Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right – by Arlie Russell Hochschild – book review

Phew! I’m thrilled to be finished with this one. Not that it’s not good. It’s well-written, highly-readable non-fiction that’s story based. But I felt uncomfortable the entire time I was reading. (Awarded four stars on Goodreads.) Here’s why.

As a blue state person myself, what made me so uncomfortable was NOT that the interviewees Hochschild profiles in the book can be dismissed as uneducated or stupid. They can’t. It’s simply that their thinking is so WILDLY different from my own, in SO MANY areas. And that those differences are so profound that I found myself getting increasingly demoralized about the prospect of these two sides ever finding a meeting point.

The author is a sociologist from Berkeley, CA — a blue state liberal who wanted to try to understand the thinking of people in red states, many of whom support Donald Trump. And Hochschild does a good job of humanizing this segment of the American populous, whose collective voice seems to be on the ascendant. These are not devils. They are loving mates and devoted parents. They go to church and work hard. They’re friendly and supportive of neighbors.

Hochschild describes how the individuals profiled feel left out of the American dream. And it is true they HAVE lost a lot of ground during the last couple of generations. Particularly those who are high-school educated, white and male. Many traditional, decent-paying jobs have moved overseas. Technology has transformed the workplace so that many others jobs are now automated. Income is stagnant. And instead of sitting at the top of a world built on white privilege, this is a group that must now compete for employment against both women and minorities. (Not so 50 years ago.)

They are also tired of being told to be politically correct and are just plain angry at those they see passing them on the ladder of success. I do now understand how these people are drawn to what I personally see as Trump’s anger, vitriol, racism, and promises to make America great again. (This actually seems to mean return American to the way life was in the 1950s — few women in the workplace, little competition from minorities, and plenty of jobs for unskilled or low skilled workers).

All the interviewees are from Louisiana, home of the so-called “cancer corridor”, reflecting the large number of cancers reported in certain areas of the state. Also where many large chemical companies (Dow, Monsanto) and oil and gas companies run huge facilities. But instead of holding companies responsible for local pollution (and its potential health threats), these folks blame a bloated government imposing too many regulations.

Furthermore, they don’t understand why government should be helping out those with no health insurance (Obamacare) or no income (welfare) or immigrants seeking asylum. Not when too many “regular” Americans are struggling. They believe THESE are the folks whose welfare should be prioritized. Which, honestly, strikes me as a fair argument. Hochschild labels this a great paradox. While believing in smaller government and opposing government hand-outs — about 50% of Louisiana’s annual state budget comes from federal funds.

But it’s not just anti-government sentiment that left me discouraged. Or blind faith in American corporations. Or even feeling that women and minorities should remain disadvantaged. There’s also a culture that doesn’t value advanced education. That accepts pollution as an acceptable by-product of industries that provide jobs and manufacture the consumables we all demand. And then there’s that widespread belief that the United States should essentially be a Christian country, guided by the teachings of the Bible (i.e. no abortion, no Muslims, women’s primary role is to support their men, no belief in global warming except perhaps as a portent of The Coming Rapture).

Arlie Russell Hochschild

No need to go on, right? Will this book help humanize Trump supporters? Yes. Will it help you understand why they feel as they do? Yes. Will you empathize with their struggles? Definitely. But will it encourage you about the future of the country? I’m not so sure. Instead, like me, I’m afraid it will leave YOU feeling like a stranger in YOUR own land.

More about the author, Arlie Russell Hochschild.