White Anger Among America’s Blue Collar Class: Has Donald Trump Ignited A Fire Of Unimaginable Consequences?
Some sociologists are clearly more brave and adventuresome than others. In the craziest political season since the Civil War, who in their right mind would so deeply embed themselves in the epicenter of America’s white anger? More importantly, why would an elite professor emerita from the University of California, Berkeley, spend four years trudging through the coastal swamps of Louisiana asking our backwoods brethren to open up and talk about their feelings?
One such brave soul, Arlie Russell Hochschild, did exactly that. And she survived to write a new book about the experience which is a finalist for the National Book Award. “Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right” recounts her travels as she explores the psyches in one of the nation’s poorest states. And the white anger is understandably palatable given the low life expectancy, lack of economic opportunity, divorce and drug addiction rates, all coupled with abysmal educational achievement.
Tom Ashbrook did an interview on National Public Radio recently with the Berkeley professor about her new book. You can listen here:
Like the Governor of Mississippi, Phil Bryant, said this week while calling the 2016 election “rigged,” claiming his was a “flyover” state, these angry white voters in Louisiana feel lost, marginalized and forgotten. They believe the rest of the country perceives them as a regional backwater, racist, homophobic and sexist. Like their Mississippi neighbors, they love Donald Trump, hate the government, but are heavily reliant on federal aid which comprises 42% of the state’s budget. Ashamed and angry, rightly or wrongly, they feel the nation doesn’t know or care about them.
When pressed on the issue of anger at the government versus his family’s reliance upon it, one man’s answer was simply, “You’re forcing me to think.” That’s white anger writ large.
The Wall of Empathy.
What is it and how do we overcome it, Professor Hochschild asks? She believes we’ve all built up a “Deep Story” wherein we take out the facts and suspend moral judgements in order to live life as we actually feel it. One woman said Michelle Obama’s White House garden was an effort to fat-shame and call her a redneck. Another man felt McDonald’s “healthy menu” was meant to insult and malign his family, and presumably, their dietary choices.
But most of the blue-collar white anger is reserved not for the 1% or Donald Trump, rather for the Democratic Party and the educated, elite, professional class they seem to have embraced over common working folks. After waiting in line so long and patiently for the American Dream, they see everyone else cutting in line in front of them. And they resent President Obama for waving them through with a flag. Blacks, women, gays, immigrants, illegals, animals, (yes, animals, because unlike white working people, they’re a protected class.) Everyone is getting a leg up, hand out or free ride — except the real Americans who built this country.
Kerry Truitt, a 19-year-old female Trump supporter put it this way: We support Trump because so many other middle class Americans support him. Like him, we work hard for our money. We don’t want no hand-outs.
Another 77-year-old man, Pat, had this to say, “The America I grew up in is not the country I live in anymore.”
Deeply religious, many of those interviewed feel ostracized as white Christians by a rapidly growing, increasingly secular and browning nation. According to Dr. Hochschild, none of them wanted to talk about race, but the evidence was everywhere from Jefferson Davis National Bank to a man explaining how he is a “reformed bigot.” “I don’t use the N word, and I unfriend anybody who does. I want to live in a society where color doesn’t matter. And with blacks, I think we’re halfway there.”
In trying to tear down or scale this Wall of Empathy, Hochschild thinks we need to have a national dialogue on race which hasn’t happened yet. Additionally, class differences need to be addressed, not by Trump or the Republicans, but by the Democratic Party because they’ve failed working class America with their “Liberalism of the Rich.”
The middle class is coming apart according to nearly everyone interviewed. During the Great Recession the fat cats of Wall Street got bailed out, but what did Washington D.C. and our politicians do for ordinary Americans? Apparently nothing, and that’s yet another source of white anger. The professional, Democratic elites just don’t seem able to bridge the Wall of Empathy and really listen to the mournful cries, the deepest concerns of the beleaguered Jim Crow crowd as they did once upon a time in our nation’s history.
Nevermind Big Oil, industrial accidents, the decimation of our southern coastal region, petro-chemical poisoning of workers and cities, White Anger wants back its sense of community and civic pride. And Donald Trump is the man to help them mine deeper for their own God-given economic and emotional self-interests. As one fellow so succinctly put it, “He didn’t start the fire. He just lit the match.”