Three new books, works that were set in motion long before Donald Trump declared his love for America’s poorly educated, try to go deeper, with varying success. “White Trash,” by historian Nancy Isenberg, explains how poor whites have been mistreated and disparaged over some 400 years, the blame for their plight invariably falling elsewhere. “Hillbilly Elegy,” by lawyer J.D. Vance, admonishes the poor to shape up and take responsibility for their fate; it’s less an elegy than an assault, though one bubble-wrapped in a bootstraps memoir of the author’s American Dream, from Appalachian destitution to the Gothic arches of Yale Law School. And now “Strangers in Their Own Land,” by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, is the latest and most frustrating of this trilogy.
Hochschild made 10 trips to southwestern Louisiana from 2011 to 2016, extended forays away from her perch at the University of California at Berkeley, to delve into her “keen interest in how life feels to people on the right — that is, in the emotion that underlies politics. To understand their emotions,” she writes, “I had to imagine myself in their shoes.” She interviewed some 60 people, including 40 professed tea party supporters, visiting their homes, communities and workplaces. It is the same technique Hochschild employed in “The Second Shift” (1989), a well-reviewed look at how couples manage duties at home when both work outside of it. In this case, however, Hochschild arrives with so many preconceived ideas that they undercut the insight she claims to desire.
Hochschild preps for her conservative immersion by reading “Atlas Shrugged,” because we know tea party types are into that. “If Ayn Rand appealed to them, I imagined, they’d probably be pretty selfish, tough, cold people, and I prepared for the worst,” this acclaimed sociologist writes. “But I was thankful to discover many warm, open people who were deeply charitable to those around them.”
When she lands in Louisiana, Hochschild realizes, “I was definitely not in Berkeley, California. . . . No New York Times at the newsstand, almost no organic produce in grocery stores or farmers’ markets, no foreign films in movie houses, few 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.”
Dear God, no yellow Labs or solar panels? How do you live?
Through Hochschild’s time in Lake Charles, La., and nearby cities and small towns, readers meet people who complicate our oversimplified “whither white America” moment. Especially memorable are Lee Sherman, who repaired pipes carrying lethal chemicals and drained toxic waste illegally into nearby waterways before becoming an environmentalist and, yes, a tea party supporter; and the Areno family, disagreeing over the benefits and risks of local industries, even as they watched turtles go blind and cows die from drinking polluted water. They are the strength of the book, yet Hochschild interrupts their stories to place everything in a formulaic big-picture context, a capitalized and italicized theory of the right. The author, we learn, hopes to scale the Empathy Wall and learn the Deep Story that can resolve the Great Paradox through a Keyhole Issue. These contrivances guide, and ruin, this book.
“An empathy wall,” Hochschild lectures, “is an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs.” The author has traveled to the South to conquer that wall, and she constantly refers to it. “As I was trying to climb this slippery empathy wall, a subversive thought occurred to me,” she says at one point. Or when she doesn’t quite get another person’s thinking, she feels “stuck way over on my side of the empathy wall.”
Beyond the wall awaits the deep story. “A deep story is a feels-as-if story — it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols,” Hochschild writes. “It removes judgment. It removes fact.” The deep story she unearths in Louisiana is that tea party supporters — “my Tea Party friends,” she always calls them, because only liberals rate pure, modifier-free friendship — see the American Dream as a line that they’re patiently waiting in, only to see others cut in front. “Blacks, women, immigrants, refugees, brown pelicans — all have cut ahead of you in line,” Hochschild writes. “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 deep story helps Hochschild unpack the great paradox: that is, why people living in a region with such poor economic, educational and health indicators — and Louisiana struggles in all of them — still support politicians who call for reducing federal help in those arenas. Hochschild peers at the paradox through a keyhole issue: environmental protection. “Everyone I talked to wanted a clean environment,” she writes, and she spends much of the book chronicling the harm the oil and gas industry has wrought in the area. We learn of the industrial contamination of the Bayou d’Inde waterway, where the Areno family lived for generations, and of the massive Bayou Corne Sinkhole, which swallowed up 37 acres as earthquakes and ooze emanated from the ground, thanks to the screw-ups of a Houston-based drilling company. So why rally for politicians who want to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency?
Turns out, many people Hochschild spoke to simply don’t trust environmental authorities, often with good reason. The Louisiana Department of Natural Resources had known of the risks involved in Bayou Corne but had given out drilling permits anyway, Hochschild writes. She also describes the guidelines state health authorities had provided on 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,” they advised, featuring handy drawings of how to cut away the yucky parts.
When this is your experience of regulation, the great paradox loses greatness. But Hochschild continues her quest, concluding that tea party supporters grow to hate government because of religious faith, opposition to progressive taxes and the perceived “loss of honor” government imposes. She groups her tea party friends into reductionist categories that sound like they were dreamed up in the faculty lounge: the Team Players, loyal to business; the Worshippers, with their capacity for “meaningful renunciation,” forgoing clean lakes in exchange for steady employment; the Cowboys, who equate risky work with progress and scoff at wimpy regulators.
Hochschild’s subjects are frustrated by the empowerment of new voices in American identity politics. “For the Tea Party around the country,” she writes, “the shifting moral qualifications for the American Dream had turned them into strangers in their own land, afraid, resentful, displaced, and dismissed by the very people who were, they felt, cutting in line.”
Then Hochschild attends a Trump rally in New Orleans, and it feels like a revival. “His supporters have been in mourning for a lost way of life. . . . Joined together with others like themselves, they now feel hopeful, joyous, elated,” she writes. “As if magically lifted, they are no longer strangers in their own land.”
This may well be the mind-set of some Trump supporters; certainly, it is the candidate’s pitch. But it’s hard to entirely trust Hochschild’s conclusions. Early in the book, she notes how federal assistance for strengthening environmental protections, combating global warming and reducing homelessness faces a “closed door” on the right. “If we want government help in achieving any of these goals, I realized, we need to understand those who see government more as problem than solution,” she writes. “And so it was that I began my journey to the heart of the American right.”
“Strangers in Their Own Land,” then, is not an academic’s impartial effort to understand conservatives but rather a means to an end — an end toward which the writer regards conservatives as obstacles to overcome.
There’s a deep story for you.