The biggest problem for me, as a reporter covering not just Donald Trump but Trumpism, has been how to explain the racial and cultural anxieties many Trump supporters feel without either excusing or dismissing them.
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who spent five years in conservative white rural Louisiana — the sort of communities that eventually became Trump Country — does just that in her interview with Vox’s Brad Plumer. You should read the whole interview. In particular, though, you should pay particular attention to the "deep story" that, Hochschild says, explains how her subjects see the world:
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.
As Plumer points out, in economic terms this story isn’t true. But Hochschild counters that her subjects felt when they did struggle, "there was no cultural sympathy for them." If anything, there was a tendency to "blame the categories of whiteness and maleness," while cultural elites in the press and politics mocked their "redneck" social class.
It is true, objectively, that the improvement of life prospects for women and nonwhites has not been zero-sum; it is also true that a substantial percentage of people feel that something has been taken from them for the benefit of cultural others, and are pained by it.
For me this has been the hardest question to answer about the anger that has been awoken by Trumpism:
What should non-Trump-supporters — or, if you prefer, elites — say to people whose pain is rooted in the myth that they’ve been hurt by other groups’ gains, but is real and potent nonetheless?
Getting out of the "racism versus economic anxiety" quagmire
For the last year, there’s been a debate among people who are not supporters of Donald Trump about whether Trump supporters are more motivated by "race" (which is to say, racism and racial anxieties) or economic anxieties.
That debate’s often been frustrating. Most people are simply more willing to call others "economically anxious" (something for which the blame lies with a government or market that has failed them) than to call them racist.
This is why Hochschild’s formulation is so helpful: It’s a way to talk about the pain that people feel, sympathetically, without litigating the reasons they feel it.
As Hochschild tells it, there’s a gap between the measurable, objective reality of social status — like how well someone is doing economically — and the subjective reality of it: how people see themselves as fitting into the social world.
The fact that it’s a perception doesn’t make it any less real: People’s feelings about their ability to get ahead shape how they feel about their lives, how motivated they are to work hard, how prone to despair.
But the other reason that the "race versus economic anxiety" debate is frustrating is that while people bicker over where, exactly, the proportions of blame should be assigned, the things they’re really disagreeing about rest beneath the surface.
It seems to me that the biggest disagreement isn’t really what is causing the pain of Trump supporters. It’s what the response of non-Trump-supporters — the people having the "race or anxiety" argument — should be to that pain.
You could stubbornly insist the pain isn’t real, because it’s not justified by economic reality, or say that it’s their own fault for being racist. That would shut down the conversation; it would drive them deeper into the conviction that they’re locked in opposition against nonwhites and the elites who aid them.
Or you could acknowledge that pain and try to fix it. But you’d have to find a way to do it without saying it’s okay to resent nonwhite people for making progress in America — without accepting the premise that one group’s gain is always another one’s loss.
I have no idea which one of these approaches is correct; I haven’t been able to figure it out myself. But it seems to me that if even a fraction of the energy devoted to asking "why Trump?" were devoted to asking "what do we do next?" we might be able to crack the dilemma. And if we couldn’t — well, at very least we’d discover where the real, irreconcilable fault lines in American society are.