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by Dusty Sklar
Discussed in this essay: Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild. The New Press, 2016, 384 pages.
THESE days, people all over the world are desperately seeking to understand the appeal that Donald Trump has for millions of Americans. To help us in that struggle, sociologist and professor emerita Arlie Russell Hochschild has written Strangers in Their Own Land.
Like many of us, she was perplexed by the paradox of people in poor red states hating the idea of help from a liberal government. Her curiosity took her from her home in Berkeley, California to the bayou country of Lake Charles, Louisiana. She made ten trips to southwestern Louisiana from 2011 to 2016 because of her “keen interest in how life feels to people on the right — that is, in the emotions that underlie politics. To understand their emotions,” she writes, “I had to imagine myself in their shoes.”
On and off for five years, she interviewed some sixty people, among them forty Tea Party advocates. She lived among people whose political views could not have been more different from hers, had lengthy discussions with them in their homes, communities and workplaces, over gumbo cook-offs, fish fries, Pentecostal church services, card games, and Trump rallies, and eventually gathered 4,690 pages of notes and the feeling that she had gazed into the heart and soul of conservative America.
What she found was “many warm, open people who were deeply charitable to those around them.” And what she learned by listening non-judgmentally helps to unravel some of the deepest paradoxes of our time.
Calcasieu Parish, where she conducted many of her interviews, is a major center of the petrochemical industry and one of the most polluted counties in the United States. A very different world from that of Berkeley: “No New York Times at the newsstand,” she says. “Almost no organic produce in grocery stores or farmer’s markets, no foreign films in movie houses, no small cars, fewer petite sizes in clothing stores, fewer pedestrians speaking foreign languages into cell phones — indeed, fewer pedestrians. There were fewer yellow Labradors and more pit bulls and bulldogs. Forget bicycle lanes, color-coded recycling bins or solar panels on roofs. In some cafes, virtually everything on the menu was fried.”
She describes the sky as being grey with smoke and chemical fumes. No one dares fish or swim in most of the bayous. Turtles go blind and cows die from drinking polluted water. Bottled water is mandatory in some areas. Now and then the sky fills with accidental releases of toxic gases from the petrochemical plants. As would be expected in such an environment, cancer rates are high. Despite their environmental crisis, however, the citizens of the parish, many in poor health, persist in voting against their own self-interest out of deep mistrust of environment regulators. One homemaker speaks of pollution as “the price we pay for capitalism.”
EVERYONE WITH WHOM Hochschild spoke wants a clean environment yet backs politicians who want to kill the Environmental Protection Agency. Why? They simply don’t trust the authorities. Turns out, for example, that the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources knew of the risks that caused the massive Bayou Corne Sinkhole, which was due to the carelessness of a drilling company to whom they had provided drilling permits just the same.
State health authorities advise people how to eat contaminated fish. “Trimming the fat and skin on finfish, and removing the hepatopancreas from crabs, will reduce the amount of contaminants in the fish and shellfish.” The advice is accompanied by drawings showing how to cut away the undesirable pieces.
It’s clear that Hochschild has affection for these beleagured people. She listens to them complain that they are strangers in their own land — because of falling wages, liberal culture which mocks their faith and patriotism, and demographic change. There’s a powerful feeling among them that others are “cutting in line,” that the federal government is taking money from the workers and giving it to the “idle.” The people they perceive to be on the dole are blacks and immigrants: “Blacks, women, immigrants, refugees, brown pelicans,” she writes, paraphrasing what she hears, “all have cut ahead of you in line. But it’s people like you who have made this country great. You feel uneasy. . . .You’ve heard stories of oppressed blacks, dominated women, weary immigrants, closeted gays, desperate refugees, but at some point, you say to yourself, you have to close the borders to human sympathy.” The people she meets favor big cuts in food stamps and Medicaid.
When Hochschild attends a New Orleans Trump rally, she feels as if she’s at a revival meeting. “His supporters have been in mourning for a lost way of life. . . . [They] Joined together with others like themselves, they now feel hopeful, joyous, elated. As if magically lifted, they are no longer strangers in their own land.”
As Trump told them, “We’re going to win so much, we’re going to be so sick and tired of winning.” About being sick and tired, they knew a great deal.
Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles.