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Right-Wing Ascendancy

The American Right: Its Deep Story

Donald Trump on the campaign trail.

August 06, 2016

As in much of Europe, India, China and Russia, the American political right is on the move. In some ways, America’s leftward cultural shift – a first black president, a potential female one, gay marriage – may obscure this rise. But it’s there. Over the last few decades, conservative voices have grown louder: the most popular cable TV channel and the most popular daily talk radio show lean strongly right. Both houses of the federal Congress in Washington D.C. are in Republican hands. Republicans also control far more state legislative chambers than do Democrats, and more state governorships. In 23 of the nation’s 50 states, Republicans control both houses of the state legislature and the governorship; the corresponding number for Democrats is seven. Some twenty percent of Americans – 45 million people – now support the avidly anti-tax Tea Party movement, and in recent months the populist nativist Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump won the most Republican primary votes in history.

What distinguishes the American right from its counterparts elsewhere is hatred of the federal government. The right calls for cuts in government benefits: unemployment insurance, Medicaid, college financial aid, school lunch and far more. Prominent Republican leaders have called for elimination of entire departments of federal government – Education, Energy, Commerce and Interior. In 2015, 58 House Republicans voted to abolish the Internal Revenue Service. Some have even called for abolishing all public schools.

Grassroots supporters of these leaders feel frustrated and angry at the government. The big question which prompted me to begin a five-year ethnographic study in Louisiana – part of the heartland of the American Right – was, why? As I began interviews for my book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right[1], the puzzle only grew. The country’s second-poorest state, Louisiana has proportionately more failing schools, more sick and obese residents, than nearly any state in the nation. So it needed – and received – federal help; 44 percent of its state budget came from the federal government. So why, I wondered, were so many Tea Party supporters angry? And how does anger – or any emotion – underlie politics?

While many analysts address these questions from outside the personal experience of right-wing individuals, I wanted to understand that experience from inside. So I attended meetings of Republican Women of Southwest Louisiana, church services, and political campaign rallies. I asked people to show me where they’d grown up, gone to school, where their parents were buried. I perused high school yearbooks of my new Louisiana friends, played cards and went fishing with them. Overall I interviewed 60 people – 40 of them white, older, Christian supporters of the Tea Party. I gathered over 4,600 pages of transcribed interviews and field notes.

I also struck upon a method. First I listened. Then I drew up a metaphorical representation of their experience, stripped of judgment and of facts, a feels-as-if account which I call a “deep story.” Underlying all our political beliefs, I believe, lies such a story. In this case, it goes like this:

You are patiently standing in a middle of a long line leading up a hill, as in a pilgrimage. Others beside you seem like you – white, older, Christian, predominantly male. Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone in line. Then, look! Suddenly you see people cutting in line ahead of you! As they cut in, you seem to be being moved back. How can they just do that? Who are they?
Many are black. Through federal affirmative action plans, they are given preference for places in colleges and universities, apprenticeships, jobs, welfare payments, and free lunch programs. Others are cutting ahead too – uppity women seeking formerly all-male jobs, immigrants, refugees, and an expanding number of high-earning public sector workers, paid with your tax dollars. Where will it end?
As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re asked to feel sorry for them all. People complain: Racism, Discrimination, Sexism. You hear 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 – especially if there are some among them who might bring harm.
You’re a compassionate person. But now you’ve been asked to extend your sympathy to all the people who have cut in front of you. You’ve suffered a good deal yourself, but you aren’t complaining about it or asking for help, you’re proud to say. You believe in equal rights. But how about your own rights? Don’t they count too? It’s unfair.
Then you see a black president with the middle name Hussein, waving to the line cutters. He’s on their side, not yours. He’s their president, not yours. And isn’t he a line-cutter too? How could the son of a struggling single mother pay for Columbia and Harvard? Maybe something has gone on in secret. And aren’t the president and his liberal backers using your money to help themselves? You want to turn off the machine – the federal government – which he and liberals are using to push you back in line.

I returned to my respondents to ask if this deep story described their feelings. While some altered the story here or there (“so we get in another line…” or “that’s our money he’s giving out…”), they all claimed the story as their own. One told me “I live your metaphor.” Another said, “You read my mind.”

What has happened to make this story ring true? In a word, a loss of honor. Tea Party supporters I met were generally not poor, but many had grown up in poverty, and had seen family and friends sink back into it. But wealth was not the only source of wellbeing and honor. As white, heterosexual Christians, many also described their fears of a demographic decline (“There are fewer people like us,” one woman told me), or of becoming a religious minority (“People aren’t churched anymore,” “You can’t say Merry Christmas; you have to say Happy Holidays”). Some felt like a cultural minority (“We’re the clean-living people, people who go by the rules, but we’re seen as sexist, homophobic, racist, ignorant – all the labels the liberals have for us”). If they turned for honor to their beloved home, often in the rural mid-west or South, some felt disparaged as “rednecks.” Behind the deep story, then, was their loss of honor from many quarters – an honor squeeze.

A deep story describes pain (others cut ahead of you). It describes blame (an ill-intentioned government). And it points to rescue (Tea Party politics). It also provides an emotional accounting system, establishing how much sympathy is due those waiting or cutting in line, how much distrust is owed the government, or how much government beneficiaries should be shamed. This system becomes a foundation for feeling rules[2] – which establish what we believe we “should and shouldn’t” feel – now a key target of heated political battle. Explicitly or implicitly, most service jobs require workers to abide by feeling rules (“It’s wrong to get mad at the customer; he’s always right”). Workers learn how to manage their feelings in training, and supervisors monitor how well they do it. Similarly, political ideologies carry feeling rules. Leaders guide sympathy, suspicion, blame, shame, and talk radio hosts and newscasters spread the word, which local and electronic communities monitor through commentary.

Left and right abide by ever-more divergent sets of feeling rules. In general, the left calls for sympathy for underprivileged groups, who are seen as deserving government help; the right does not. The left calls for trust in this part of government, the right suspects and reviles it. The left attaches dignity and entitlement to the receipt of government help, the right attaches great shame to it.

In the cultural battle between these two codes, the Tea Party supporters I studied felt dominated by the feeling rules of the left and resented it bitterly. “We’ve had enough P.C. [Political Correctness]” Donald Trump has often yelled, echoing a sentiment adamantly held on the right. One man told me, “Liberals want us to feel sorry for immigrants and refugees. But mostly I see a bunch of people saying poor me, poor me, poor me…” Another said, “Liberals get something from the government and we don’t – and I’m glad not to take if I’m not in need. But they want us to feel grateful for what they’re getting.” And many attached great shame to getting government help, and felt utter contempt for cheaters. “I know guys who put in for unemployment during hunting season.” Or, “A lot of people in that trailer park got on disability by claiming to have seizures. I don’t know how they hold their heads high. But they do, and the government encourages it.” Most Tea Party supporters strongly resisted the idea that anyone should feel sympathy with line cutters, gratitude toward government, or release from the shame of getting a “government hand-out.”

But not everyone I spoke to agreed. Indeed, it was as if two factions of those I interviewed heard different endings to the deep story. Traditional Tea Party supporters wanted to cut both the practice of cutting in line, and government rewards for doing so. Followers of Donald Trump, on the other hand, wanted to keep government benefits and remove shame from the act of receiving them – but restrict those benefits, implicitly, to native-born Americans, preferably white.

Donald Trump addressing crowds in Phoenix on one of his favorite topics – immigration.

Trump’s pronouncements have been vague and shifting, but pundits have noted that he has not called for cuts to Medicaid. Rather he plans, he says, to replace Obamacare, which extends medical coverage to the uninsured, with a new program that will be “terrific.” Significant, too, is Trump’s distribution of shame. Though he has disparaged ex-POW hero John McCain, a disabled journalist, a female Fox News commentator, undocumented Mexicans, an American-born judge of Mexican heritage, all Muslims, and all his Republican adversaries, he has never shamed recipients of Medicaid or food stamps.

But in order to legitimize welfare for white men, Trump had to masculinize the act of receiving it. This may be a secret and potent source of Trump’s appeal. He applauds men who brawl, own guns, stand tough, act macho. Most welfare recipients are women, children and men of color. But there are many poor, or almost poor or afraid-of-becoming poor white men. If such a man needs it, Trump intimates, getting a government benefit can be a guy’s thing to do. You can slap a gun decal on your pick-up, start brawls, be macho, Trump implies, and also apply for unemployment or food stamps – stigma-free.

Importantly, many of Trump’s blue-collar white male followers face the same grim economic fate earlier visited on blacks: disappearing jobs, low wages, evidence of despair. Among such men, there are proportionately more single dads than among their richer white male counterparts, more split marriages, more children, and harder times. If they aren’t on Medicaid now, they might be in the future – and so they face the contradiction of needing the very government help which the right, and they themselves, have long disparaged. Detachment from welfare was a key status marker, distinguishing “real men” from the “real bottom.” In my interviews with Louisiana Trump supporters, talk of his support for government benefits did not arise, at least at first. But, asked about his view of a safety net for “regular people,” one auto mechanic noted, “Trump’s not against that. If you use food stamps because you’re working a low-wage job, you don’t want someone looking down their nose at you.”

Trump tacitly absolves blue-collar white men from shame, but not non-native or non-white men. Indeed, responding to the deep story, Trump has created a movement much like the anti-immigrant but pro-welfare state right-wing populism on the rise in Great Britain, Germany, France, Austria and much of Eastern Europe. All these right-wing movements are, I believe, based on variations of the deep story, the feelings it evokes, and the strong beliefs that protect it.

[1] Arlie Hochschild (2016) Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: New Press.
[2] See Arlie Hochschild (1983) The Managed Heart: the Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press.

Arlie Russell Hochschild, University of California, Berkeley, USA <ahochsch@berkeley.edu>

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