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What a liberal sociologist learned from spending five years in Trump's America

Donald Trump Photo by Charlie Leight/Getty Images

Five years ago, right as the Tea Party was becoming a major force in American politics, Arlie Russell Hochschild realized she didn’t really know any conservative Republicans. Ensconced in her liberal outpost at the University of California Berkeley, the famed sociologist understood little about the lives or beliefs of a huge swath of the country.

So Hochschild, who has won acclaim for her meticulous studies of the emotional lives of workers and caregivers, decided to go to Louisiana’s staunchly conservative bayou country — as far outside her comfort zone as she could get — aiming to get to know the people there and understand why so many were implacably opposed to government.

"I realized there were two ways I could go about it," she told me. "I could go in and say, ‘I’m going to find out more about the enemy. I’ll grab the facts and marshal my side.’ Or I could say, ‘You know what? There are things I just don’t know about this part of the country. And I’m going to have to open my heart to them. I’m going to have turn my alarm system off and actually listen. Listen with curiosity and interest.’"

The result is Hochschild’s new book Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Rightthe result of five years and hundreds of in-depth interviews. The book fixates on a paradox: Calcasieu Parish in Louisiana, where she spends much of her time, is one of the most polluted regions of the country, ravaged by the oil and petrochemical industries. Residents mourned the loss of the pristine bayous of their youth, of their favorite fishing and hunting spots. Yet to her surprise, they remained deeply hostile to the Environmental Protection Agency and environmental regulation. Why was that?

There was no one simple explanation. Some of the people she met were worried about regulations killing jobs. Others saw toxic pollution and environmental disasters as the sort of risk essential to a vibrant economy, something to be stoically endured. Still others had become disillusioned with corrupt and ineffective local regulators.

As Hochschild probed deeper, what she found most common was a "deep story" the conservative white residents were telling themselves. They felt left behind or even kept down by a federal government that no longer looked out for them — that was against their interests at every turn. When Donald Trump enters the scene midway through the story, she’s none too shocked that he finds fertile territory here.

This is just one of a flurry of recent books trying to puzzle out what motivates white working-class Trump supporters. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy tries to offer an insider’s view (and is far more comfortable casting a critical eye on white working-class culture). Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash takes a historian’s perspective.

But Hochschild is trying to do something different — to see if it’s possible for a liberal to empathize with Trump supporters. It doesn’t end with a grand theory or a prescription for how to bring America together or help Democrats win elections or anything like that. It’s mostly a book about listening — a rarity in American politics.

I talked with Hochschild by phone in September about her time in Louisiana, what she had learned from spending five years in (what is now) Trump country, and why one of the most polluted places in the country is so averse to environmental policies.

Brad Plumer: Lots of journalists have been trying to understand Trump’s supporters over the years. What does a sociologist have to offer here?

Arlie Hochschild: I would consider myself more of a social psychologist. What I’m really interested is understanding how people feel. I’m not focusing pragmatically on policies, but trying to get into what it would feel like to be a person who has a certain set of experiences and lives in a certain social world and has certain news sources. I think that in itself is the whole project — turning your alarm system off and really listening.

When this book began five years ago, I didn’t know anyone who supported the Tea Party. I was very ignorant. And the question is how: What did I have to do to myself to come to know what right-wing people know and feel the way they feel? How do you do that? It was what I called an "empathy wall."

Mississippi River Petrochemical Industry, near Norco, Louisiana. (Ken Lund/Flickr)

BP: In the book, you end up focusing on pollution and the environment — why one of the most polluted parts of the country is so resistant to environmental regulation. How did you land on this?

AH: There’s this red-state paradox that others have written about before. Red states tend to be poorer and rely more on federal help. But they’re also more opposed to the federal government. So I started by asking: How could that be? What do I not get? I wanted to go to the heart of red-state culture, which would be whites in the South. So that’s how I ended up in Louisiana.

While I was there I found Calcasieu Parish, the county containing Lake Charles, a central town in southwest Louisiana. This was one of the top 2 percent most polluted counties in the country. It was a center of the petrochemical industry, which, with cheap natural gas due to fracking, had been growing and expanding. And you can see the smokestacks, you notice that everyone’s drinking bottled water, that on hot days no one is swimming in the lakes.

So that became the real paradox for me. If you have people who believe the government is overregulating, how does that set of beliefs fit with being a victim of extreme pollution?

BP: And it wasn’t just because no one cared about nature

AH: Not at all. That was what was so poignant. It’s a fantastically beautiful state, and these bayous are absolutely extraordinary. You see these forests with tupelo trees and 100-foot-high tall bald cypresses with Spanish moss hanging from them. Spoonbills are swooping from one tree to another over the water; it’s really exquisite. And the people I met there love their bayous, they love to fish and hunt.

It isn’t that they don’t care about their environment. They know more about it than anyone in the world, and they love it more than anyone in the world. It’s not that they don’t see its beauty; they revere its beauty. But they still resisted the idea of regulators regulating polluters. They did want a clean environment. But they were even more suspicious of an ever-expanding federal government and state government that they felt was "can’t-do" and money-gobbling.

Roseate spoonbills wintering in Louisiana.
(Shutterstock)

BP: So you spent years in these very conservative, mostly white communities, talking to dozens of people. How would you explain what’s going on here?

AH: There’s something hugely important to them that many liberals can’t see. And that something is that they feel like almost like a minority group, forgotten and set aside, displaced.

They feel their cultural beliefs are denigrated by the culture at large. They feel that they’re seen as rednecks, that they live in a region that’s being discredited. Many of them are deeply devout, but they see the culture at large becoming more secular. And then they see economically that this trapdoor that used to only affect black people and people one class below them is now opening and gobbling up them and their children too.

So altogether it makes them feel like a forgotten tribe. "Strangers in their own land" is a phrase that kept recurring to me as I spent time there.

And the main point is that they feel the government, the federal government, has been an instrument of their marginalization. If you give it an arm, it’ll take a leg. I think that was the big thing that was getting in the way and causing their deep distrust of something they otherwise might need to recover the natural environment that they did want.

There was also kind of stoicism at work here. These were people who don’t have a vocabulary of being a victim, of victimhood. They very much disliked people who claimed to be victims.

BP: Reading through all the different interviews in the book, though, it seemed like this stoicism manifested itself in all sorts of different ways.

AH: It had many different expressions. Some of the people I met I came to call "cowboys." Their attitude was, I’m tough, you’re tough, Mother Nature’s tough, we can all take it. Put a little ethylene dichloride or vinyl dichloride in the environment, and it’ll go away, we’ll survive. I heard this most often from people who had worked in plants or industry — they had difficult jobs that required a kind of fearlessness, and they saw risk as an intrinsic part of life.

Then there were others that I felt swallowed unpleasant news in a kind of quieter stoicism. It was almost like they were renouncing their right to a clean environment. One respondent told me: Pollution is the price we pay for capitalism. Sometimes people accepted loss as part of God’s plan.

Then there were those I came to call "team loyalists." They were loyal to the Tea Party, to the Republican Party, and environment wasn’t on the list of concerns for that team, so I’m not going to go for it.

BP: You sketch out what you call a "deep story" to describe how many of the people you meet in the book feel. And a lot of people in Louisiana seemed to agree with it. Tell me about that.

AH: So I first tried to just listen wherever I went, really do immersion research. And after a while, I realized there’s a core here that could be told through narrative. This is what I call the deep story. It’s a story in which you lift away facts and moral judgment and just find the story that feels true.

I think supporters of the Tea Party in Louisiana have a deep story, as do Bernie Sanders supporters in Berkeley, California. We all have a deep story. And it’s important to know what these are. Because so many arguments aren’t really between one set of facts and another; they’re between one deep story and another.

So the deep story I felt operating in Louisiana was this: Think of people waiting in a long line that stretches up a hill. And at the top of that is the American dream. And the people waiting in line felt like they’d worked extremely hard, sacrificed a lot, tried their best, and were waiting for something they deserved. And this line is increasingly not moving, or moving more slowly [i.e., as the economy stalls].

Then they see people cutting ahead of them in line. Immigrants, blacks, women, refugees, public sector workers. And even an oil-drenched brown pelican getting priority. In their view, people are cutting ahead unfairly. And then in this narrative, there is Barack Obama, to the side, the line supervisor who seems to be waving these people (and the pelican) ahead. So the government seemed to be on the side of the people who were cutting in line and pushing the people in line back.

I went back with this story to a lot of the people that I’d talked to. I asked, is this the way you feel? And they said, "Yeah, you read my mind!" or, "Yeah, I live your narrative!" And this all becomes more acute as their place in line feels more vulnerable. There’s the offshoring of American jobs, automation that is now making even skilled jobs feel vulnerable. So when you add a cultural and demographic sense of loss and decline to a real economic threat, it becomes alarming. And the government doesn’t seem like it’s heard your distress call.

BP: So my first instinct when looking at this story would be to say a lot of that isn’t quite true. Many of these Trump voters or Tea Party supporters are actually doing pretty well economically. A lot of liberals might do that. But it seems like a lot of people in your book really feel dismissed and not heard.

AH: Yes, I think that’s exactly right. One person told me, "I watch Fox News, that’s my regular source, but I scan the liberal television programs, and I hear people refer to people like me as rednecks." This is a college-educated, highly intelligent man, and he was deeply offended by that. In America we don’t talk about social class; it’s just not a category that rings the bell for a lot of people. And yet I think that’s what’s going on.

Another thing: A lot of the people I talked to were doing really well now — but they had grown up in poverty, or their parents had, they’d struggled hard, and they’d worked hard. They were also white men, and they felt that there was no cultural sympathy for them; in fact, there was a tendency to blame the categories of whiteness and maleness. I came to realize that there is a whole sector of society in which the privilege of whiteness and maleness didn’t really trickle down. And I think we have grown highly insensitive to that fact.

BP: There are also all sorts of exceptions in your book. You wrote about the Bayou Corne sinkhole in 2012 — this disaster caused by a drilling company — and it sparked some local environmental activism.

AH: There was a man who I came to know well, white, he was 63, had always worked in oil, grew up in the Old South. He was part of the Tea Party, didn’t believe the federal government means well or could effectively protect anyone. But he also loved nature, and here he was finally looking forward to retirement, to fish, to be with his family in this beautiful spot by Bayou Corne.

So lo and behold, in 2012, a company called Texas Brine was drilling near Bayou Corne for brine, which has many industrial uses. And deep underneath the bayou is this salt dome, this underground warren of corporate-owned natural vaults. Some companies inject industrial waste into some caverns, or chemicals or gas.

So in drilling, Texas Brine accidentally punctured the wall of a cavern. And it was like pulling a plug in the bathtub. Water in the bayou started to circle around and was pulled down; 100-foot-tall cypress trees collapsed and were sucked under. The sinkhole eventually extended 36 acres, and 360 homes were evacuated. And methane was drenching the mud.

A sinkhole opens up near Bayou Corne, Louisiana, in July 2012.
A sinkhole opens up near Bayou Corne, Louisiana, in July 2012. (NNSA/Flickr)

But this man I came to know, he stayed behind. He put a gas monitor in his garage, woke up at night to check for methane. He said his family couldn’t be there because what if someone lit a match? And I asked him why he was staying there. He said, "Well I want to keep the thieves away and watch the property of my neighbors. But I also don’t want to leave." He loved it.

And he later became an environmentalist. Although he didn’t call himself that. He had always thought the environment was just something liberals were concerned with. He said, I’m a conservationist. But he started writing letters and putting pressure on the Louisiana state government to do more to protect its environment, not just in Bayou Corne but elsewhere. He’s looking beyond his own backyard.

But he still remains deeply suspicious of government. When I asked him who he’d vote for in the upcoming election, he said, "Well, I don’t want to vote for the Bolshevik (that would be Bernie Sanders) and I don’t want to vote for the Menshevik (that would be Hillary Clinton), so I guess that leaves the Republican candidate, which would be Donald Trump." And one thing Trump’s been very sharp and clear about is abolishing EPA.

BP: One thing that struck me is that the people in your book often had good reason to distrust environmental regulators. The Louisiana government knew that drilling in Bayou Corne was risky but continued to approve permits anyway. When fish in local waters get contaminated, state regulators would simply advise people to cut away the fatty parts. It doesn’t seem that surprising that this would extend to the EPA, the federal government, and so on.

AH: That’s right. But part of the answer was in the entire social world I found in Louisiana. This isn’t just a question of this or that policy, or people not knowing what their self-interest is — of course they know what their self-interest is, and they’re highly informed. But they’re hurt. They feel hurt. I think we have known that.

Leading Conservatives Gather For Republican Leadership Conference In New Orleans
Enter stage left.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

BP: When you started the book, five years ago, Trump was barely a blip in politics. And yet by the end you noticed that many of the people you were writing about were avid Trump supporters. How does he fit in here?

AH: Once Donald Trump entered the scene, there were very many different responses to him. I attended the Trump primary rally in New Orleans, and it was just mobbed with devotees. That’s what the press will capture, people who are frantically waving their Make America Great Again signs. I saw one man, with his eyes wide open, said, "Oh, to be in the presence of such a man." It was almost like a secular rapture.

But one by one, as I spoke to the people I’d come to know, they had many reservations. They didn’t call for Donald Trump; Donald Trump came to them. And one said, "I hate the way he’s imitating and making fun of the disabled reporter. Does this man have heart? No." Others said Donald Trump’s not a conservative, he’s not going to whittle down big government. But at the end of the day, this woman is going to vote for him. One thing that often gets missed at the end of the day is the nuance and different ambivalences people have about this man.

There was one thing I found interesting about Donald Trump’s appeal to blue-collar men, though. He spends a lot of time shaming women and minorities and disabled people and even war veterans. So many different groups. But the one group he hasn’t shamed is those who are applying for food stamps or who may be needing unemployment insurance. If you look at the iconography of shame in Trump’s speeches, he leaves an exception for the blue-collar man who might lose his job or have a low-wage job that doesn’t pay the bills.

BP: You tread pretty lightly on race in the book, but it seems like racial anxiety is a crucial part of this deep story that people feel — as you mention, it involves anxiety over black people or minorities getting ahead.

AH: It is. And you see signs of it, culturally speaking. You look at the monuments. You look at the names of things. The five southwestern parishes in Louisiana are all named after Civil War Confederate figures, generals, governors. And there’s the Jefferson Davis bank and freeway. There’s a monument to the boys that defended the South. But, no, there are no monuments to honor victims of lynchings. So there’s something about the place that’s speaking of race.

But when I sat down to talk to people, they were often very close-lipped about it. They’d say, we’re afraid you’re going to think we’re racist. But we’re not racist. To them, racism was using the n-word or hating blacks and minorities. They thought the South had done a lot of changing and it wasn’t being acknowledged.

And racism is also a deeper more structural phenomenon. It’s a shared set of assumptions about how privilege is distributed. So, yes, race plays a role.

BP: To some extent there are just always going to be political disputes (abortion, say) where people just fundamentally disagree, and there’s no way to reconcile that. But did you have any takeaways about improving the give and take of politics?

AH: I think we can do a lot better. Like you say, there will always be differences — and strong ones. But we can do a lot better at respectfully relating and listening to one another and appreciating the deep stories of people we have profound differences with. And I do believe the left has a lot to learn here. One man [on the left] told me after he read this book, "These should be people we’re fighting for, not fighting against."

BP: Say someone wanted to go work on environmental issues in Louisiana. Where would they start?

AH: I would start by asking the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), which is basically a coalition of a number of organizations, and asking, how can an outsider help? There actually is a history of environmentalism in Louisiana when things were even worse than now; before the EPA was established, there were coalitions across political differences. So there is a precedent here.

Transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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