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A Divided US: Sociologist Arlie Hochschild on the 2016 Presidential Election

Arlie Hochschild’s five years in Louisiana led her to some surprising discoveries about the rise of Trump.

Part of the Series

In her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, Arlie Russell Hochschild scrutinizes a divided United States and focuses on the white lower-middle class’s sense of belonging in their own country. In the book, we join her journey from Berkeley, California, to the southern state of Louisiana. The result is a prudent and compassionate story about many Americans who are managing life but not making progress.

Truthout invited Hochschild — a professor emerita of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, who has authored nine books, written a wide range of academic articles and received multiple honorary awards — to talk about her experiences in Louisiana and the light they shed on widespread support for Donald Trump in the US.

Kristian Haug: What motivated you to spend five years in the state of Louisiana?

Arlie Hochschild: Already in 2011, the handwriting was on the wall. Rhetoric on the left and right was heating up. Congress was at a standstill. A high proportion of Americans had accepted the rumor that Obama was neither an American nor a Christian. There were signs that the two sides were living in different worlds, in different truths. I realized many things that I’ve advocated all my life called for some good government — paid family leave for new parents, for example — and that in this climate, such a reform would never come to pass. So that’s what set me off.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

Then, as now … the newspapers were filled with strong, often angry, disagreement. At the same time, the people we know personally agree with us. That’s because most of us live in geographic, electronic and medial enclaves. So to talk to the other side, we have to get out of our enclave. So I set out to find a place in the United States that was as much the opposite from Berkeley, California, as I could find.

Who are the “strangers in their own land”? And when did they become strangers?

They are members of mainly older white lower-middle class to blue-collar in the South; Republicans, very conservative, and very religious, many of them. Many are very fine people, by the way. One of the findings in the book is that one can relate human being to human being who can’t and should not be dismissed, and with whom it is possible to find some common ground.

They felt like strangers in the sense that — they were all members of the Tea Party, I should say — they felt that mainstream America had left them and had gone by, didn’t see them, didn’t recognize who they were and neither political party spoke to their feelings and interests. In this sense, they felt like strangers in their own land.

I’ll give you an example of that. One woman I spoke to said, “I’m really glad you’ve come to interview us, because we are the fly-over-state and people think of the South that we’re ignorant, backward, that we have old-fashioned attitudes, that we’re pro-family, pro-life and that many people think we’re racist when we’re not, and so they write us off, they call us rednecks, so thanks for coming to see who we really are.”

You’ve stated that the persons you meet have every right to blame the system. Why do they not do so?

The system we’re talking about is the state government of Louisiana, the poorest state in the nation, with poor schools, hospitals and little regulation of polluting industry. But the reason they did not say, “Hey, let’s get some good government, we have problems, let’s fix them,” is that something else felt yet more unfair. That’s the secret revelation; the important point of this book, that what I thought looked unfair and unreasonable was not what they felt was so. What I thought their interests were did not correspond to what they thought their interests were.

They felt marginalized. They were religious in a secularizing state. They were white in an increasingly Brown state. They were traditional in an increasingly liberal state. Most of all, they felt that the economic arrow that hit Black [people (and continues to do so)] is going to hit them — especially blue-collar whites — now, too. So it was a constellation of all of those factors — demographic, cultural and economic — that reached a certain tipping point, after which they felt: “This isn’t even my country.” It left them feeling very desperate about being recognized and having their issues acknowledged.

Why do the people you meet and spend time with in Louisiana support Donald Trump?

Many came to Trump reluctantly. They name an objection, then come to a “but,” after which they tell me why they support him. One woman said, “We are from the Tea Party. We’re for very small government, but Trump wants to get 90,000 new American soldiers and boots on the ground. That’s going to cost a lot of money. He wants to kick out all non-documented Mexicans. That’s going to take a whole surveillance apparatus that’s going to cost a lot of money, and I — as a Tea Party member — am for smaller government, so I don’t like that about Trump, but there is no one else that speaks to the issues I care about.” That was her “but.”

Another said, “Trump seems mean and he’s always criticizing and shaming people and makes fun of a disabled reporter. Our Lord Jesus tells us not to do that. I don’t like that about Trump. But nobody else is speaking to my issues.”

Another man said, “I live in a very polluted bayou. I’d like to get this bayou cleaned up.” This is a guy I describe in the book, who lost his home by a sinkhole. He said, “And Trump plans to abolish that Environmental Protection Agency.” I said to him, “How could you possibly be voting for Trump when you lost your home because of a poorly regulated drilling company? How can it be that you’re voting for a guy who’s getting rid of the main watchdog?” He answered, “But Hillary is not a possibility.”

Somehow Trump has also created a kind of “winner story” for many?

He said, “I love the poorly educated,” and he gives the aura of recognizing their anger and personally absorbing their sorrow. And that’s a hidden part of the whole story.

Actually, I see two hidden sources of Trump’s appeal. One is that people are in mourning for a life they feel they’ve lost. I think he stands before crowds and says, “Your America is going downhill,” and then he’s silent for a while and purses his lip as if to absorb the grief. I didn’t see him that way at first, but I do believe he is — or is pretending to — absorb their grief. They then project onto Trump the idea, “Oh, he understands our losses and humiliation,” and then he follows it with the promise to “make America great again.”

There’s a second hidden appeal to Trump, and that is through a kind of a quasi-religious promise of a secular Rapture. Some 41 percent of the Americans in a PEW survey done just a few years ago said that they expected the return of Jesus Christ before 2050. According to the Rapture, before we die, there will be a sudden moment in which God makes a judgment and the good will go to heaven and the bad will go to hell. Hell will be the Earth turned into a hell. So that’s the Rapture, if you believe in it.

If you’re not a believer in the Rapture, you can either take it as magical or — as I do — you can take the Rapture as metaphorical. For many of the people I’ve talked to, their world already has come to an end — the world of union-protected, well-paid, steady industrial jobs. These jobs have been offshored and automated and foreign labor is coming in. So the idea that the world will crash has, for this vulnerable group, a metaphoric ring.

Also in the Rapture, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and because of that divide, you get saved or damned. This, too, has a metaphoric truth to it. So, paradoxically, Trump is the most irreligious man to run for office in recent memory — three marriages, boasting of adulterous affairs … he has publically announced that he has never asked God for forgiveness, and so on. He’s not a religious man, but he’s brilliantly intuitive I think.

But at the same time, Trump has discovered something like a set of underground cultural tunnels through which to influence voters. I actually think [his] political appeal works in this way: He follows the contours of emotionally powerful and loaded metaphors. It’s not that a person goes down a list of values and “you have my value 1 and my value 2.” I don’t think a charismatic politician gains his appeal in this way.

Trump established himself the last 18 or so years through his television program “The Apprentice,” where he took the role of a judge. He’ll say to one applicant, “You’re hired for $250,000 a year in the Trump Empire,” and to other applicants, he’ll say, “You’re fired!” He does this at the beauty contests he sponsors too; “You’re beautiful,” “You’re ugly;” or he does this with media outlets: “The New York Times can report on my rally; The Washington Post can’t.” He sets himself up as a God-like judge. If you look at Google-image pictures of heaven, you’ll find many of them are golden. And if you look at Trump’s own home, at the top of the Trump Tower, way high up, everything is gold — the living room, the dining room, even the bathroom. So the idea of Trump as offering to rescue people in a secular Rapture is suggestive — it’s a way of thinking out cultural avenues of appeal that are not spoken of.

You’ve said that, “The conservatives of yesterday seem moderate or liberal today” in the US. Can you elaborate on this move to the right in American politics?

In 1968, Barry Goldwater was the first really radical anti-government national candidate for the Republican presidency. His wife was a founder of Planned Parenthood. Today, Republicans and the Tea Party want to defund Planned Parenthood, which offers contraception, abortion, cancer screening and other very important things.

Again, former Republican President Richard Nixon brought us the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and now Republicans are calling for the end of the EPA.

Yet again, former Republican President Eisenhower called for a minimum wage; now Republicans oppose this. Eisenhower called for investments in public infrastructure, now it’s opposed. Today, the Republicans of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s look liberal. That’s how far right we’ve become.