Like many people, I am appalled by Trump and Trumpism, wondering how both phenomena could happen? I have toyed with the notion that there has always been a subset of Americans disposed to believe inane things, some cloaked in abject hatred for “others.” Certainly there is much history on the waves of nativism, xenophobia, and, of course, raw racism, an irrational belief that white people are superior to people of color and that the latter should be oppressed, enslaved, or deported. Trump, as we’ve come to experience, enables and encourages this subset, taking the worst in us to the mainstream. After all, Trump is the official presidential nominee of the Republican Party.
But I should suspend my judgments for a bit to consider the possibility that the subset has justification for their “feelings,” however base and divisive they may be. Perhaps there are millions of Americans who feel cheated or disrespected. They’ve tried to live by the rules in their quest of the American Dream. Yet, these “others,” which are both people and “the government,” have impeded their progress or denied them outright.
Such is the view proffered by Arlie Hochschild, whose work and conclusions are referenced in this Vox piece by Dara Lind. She quotes from an interview with Hochschild, who spent five years in Louisiana observing it’s mostly poor inhabitants.
Think of people waiting in a long line that stretches up a hill. And at the top of that is the American dream. And the people waiting in line felt like they’d worked extremely hard, sacrificed a lot, tried their best, and were waiting for something they deserved. And this line is increasingly not moving, or moving more slowly [i.e., as the economy stalls].
Then they see people cutting ahead of them in line. Immigrants, blacks, women, refugees, public-sector workers. And even an oil-drenched brown pelican getting priority. In their view, people are cutting ahead unfairly. And then in this narrative, there is Barack Obama, to the side, the line supervisor who seems to be waving these people (and the pelican) ahead. So the government seemed to be on the side of the people who were cutting in line and pushing the people in line back.
As Lind points out, these suspicions are unfounded. Yet, they exist nonetheless. Rather than dismiss these attitudes and the people who have them, liberals and progressives might try to understand and appreciate the sources of the discontent and take steps to rectify. Lind suggests:
You could stubbornly insist the pain isn’t real, because it’s not justified by economic reality, or say that it’s their own fault for being racist. That would shut down the conversation; it would drive them deeper into the conviction that they’re locked in opposition against nonwhites and the elites who aid them.
Or you could acknowledge that pain and try to fix it. But you’d have to find a way to do it without saying it’s okay to resent nonwhite people for making progress in America — without accepting the premise that one group’s gain is always another one’s loss.