A Rick Steves Book Report: Strangers in Their Own Land (Anger and Mourning on the American Right)

This year, along with the standard “Merry Christmas” greetings I’m receiving from my European friends, I’m getting a lot of nervous questions about our next president. Europeans are struggling to understand the anger and energy coming from the slice of America that voted for Trump. And I am, too. From my point of view, working class Americans voted against a candidate who supported things that would seem to benefit them — like higher minimum wages, affordable health care, and free community college. But clearly, those voters see things differently.

Strangers in Their Own LandIn an attempt to better understand the frustrations and perspectives of people in deep-red America who just made Donald Trump our president, I read Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild. She’s a sociologist from California who spent five years researching communities in America’s deep South and trying to better understand their context and why they think the way they do politically. Here’s my rough, unapologetically stream-of-consciousness “book report” on what I took away from the book — a loose collection of ideas, summaries, and quotes that I found enlightening:

The mighty Mississippi River sends the spoils and waste of America’s industrial heartland south into the delta lands of Louisiana. While a visitor may see fields of green, locals see a bygone world. They remember a time when you stuck out your thumb and you got a ride, and when someone was hungry, a neighbor fed them. Now that is gone and “big government” is butting in. People tend to shoehorn new information into ways we already think. “I’m not anti-government. I’m pro-gun, pro-life, pro-freedom. Pro-the freedom to live your life the way you like. Our government is too big, too greedy, too bought, too incompetent, and not ours anymore.”

The “Big Sort” is the nickname for a demographic shift in our country that is the clustering of like-minded Americans…and it’s tearing us apart. The more we cluster together, the more extreme we become.

In 1970, not a single American senator opposed the Clean Air Act. Today, 95 Republican congressmen have joined Congressman David Vitter of Louisiana (representing one of the most polluted states in the USA) to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) entirely.

Across the USA, red states are poorer, have more teen mothers, are more obese, worse health, trauma-related deaths, and lower school enrollment than blue states. They die five years younger than people in blue state America (that’s the same longevity gap as between Connecticut and Nicaragua). They have the worst industrial pollution. And these states get more federal help than blue states (44% of the state budget in Louisiana comes from the federal government). People who need Medicare and food stamps in these states don’t vote. And lower-middle-class whites, who don’t need this help, do vote…against public dollars for the poor.

A third of the population of the USA lives below the Mason-Dixon line (the former Confederacy), and nearly all the growth in red/conservative power recently has occurred there.

In his book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank argues that a rich man’s economic agenda is paired with the bait of social issues. Through appealing to abortion bans, gun rights, and school prayer, the working class is persuaded to embrace economic policies that hurt them. “Vote to get government off our backs, accept the greater power of corporations and monopolies. Vote to strike a blow against elitism, accept a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes.” The poor are being misled.

The Tea Party is more than a political group — it’s a culture. Traveling through red America, you notice this culture: No New York Times in newsstands, no organic produce in grocery stores, no foreign films. Fewer small cars, fewer petite sizes in clothing stores, fewer pedestrian zones, more pit bulls and bulldogs, fewer bicycle lanes, fewer color-coded recycling bins, fewer solar panels. Cafés with virtually everything on the menu fried. Lottery machines in bus stations. No gluten-free entrees. Lots of signs advertising personal injury lawyers.

People in red America say things like, “We vote for candidates who put the Bible where it belongs. The scripture says Jesus wants us to be about his Father’s business. Emissions regulations and environmental protections were a way President Obama was holding our economy hostage to their radical ideas.” In 2014, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal gave $1.6 billion to the oil industry as incentives to invest in Louisiana ($400 per citizen). He paid for that lost tax revenue by cutting the same amount out of the state budget and laying off 30,000 public sector workers nurses, teachers, and safety inspectors.

It’s about trust. It’s hard enough to trust people close at hand…and even more so far away in Washington DC. People are becoming “stay-at-home migrants” — while they stayed, their environment left. These days, American men feel like they are the endangered species.

The Republican candidate wouldn’t clean up the environment, but they’d stop abortion. The local sentiment: “Saving all those babies is the most important moral issue upon which we’ll ultimately be judged. We’re on this earth for a limited amount of time. But if we get our souls saved, we go to Heaven, and Heaven is for eternity. We’ll never have to worry about the environment from then on. That’s the most important thing. That’s thinking long-term.”

Big government is butting into our lives with too many regulations: The government has no right to tell us what light bulbs to buy…it’s forcing fast food restaurants to serve salads. I don’t need the government telling me what to eat. “If the cook ain’t fat, I ain’t eatin’ it.” The ban on having more than one RV in your yard, all these child-protection devices. I remember an age without child-proof lids on medicine bottles or car seat belts. We let the kids throw lawn darts, and we smoked alongside them, and we all survived just fine. Now your kid has to have a helmet, knee pads, and elbow pads just to go down the kiddy slide.”

The passion is for “freedom to do,” not “freedom from.” Freedom to talk on your cellphone as you drive, freedom to pick up a daiquiri at a drive-in, and freedom to walk around with a loaded gun. There’s no talk about freedom from gun violence, from car accidents, or from toxic pollution. Industrial plants should be “self-regulated” — the freedom to pollute (if it brings us jobs) trumps the freedom to swim in an unpolluted lake.

For jobs and local economies, states can have a “high road” or a “low road” policy. Red states prefer the “low road” approach: union bans, lower wages, corporate tax rebates, less environmental regulations to lure in industry from less corporation-friendly states. States like California and Washington follow the “high road” strategy: creating an attractive public sector (nice environment, better education, more public services). The poorer the state, the fewer environment restrictions you’ll find. Many corporations find choosing the “high road” state — even if more complicated, costly, and regulated — is a better long-term business decision.

While the American life span is growing in every other category between 1990 and 2008, the life expectancy of older white men without high school diplomas has been shortened by 3 years in that time. Shortened by despair. In their tough secular lives, life to this group may well feel like “end times.” But they are “well-churched,” and, from the pulpit, their concern is directed away from social problems (poverty, poor schools, pollution-related sickness) and away from government help.

A flight attendant who was a devotee of Fox News was frustrated in foreign cities because all she could get was BBC, CNN and MSNBC. For her, CNN is not objective at all. “I turn it on for news, and what I get is opinion. Christiane Amanpour kneels by a sick African child and tells me something’s wrong and we have to fix it. That child’s problems aren’t our fault. She is scolding me…imposing her liberal feelings about who to feel sorry for. That’s PC. I don’t want to be told I’m a bad person just because I don’t feel sorry for that child. I have my own problems.”

Oil is the salvation of local economies, and red state locals consider oil an important source of good jobs. But it’s highly automated, accounting for far fewer jobs then people imagine — and many of those are given to foreign workers (living in worker camps) who work for very low wages. The state made huge cuts in local jobs and social services to bring in companies…and instead of trickling down to local workers, the money was leaking out of state to the distant wealthy. The community was the site of the production, rather than the site of the producers (who were based elsewhere). If there were problems related to pollution, who would fix them? Corporations wouldn’t volunteer. Churches didn’t have the money or mission for that. The federal government was the only possible solution. But when it gets involved, red flags go up — too big, too incompetent, too mal-intentioned. Didn’t the government have other more important concerns (ISIS, immigration, undeserving government beneficiaries)?

These days, you become a stranger in your own land. You don’t see yourself as others see you. To feel honored, you have to be seen as moving forward. But because everything seems rigged, you are moving backward. Wages are flat, jobs are insecure. You can’t be proud to be white and straight and married — that’s a sign of homophobia. Regional honor is hard to get — you can’t wave a Confederate flag. Fewer people are going to church. You are old and attention is on the young. Christian working middle class people are suffering from a sense of fading honor. The military is a rare source of honor surviving for those who are left out. You want to say, “Hey! I’m a minority, too.” But you don’t want to be a victim or a “poor me.” You want to rise up against these downward forces, and there’s only one group for you: the Tea Party.

The Occupy Movement is to the far left what the Tea Party is to the far right — both the voice of people working for a fair share and a properly proportioned society. For the right, it’s about makers and takers. But to the liberals, the flashpoint is up the class ladder between the 1% and the rest. For the right, it’s down the ladder, between the middle class and the poor. For the left, it’s centered in the private sector. For the right, it’s all about the public sector. Both call for an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.

The American Dream is for people who work hard and wait in line. Hard work confers honor. It comes with clean living and “being churched.” Good people who play by the rules feel that others are cutting in line in front of them and they’re doing it with government programs as aid. Those cutting the line don’t share those good conservative beliefs.

Liberals have a loose moral code because they aren’t properly churched. Red state Americans think there are 50 million abortions a year — “probably all Democrats.” With Supreme Court approval of gay marriage, federal welfare for the lazy, fewer Americans being churched, and PC amnesia about the young boys who died for the South (in the Civil War), that piece of America is shrinking. The American Dream itself is changing. Everyone is cutting in line. The Republican Party is the only hope. Tea Party members believe there are way too many federal workers. They would estimate it’s probably 30-40% of America’s workforce. But it’s actually around 2% of all American workers that are civilian federal employees — and that number has declined in the last decade.

Obamacare, global warming, gun control, abortion rights — these issues are all about northern values being inflicted on the south, making Southerners “Strangers in their own land.” They feel marginalized: their views on abortion, gender roles, race, guns, the Confederate flag are all ridiculed in national media as backward. The feeling is of a besieged minority thinking, “There are fewer and fewer white Christians like us.” With strangers stepping ahead in line, you feel resentful and afraid. The president makes that possible and you feel betrayed. The person cutting in line thinks of you as an ignorant redneck and you feel insulted, humiliated, mad.

Trump says, “Let’s make American great again,” and you know exactly what he’s talking about. He is an emotions politician — not a policies politician. Gathering together at a rally, you no longer feel like a stranger in your own land. When Tea Party Americans gather at a Trump rally, they feel like I do (a progressive Seattleite) when I’m at an event with a big room full of Democrats or progressive Christians.

Mobs like to gather around a “totem” — a symbol, a cross or a flag and a charismatic leader. The leader himself becomes a totem. Trump calls it a “movement” more and more. The Trump phenomenon is an antidepressant…it’s exhilarating and empowering for people who embrace the Tea Party. Scapegoating accentuates the unity of the crowd — no longer strangers in their own land. People get permission to feel like good people even if they don’t care for blacks, refugees, immigrants, or the disabled. (Meanwhile, liberal Americans are amazed that Trump insulting all these groups didn’t offend his base but, rather, energized them.)

The key issues: small government, guns, low taxes, prohibition of abortion. It’s natural for a blue state person to marvel at how red state voters seem to vote against their economic interest. But it’s not about money. It’s a political high, emotional self-interest. A disdain for federal money helping them out. (Hillary’s offer of higher minimum wages, free community college, affordable health care was ignored or even ridiculed.)

Emotional self-interest — freedom from being a stranger in one’s own land — was what got traction in 2016. Trump supporters happily overlooked all the contradictions (and even blatant lies) to protect their elation. Liberals can’t stop thinking, “But it’s a lie!” The fact is, Tea Party Americans willingly and knowingly accept lies because they care about other things — emotional needs — much more.

Around the world, multinational corporations are stronger than nations, and the right wing is on the move — empowering corporations, building fear of immigrants. These trends are leading to Brexit and political upsets like Trump in the USA.

Bobby Jindal is the darling of the Tea Party. He’s left Louisiana in shambles with 8 years of his policies (cut taxes and a radically reduced public sector). And, when they finally elect a Democrat to right the course, the people complain, “As soon as a Democrat comes in, taxes go up.”

Now, America has a president whose role is to free corporations from restrictions while giving voice to those our version of capitalism leaves poor and angry. Is this just another “trickle down betrayal” with corporations winning and the Middle Class losing? We don’t know. But one thing looks pretty certain: The progressives among us will get a dose of the political frustration that was, until now, the other America’s reality.