Waking up from the dream

January 11, 2017

A book based on years of interviews with Tea Party supporters provides insight into why Donald Trump won support. Steve Leigh reviews Strangers in Their Own Land.

STRANGERS IN Their Own Land is a beautifully written book in which the author seeks to understand the sociology and psychology of the Tea Party and its descendants who formed the base of support for Donald Trump's campaign.

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild spent years interviewing supporters of the Tea Party, and the thorough description of their views portrayed in this book is evidence of that. The overall effort is interesting and augments our understanding.

After interviewing Tea Party supporters in Louisiana, Hochschild constructs a narrative about how Tea Party people view themselves and the world--that they're hard-working people who "play by the rules" and struggle to achieve the "American Dream," or if they've achieved that dream, they struggle against the odds to maintain it.

According to this view, the government, and especially the federal government, is siding with the "line-jumpers"--people who are beneficiaries of affirmative action, welfare and government employment. Recently, refugees and Muslims have been added to this list. Fox News and other conservative media, which provide regular supposedly factual examples of people skipping to the front of the line, fuel this narrative.

Soldiers of the modern-day anti-tax movement
Soldiers of the modern-day anti-tax movement (Sage Ross)

Although Tea Party and Trump supporters are disproportionately middle and upper class, the movement does cross class lines, while primarily identifying with those above rather than those below. If Tea Party supporters are angry at particular upper-class people, the anger is directed at individuals, not the system as a whole.

Thus, some of the Tea Party supporters interviewed in Strangers in Their Own Land describe suing chemical companies for polluting their communities and making people sick, but when they tried to organize further on environmental issues, their pro-free-market ideology got in the way.

One Tea Party environmentalist couldn't gain any traction on environmental issues from Tea Party groups. "The environment is a left wing issue," said an organizer.

IF TEA Party supporters identify with those at the top of society, it's in part because they see no prospect of themselves and others fighting the 1 Percent successfully from below. As the saying goes, "If you can't beat them, join them"--or at least try hard to do so.

This approach applies especially on the question of taxes. In the Tea Party view, if wages and small business profits are stagnating, the easiest way to find economic relief is by reducing taxes--and this fits nicely with the accompanying priority of cutting benefits to the so-called "undeserving" poor.

Unfortunately, the author doesn't clearly differentiate the various effects that Tea Party proposals have on individuals, depending on what class they're in--those whose economic interests are served by Tea Party proposals versus those who just think they are. For example, if the government cuts welfare spending, this creates a downward pressure on wages that for workers is more significant than any tax savings they get. But for capitalists, small and large, the downward pressure on wages increases their profits.

Unfortunately, though Hochschild's exposition largely lumps together working-class and middle-class Tea Partiers, many of the people she interviews are middle class, or at least on the edge of it. The three subgroupings she describes--the Team Player, the Worshipper and the Cowboy--are based in part on different class dynamics.

The Worshipper, for example, believes that renunciation and resignation is key. God will provide if people live a moral life, and the way to prosperity is to follow this route. Therefore, anything that undercuts family/community/church-centered morality should be rejected--such as government "interference" values and promotion of "immorality" (like women's right to abortion).

The Cowboy is macho and more likely working class. "I'm tough," he claims. "I don't need government protection. I am an individualist who can rise on my own." Though some women are also Cowboys, this type revolves around maintaining traditional notions of masculinity.

The Team Player can be middle or working class, but identifies with the company, again believing that hard work will pay off.

The focus on individualism, community and church discount the need for government programs--especially when the false picture of the "undeserving" reaping the benefits is promoted.

THE AUTHOR stresses the psychological basis of Tea Party support--mainly white people seeing their social position and way of life eroding, families splitting up, the environment wrecked, and respect for hard work declining, along with traditional ideas of morality. Hence, the appeal of " Make America Great Again."

But what Hochschild doesn't explain is that underlying this is an economic reality. For example, real wages for workers have dropped in the last 40 years, and chain stores and monopolization have hurt the prospects of small business. This is a large part of what creates the psychological and cultural malaise she describes.

By concentrating on psychological attributes like the loss of feelings of honor and respect, Hochschild misses the economic base on which these sentiments arise.

And this is where the author's implicit solution--that we need to understand each other's stories and work together on issues that unite us--goes astray. One of the chief grievances that inflames Tea Party passions is the success of struggles against oppression, from the gains of the civil rights movement to Black Lives Matter's exposure of police violence.

The left can have no common ground whatsoever with the Tea Party on these issues. We must fight to defend these advances at all costs.

As unions have weakened and the level of strikes fallen over the last few decades, the prospects for collective struggle to improve the economic circumstances of all working-class people have receded.

Although middle-class Tea Partiers might have been even more enraged and activated if the class struggle had risen, on the other hand, those Tea Partier sympathizers who come from the working class would at least see another solution to their woes.

Instead of finding common ground with the Tea Party, a more effective strategy is building a clear left alternative that combines the fight against exploitation and against all forms of oppression. Instead of dialogue with the right, we should organize those on the left to fight for concrete demands that make the working-class struggle stronger, by opposing racism, sexism, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant scapegoating.

This doesn't mean a minority of those who might support Trump at one time won't eventually decide to join some of these struggles, but we can't water down our demands to bring them in. Watering down demands will only make our struggle less effective, and, in the end, it will be less of a draw away from right-wing populism.

The promotion of class politics based on solidarity against exploitation and oppression is the firmest basis for successful movements that can win real gains. Successful movements in turn will help lay the basis for the broader acceptance of those politics. Only this can help Tea Partiers shift the target of their anger from victims of the system to the perpetrators of it.

With this strategy in mind, the detailed description of the roots of the Tea Party contained in Strangers in Their Own Land can be very useful.

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