Sunday, August 13, 2017

Blue Collar Heresies and the Election of Donald Trump

“ . . . I had a keen interest in how life feels to people on the right – that is, in the emotion that underlies politics. To understand their emotions, I had to imagine myself into their shoes. Trying this, I came upon their ‘deep story,’ a narrative as felt. (ix)
------Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers In Their Own Land – Anger and Mourning on the American Right

Arlie Russell Hochschild is a Berkeley sociologist who traveled to Louisiana to befriend Donald Trump supporters and learn directly why they felt and thought the way they did. She discovered that "empathy walls" prevented her (and us) from understanding people whose politics and world view differ from ours. As soon as we sense fundamental contradiction, we become indifferent or hostile to the other, in order not to feel human sympathy for someone whose ideas we find repugnant. Caricature and dismissal quickly follow, and insure that we never have to think. Hochschild sought to move beyond this trap and understand Trump supporters, without changing her beliefs

She quickly found the Trumpistas likeable. She appreciated their warm acceptance of a stranger from Berkeley (a Berkeley liberal is practically a communist in their view), and discovered that cooperation could extend beyond the personal: reducing the prison population was a common concern, as was cleaning up environmental contamination, a menace to us all. Nevertheless, a big gap persisted between advocates of New Deal ameliorative measures (like Hochschild) and Trump supporters who bristled at the very notion of a government "safety net." Only the military seemed to have a legitimate claim on taxpayer support.

Many of those whom Hochschild met prided themselves on having overcome serious obstacles without ever having depended on government aid, and they yearned for a self-reliant culture in which no one else would either. This led them to oppose government measures to protect the environment, avert global warming, and end homelessness, not necessarily because the ends weren't important, but because government - distant, stifling, and bureaucratic -  is the wrong instrument. Socialists take note: the Trumpistas felt that community is the right instrument.

In the contest between government and corporations, the populist right takes the side of corporations because they provide jobs. Without jobs one cannot survive, so preaching environmental safety via government regulation, without mentioning how workers will support themselves in a "green" economy, forfeits the support of right-wing populists who depend on corporate jobs. Since liberals and conservatives both condemn "production for use" rather than profit, it's difficult to see how they can be faulted on this score (no socialist opinion is allowed to reach mass audiences).  Furthermore, companies make money on behalf of stockholders, not the general public, so Trump supporters find it understandable that they try to "cover their ass" to avoid losses, whereas government is obligated to protect ordinary people, which it often fails to do, so it is held in contempt. 

Hochschild also found that Trump supporters believe that working to get what one wants is morally superior to qualifying for government aid based on competitive victimhood.  They feel that tax money is being "given away" to non-working, undeserving people, so that the "takers" are winning out over the "makers." The loss of "honor" in not having to earn one's keep offends them even more than the "waste" of spending taxpayer money on people who don't work. Being compensated for making a productive contribution to society is indispensable to them, so income without a chance to earn it strikes them as insulting.

Their lack of support for environmental values turns out to be more apparent than real. The real objection is not environmentalism per se, but the fact that government punishes the little guy rather than the source of the problem (the profit system itself). If your motorboat leaks a little gas in the river, you get fined; but when big business turns the whole ocean into an industrial toilet, government doesn't care. Liberals rarely note the double standard, preferring to make smug put-downs of "uneducated" workers for their "pro-pollution" stance.  (This kind of snobbery is far more important to them than keeping someone like Donald Trump out of the White House.) In any event, the Trumpistas told Hochschild that environmentalism has fallen into the hands of left-leaning government expansionists and do-nothing local officials, which, apart from the "left-leaning" qualification, has the ring of truth.

According to Trump supporters, Barack Obama committed treason to tradition by helping “line cutters” waiting to realize the American Dream. Black people, women, and immigrants were given a free pass ahead of more deserving working class whites politely waiting in line. These people are offended and angry about it, and hate the endless parade of complainers encouraged by a 1960s culture of merit-free “diversity.” On TV, working class whites are routinely portrayed as morons, aggravating the perceived injustices.

Working class whites want recognition for their accomplishments, not rewards meted out for victimhood. Their dilemma is how to get their fair share via the identity politics parade without perpetuating a victim culture they find offensive and counterproductive.  Worthy identities are “survivors” of cancer, rape, childhood sexual abuse, addiction to alcohol, drugs, sex workers, and so on. But there is little or no sympathy for working class whites:  “fairness” never takes up their cause. If you describe yourself as proudly “white,” you risk being seen as a neo-Nazi or worse. If you believe in God and the Bible it only confirms your poor education. If you admire those who make it to the top, you're considered a moron, though it remains unexplained why competitive striving for personal gain isn't better than mass parasitism on the government dole.  And however one chooses to present oneself, blue collar jobs and the way of life that goes with it continue to go extinct - literally. For the first time in American history a generation is dying younger than its parents, particularly working class whites. And as they struggle and die prematurely they are condemned for not sympathizing with blacks or Syrian refugees or immigrants. But who sympathizes with them? Trump was happy to benefit from saying that only he did.

Not surprisingly, Hochschild found that many southerners feel unfairly judged as “racist” by the North. Their understanding of that term pertains to people who refer to blacks as “niggers,” or who “hate blacks.”  Southern working class whites do not usually fit that description. But liberals tend to define the term as one who believes in a racial hierarchy, at the bottom of which are black people. White people are judged as worthy to the extent that they are far from that bottom. In other words, blacks are defined as victims, and those whites who are positioned slightly above them on the wealth pyramid are judged as failures since their white skin should have allowed them to do better. Furthermore, for holding a less inclusive and "sophisticated" definition of racism, one that does not include racially oppressive social structures, blue collar whites are condemned for being "stupid."

But the stupid ones are those who find it inexplicable that Donald Trump got elected president.

No comments: