Since the 2016 election of Donald Trump, Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right has been a primary source for people trying to understand how a bombastic real estate mogul and reality TV star, thrice married, many times bankrupt, and who during his campaign insulted women, Mexican immigrants, people with disabilities, and Muslims, won the support of millions of Americans.
Five years before Donald Trump’s bid for the White House, Hochschild was doing research in Lake Charles, Louisiana, a hotbed of support for the Tea Party. Hochschild chose Lake Charles, in Calcasieu Parish, because she wanted to understand what she calls a keyhole issue: environmental pollution. Calcasieu Parish is one of the most polluted counties in the United States due to Louisiana’s lax environmental safeguards and decades of toxic waste dumped by giant petrochemical plants that dominate the state’s economy and politics. How was it possible, Hochschild wondered, for citizens to want a clean environment yet support a political movement that advocated abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency?
What Hochschild learned from the people she interviewed was the “deep story,” which is best described as felt truth about the way things are. When it comes to politics, the deep story is more powerful than facts, logic, and evidence. The deep story is about emotion, and when your deep story tells you that the federal government is a financial sinkhole that gives your tax money to the undeserving, you can overlook the fact that half of your state’s budget comes from that same federal government. If you’re a white man in the South, you can draw a line from the 1860s to the 1960s and hold the view that for a hundred years you’ve lost ground to women, minorities, and immigrants.
It’s difficult for a political liberal to scale the empathy wall and experience what the world feels like to a political conservative, and vice versa, but if the deep ideological divisions in the United States are to be healed, this must happen. In Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Russell Hochschild shows us how to get over the wall and return with a deeper understanding.