Reaching Trump Supporters With The Promise Of Vision

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Above Photo: Supporter of Donald Trump at a rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona. (Wikimedia / Gage Skidmore)

If these were ordinary times, progressives might get away with casual images of our political opponents. Those who disagree “lack information,” or “remain prejudiced,” or are “gripped by an emotion like hate.” Reassured, we can return to informational outreach or protests or confrontations and hope that makes a difference.

These, however, are not ordinary times. I further expect more instability and turbulence to come in the United States, a situation that invites more strategizing. And having a good strategy requires more accurate images of the other players in the arena.

Arlie Russell Hochschild’s new book “Strangers in Their Own Land” has arrived just in time. Her writing gives us an in-depth picture of middle- and working-class members of the Tea Party, the foot soldiers of the Republican right. In particular, she reports on Southern Louisiana, chosen for its right-wing politics combined with the devastating impact of capitalism. Louisiana is at or near the bottom of the states in education, health and other measures of general well-being. Its people endure an environment highly degraded by the petrochemical industry.

Hochschild immerses herself in participation in social activities as well as home interviews. She doesn’t hide her teaching job at Berkeley and left politics, but by networking her way through trusted intermediaries and using her people skills she learns how locals see the world and themselves in it. A gifted writer, she invites us into that world, and surprises us with the diversity of their self-perceptions.

‘You have to take the bad with the good.’

Hochschild interviews people whose health, livelihood, and families have been hurt by irresponsible corporate behavior and the refusals to help by bought-off elected officials. Nevertheless, those same people defend capitalism and advocate for Republicans who oppose environmental and safety regulations. She finds four subgroups of Tea Party supporters, each subgroup having what Hochschild calls a “deep story” that makes meaning of their politics and distinguishes them from the people who have the same demographics but support liberal Democrats.

Just this chance to go beyond stereotypes we may have about Trump supporters is reason enough to read the book. (Class stereotypes are not really better than stereotypes based on race or sexuality.) In addition, I learned much that suggests how to strengthen our work.

Among the subgroups – Team Player, Worshipper, Cowboy, and Rebel – there is a recurrent bit of folk wisdom that I first heard from my dad: “You have to take the bad with the good.” If, for example, you believe that the only route to an abundance of jobs is to accept the downside of fracking, then it only makes sense in a job-hungry state to encourage the fracking industry to settle in Louisiana and to fight the threat posed by the federal environmental fanatics in the EPA.

The habitual left activist approach to disagreement, say about fracking, is to add more reasons against it. Hochschild helps us to understand why that approach is so often frustrating. She shows us how the “deep story” of each subgroup, reinforced by personal, lived experience, proves more compelling to its members than the pro’s and con’s of a particular issue. The piling up of reasons why fracking is bad is of very limited value. Hochschild’s description matches my own experience: Their frame of reference already allows for fracking’s down side. “We just need to take the bad with the good.”

In other words, right-wingers don’t really come to a new issue freshly, to judge “on the merits.” (Most of us don’t, either.) They start with a frame of reference that strongly pre-judges the outcome. Their starting point makes them distant from us on the “spectrum of allies,” a tool increasingly used for campaign strategizing.

In ordinary times, liberals might not care about the lower middle- and working-class part of the right wing. Why meet them on the level of frame of reference — of “big picture” — when Clintonian incrementalism has been working just fine? Hammer out compromises on particular points of policy, as was done with Obamacare, and over time we’ll see our country move ahead.

These, however, are not ordinary times, and even liberals might go beyond old habits and learn to play a bigger game. The bigger game means engaging with a larger part of America than before, including workers with Democratic roots who get written off as “misled.” It means meeting them not only by arguing single issues, but by going to their frame of reference itself.

What kind of big picture does the job?

The kind of big picture progressives love is analysis. We like to conceptualize the causes of, systemic faults with, structures of pollution, money in politics, war, poverty, misogyny, racism, class domination, etc. It’s clear, however — as Hochschild shows through political discussions and dialogues among Tea Party people — that they already have a big picture analysis that satisfies them.

What they lack, however, is a big picture vision. Their substitute is to look to the past, the good old days of community, mutual support, a sense of place and continuity. They feel angry and grieve, knowing the past is rapidly fading, but have no alternative vision to reach toward. Ayn Rand’s vision is not theirs, however popular it may be among rich right-wingers.

Hochschild hints at a possible vision for lower middle- and working-class people on the right. She points out that Norway has about the same population as Louisiana, and it is also an oil state. Without tying either place to oil in the long term, she uses Norway to illustrate a systematically different approach that affords Norwegians a healthy environment, more individual freedom than most people in Louisiana enjoy, and far more security and shared prosperity.

For Tea Party adherents who can easily bat away progressives’ arguments for this or that individual policy, an alternative vision that delivers more of their values than free market capitalism is a different discussion altogether. They see themselves as immensely practical — far more than “hippy idealists” found in enclaves such as Berkeley. What, then, to make of the practicality of a Norwegian system that has outperformed Louisiana (and the United States) on economic well-being for over 60 years?

And for job-hungry states, please note that — even before the oil began to flow — Norwegians maintained full employment. Hochschild found that her middle- and working-class Tea Party friends reverence work. Norway has a higher percentage of its population in the labor force than does the United States.

Norway is not a ‘welfare state’ — the misnomer that prevents dialogue

In the United States, there is a linguistic trap with terrible political consequences, and not only in Louisiana. Americans commonly believe that the Nordic “welfare states” have the U.S. welfare system on steroids. Administering such a system must be outrageously expensive. To pay for all those “free-loaders,” Nordic workers must be paying oppressively high taxes. The truth is very different.

The Nordics gave up U.S.-style, means-tested welfare very long ago. They realized that “programs for the poor are poor programs.” They therefore substituted universal services: health care, child care, paid family leave, long paid vacations, elder pensions and home care, job training, university and professional and technical school education.

These universal programs are paid for by taxes. A two-term Norwegian prime minister boasted to the New York Times that he was elected twice on the pledge not to cut taxes. Norwegians know that cutting taxes means cutting services everyone uses. They know (Americans do, too) that, to get quality goods and services, we need to pay a lot.

Arlie Hochschild shows in her book the enormous political damage that has been done by the United States’ choice to stick with welfare instead of going for universal services. A central grievance of hard-working Tea Party members is the belief that other people are getting a softer path through “welfare.” When interviewing in Scandinavia for my book “Viking Economics,” I was told over and over that the consensus for universal services that includes the populist rightist parties would disappear immediately if converted to the U.S. approach. Virtually everyone presently supports the system because it is applied to everyone. Furthermore, it is less expensive than market-based health care. The Nordic countries pay per capita one-half to two-thirds what the United States pays. Single-payer is more efficient — a plus for Tea Party people, as it is for the rest of us.

By comparing systems — the Nordics’ vs. that of the United States — a fresh dialogue can replace the shouted exchange of epithets that we have today. “Strangers in Their Own Land” suggests to me that the dialogue could reach farther into the political right than we saw in 2016 among those who were attracted to both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

The challenge for progressives is to pay attention to the promise of vision.

  • Suzanne Cloud

    “Arlie Hochschild shows in her book the enormous political damage that has been done by the United States’ choice to stick with welfare instead of going for universal services.” That was the brilliance of FDR’s creation of Social Security – if everyone gets it, it’s not a “welfare” program. He knew it would be almost impossible to take away from the public (who really needed it and still needs it), if everyone was getting that service…and he was right.

  • fjwhite

    Lakey writes: “… a fresh dialogue can replace the shouted exchange of epithets that we have today. “Strangers in Their Own Land” suggests to me that the dialogue could reach farther into the political right than we saw in 2016 among those who were attracted to both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.”

    At the risk of being a “rational” progressive, is there any evidence that “a fresh dialog…could reach farther into the political right”? To what effect? Does “truth” matter in this foreign land? Or are we truly living in a boundless post-truth era?

    If we are in a laissez–faire, post-truth era where “alternative facts” are as valid and valued as fact-based evidence or logically constructed arguments, then what’s the point of jaw-boning with the political right? Sounds like a great waste of time.

  • kevinzeese

    It my not reach right wing politicians, but Lakey is talking about reaching some of the people who supported Trump out of economic insecurity. They knew the status quo of Clinton-Obama-Clinton would not serve them, so they tried Trump. Now they are seeing Trump-enomics will also not serve them. We need a vision they can be drawn to.

  • fjwhite

    For years, Lakey has been preaching reframing as a
    belief-changing tactic — in your words as a way, “Of reaching some of the people who supported Trump out of economic insecurity”. Yet where is the evidence that reframing is having any practical, lasting belief changing impact. Case in point — Last night, on one of the mainstream evening news channels, I watched a short clip of an interview with a woman who receives Meals-on-Wheels assistance: she was asked for her reaction to news that Trump’s budget, if enacted, would cut this program. Although she expressed concern about this news, when asked whether she still supported Trump, without a moment’s hesitation, she said “Yes.” Will vision reframing change this woman’s belief in Trump? I doubt it. In my opinion, her firm belief in Trump forms a vital part of her identity, an identity that gives meaning to her life, and likely, to the lives of her family and friends.

  • kevinzeese

    Be careful to generalize from one woman. We don’t know from your report anything about her. She could be from a multiple generation Republican family who never votes for anything else. Was this on Fox? Did the reporter seek out someone who would say what s/he wanted – as reporters often do?

    Polls from the election showed many Trump voters voted out of economic insecurity. Trump won many counties that Obama won, so swing voters in those districts are not race-based in their voting.

    Whether fighting Trump or trying to make any kind of change, movements need to show what they stand for so people can see they will benefit if the movement succeeds. Lakey is just repeating a basic reality of creating transformation and applying it to Trump.

    Is there a downside to showing a positive vision? It seems like a win-win to me.

  • Pingback: Newsletter – Which Vision For The Future? | PopularResistance.Org()

  • fjwhite

    Kevin, thanks for your thoughtful response. BTW, I’m a big fan and subscriber to daily updates of Popular Resistance.

    Re your caution to “be careful to generalize from one woman”, fair enough. With my grad degree in the social/behavioral sciences, I take that as a given. (However, in a comments setting, one is inclined to stick to essentials).

    Re the news source, since I never watch Fox News, I was watching one of the big three – CBS, ABC, NBC – but I can’t recall which one. In the interest of keeping my comments brief, I didn’t provide details about the woman. But since you asked – she was older (50s-60s), white, located in a red state, poor, limited schooling, single, living alone in her home, has serious medical issues, including crippling obesity and arthritis in her hands, making it impossible for her to prepare her own meals. She was totally dependent on Meals on Wheels.

    The male reporter clearly wanted to get her reaction to Trump’s proposed cuts to Meals on Wheels. When she expressed concern about the cuts to
    this program, he asked if, despite the cuts, she still supported Trump. She said she did. I can’t recall if he also asked her to account for her ongoing
    support. Viewers were left to draw their own conclusions about her answer. Presumably,
    Trump supporters would agree with her, the anti-Trump crowd would disagree, others might have no opinion.

    Turning to your closing question, I have no problem with “showing a positive vision.” However, based on what little I know about Lakey, I, as “a rational skeptic in an irrational world”, have an untutored opinion that showing a positive vision is unlikely to result in a lasting “win-win” outcome.

    To support this view, i offer two sources. First — today in skimming Resistance’s current Newsletter, I noted that Lakey had “ recently reviewed the new book “Strangers in Their Own Land” by Arlie Russell
    Hochschilds. Googling the title, I found a NY Times review “Why Do People Who Need Help From the Government Hate It So Much?” The reviewer’s closing passage, and the final sentence in particular caught my attention –:

    “Whatever racial or class resentments she finds, Hochschild makes clear that she likes the people she meets. They aren’t just soldiers in a class war but victims of one, too. She mourns their economic losses, praises their warmth and hospitality, and admires their ‘grit and resilience.’ While her hopes of finding common political ground seem overly optimistic, this is a smart, respectful and compelling book.”

    Second — I also direct your attention to a recent article in the New Yorker titled “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds” by Elizabeth Kolbert. Kolbert notes that basing one’s judgment on pre-existing beliefs shared by one’s “in-crowd” can lead people to dismiss evidence and engage in high-risk behavior. Apparently, people feel a dopamine
    rush when they “stick to their guns” and to their in-group – even if they know they are wrong.

    It could be, therefore, that “showing a positive vision” may not work, and the challenge of communicating with groups who share a binding confirmation bias may remain.

    If you know of any robust empirical sociological research that supports the efficacy of showing a positive vision please share it.

  • kevinzeese

    Here is another one-person reaction from a Trump supporter who is obviously losing faith in Trump for cutting Meals on Wheels . . . http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/one-direction-singer-says-trump-once-kicked-band-out-of-hotel-for-not-meeting-his-daughter_us_58cd672be4b0ec9d29dc8348

  • kevinzeese

    Thanks for the serious response.

    I don’t see how just a negative protest movement will create lasting change. People do not know what they are fighting for and have no positive agenda when they gain power. For example Egypt got rid of Mubarak but now they are worse off with Sisi.

    One of the keys to creating a successful social movement is drawing people to it so it becomes a mass social movement. Fringe movements do not work, mass movements are a critical necessary ingredient to success.

    There are a series of books on the Albert Einstein Institution website, http://www.aeinstein.org/, a site on nonviolent resistance which describe how a key to building the movement is pulling people from the power structure to the movement. These people, especially police and military, need to see that they will have a place in the world the movement is trying to create. A vision of what that new world will look like and what their role in it will be is essential to pulling them to the movement.

    In the Eight Stages of Successful Social Movements, see http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/moyermap.html, Bill Moyer describes how social movements succeed. The final stage before victory (Stage 6 leading to success in Stage 7) is building national consensus. This seems to be the stage we are currently in. We need to build national consensus around the issues we are fighting for so there is broad support (like in the 80% range) for (1) recognizing the current system cannot respond to the issues we face; and (2) people are willing to try a new approach to confront the unsolved issues. This is essentially developing a national consensus on the vision the movement is putting forward.

    It seems self-evident that a vision of what the world will look like after transformation is key to pulling people into the effort to create a new world.

    You are right that facts do not seem to change strongly held beliefs. The research on that is pretty interesting and convincing. But, that just makes the need for a vision more important. A vision is more of an emotional appeal than a factual one. The emotional appeal of a positive vision would seem to more likely to change people and get them to support the change you are trying to create.