to do so, they turn their rage on shadowy conspiracies and real-life non-white, non-Christian, or even just non-conservative “Others”. Doing anything different would disturb the mythology of their deep story.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Having that as a backdrop, all a nationalist demagogue like Trump has to do is stand before a plethora of American Flags and loudly and with great prejudice declare the end is nigh, thus stirring frustrated passions. That’s how you hear something like this quote from a Trump volunteer in that same article from the Boston Globe:

If Hillary wins, it’s rigged … All I know is our country is not going to be a country anymore … But I don’t think this movement is going away. We don’t have a voice anymore, and Donald Trump is giving us a voice.

It also raises the fear that more incidents like this will continue to sprout up:

The Department of Justice announced today that it had prevented members of a Kansas militia group called the Crusaders from targeting Somali immigrants with homemade bombs … the men stockpiled firearms, ammunition -- nearly 2,000 pounds of it -- and explosive components. They reportedly believed the attack, planned for November 9, the day after the election, would "wake people up."

What form the Trump-amplified voice of white nationalist dissent will take, and how the economically disadvantaged subjects of Hochschild’s book will choose to exercise their democratic rights, after the election is anybody’s guess. But the atmosphere of fury and blinkered self-righteousness Hochschild discovers in Louisiana is too pervasive across the country right now to give much cause of hope in the near future.

These aren’t empathy walls that many white Christian conservatives have constructed in the American of 2016, they’re empathy chasms.

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