If I have to read one more article blaming liberal condescension toward the red states and the white working class for the election of Trump, I’m moving to Paris, France. These pieces started coming out even before the election and are still pouring down on our heads. Just within the last few weeks, the New Republic had Michael Tomasky deploring “elite liberal suspicion of middle America” for such red-state practices as churchgoing and gun owning and The New York Times had Joan Williams accusing Democrats of impugning the “social honor” of working-class whites by talking about them in demeaning and condescending ways, as exemplified by such phrases as “flyover states,” “trailer trash,” and “plumber’s butt.” Plumber’s butt? That was a new one for me. And that’s not even counting the 92,346 feature stories about rural Trump voters and their heartwarming folkways. (“I played by the rules,” said retired rancher Tom Grady, 66, delving into the Daffodil Diner’s famous rhubarb pie. “Why should I pay for some deadbeat’s trip to Europe?”) I’m still waiting for the deep dives into the hearts and minds of Clinton supporters—what concerns motivated the 94 percent of black women voters who chose her? Is there nothing of interest there? For that matter, why don’t we see explorations of the voters who made up the majority of Trump’s base, people who are not miners or unemployed factory workers but regular Republicans, most quite well-fixed in life? (“I would vote for Satan himself if he promised to cut my taxes,” said Bill Thorberg, a 45-year-old dentist in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “I’m basically just selfish.”) There are, after all, only around 75,000 coal miners in the entire country, and by now every one of them has been profiled in the Times.
In her fascinating recent book Strangers in Their Own Land, the brilliant sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild asks readers to climb the “empathy wall” and really try to understand the worldview of Trump voters—as she did, spending over five years getting to know white Southern Louisianians, many of them Cajun, who have extreme free-market, anti-government Tea Party politics although they live in “Cancer Alley,” an area where the petrochemical industry, abetted by the Republican politicians they voted for, has destroyed nature, their communities and their health. Hochschild has a deep grasp of human complexity, and her subjects come across as lovely people, despite their politics. As she hoped, I came away with a better understanding of how kindly people could vote for cruel policies, and how people who don’t think they’re racist actually are so.
But here’s my question: Who is telling the Tea Partiers and Trump voters to empathize with the rest of us? Why is it all one way? Hochschild’s subjects have plenty of demeaning preconceptions about liberals and blue-staters—that distant land of hippies, feminazis, and freeloaders of all kinds. Nor do they seem to have much interest in climbing the empathy wall, given that they voted for a racist misogynist who wants to throw 11 million people out of the country and ban people from our shores on the basis of religion (as he keeps admitting on Twitter, even as his administration argues in court that Islam has nothing to do with it). Furthermore, they are the ones who won, despite having almost 3 million fewer votes. Thanks to the founding fathers, red-staters have outsize power in both the Senate and the Electoral College, and with great power comes great responsibility. So shouldn’t they be trying to figure out the strange polyglot population they now dominate from their strongholds in the South and Midwest? What about their stereotypes? How respectful or empathetic is the belief of millions of Trump voters, as established in polls and surveys, that women are more privileged than men, that increasing racial diversity in America is bad for the country, that the travel ban is necessary for national security? How realistic is the conviction, widespread among Trump supporters, that Hillary Clinton is a murderer, President Obama is a Kenyan communist and secret Muslim, and the plain-red cups that Starbucks uses at Christmastime are an insult to Christians? One of Hochschild’s subjects complains that “liberal commentators” refer to people like him as a “redneck.” I’ve listened to liberal commentators for decades and have never heard one use this word. But say it happened once or twice. “Feminazi” went straight from Rush Limbaugh’s mouth to general parlance. One of Hochschild’s most charming subjects, a gospel singer and preacher’s wife, uses it like a normal word. Equating women who want their rights with the genocidal murder of millions? How is that not a vile insult?