For those of us who didn’t see Donald Trump’s victory coming, many of us are still in shock. How could this have happened? It seemed like Trump said or did one outrageous thing after another that would have killed just about any other candidate’s chances.
But his followers were inspired by him and were not to be denied. What motivated them so much? While we have had ample opportunity to put Trump under the magnifying glass during this election year, those of us in blue state America have no real idea of what makes the Tea Party supporters in those deep red states tick. And while liberals like myself may never agree with their views, perhaps we need to leave our bubbles to at least try to understand them.
It was with this intent that a liberal sociology professor (from Berkeley no less) decided to climb what she called her empathy wall to get to know as many people in deep red Louisiana as possible through a series of interviews spanning several years. The result was Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right which I read and can recommend to the reader.
The main paradox the author tries to understand is that Louisiana residents have been subjected to incredible amounts of industrial pollution by the oil and petrochemical industries. In addition to the polluted air and water, there have been cancer deaths from the various carcinogens left as manufacturing byproducts. But their disdain for government is so strong that they want no part of any regulations to try to prevent or at least mitigate some of the damage. In fact, many of the people the author interviewed were actually in favor of dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency (which was ironically created by a Nixon Republican administration). So given this, perhaps it helps to explain why President-elect Trump wants to appoint someone hostile to the EPA to lead it.
So while there is lots of anti-government rhetoric spouted by both citizens and politicians, the pollution is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about. The oil industry provides jobs. In their minds, pollution is the price they must pay to get those jobs.
The author when interviewing a self-proclaimed partisan Republican, got this gem of a quote on Page 166 when the subject turned to pollution. As Dave Barry would say here, I am not making this up!
"A company has a job to do; it's making things people want and need. Just like people have to go to the bathroom, plants do too. You can't just say ' don't do it.' "
As for the strong anti-government feelings, the author came up with a narrative or as she called it, their “deep story” or their "feels as if" story.
Those in rural America have also been feeling economic pain. Especially among white men, the way to get ahead is to work hard and get in line to make progress towards a better life. But as they see it, other people are cutting in line. Women are getting more access to the career jobs they used to have. Blacks are getting ahead through affirmative action. And in President Obama, they see someone who is helping the line jumpers. As for those getting government aid, shouldn’t those people be working instead?
As the author notes, there is not only sexism in this narrative but also racism. This is difficult for her to write about because these are people she had grown to like. These are people she had never heard using the n word but were racists nonetheless. This is from Page 147:
As I and others use the term, however, racism refers to a belief in a natural hierarchy that places blacks at the bottom, and the tendency of whites to judge their own worth from that distance from that bottom. By that definition, many Americans, north and south are racist. And racism appears not simply in personal attitudes but in structural arrangements - as when polluting industries move closer to black neighborhoods than to white ones.
In these people, there is undeniably an air of frustration. If only the right person who understands them, who talks their language, would offer to lead them out of the wilderness. It was Donald Trump who said that he alone understands what’s wrong with America and he alone can fix it. To most of us, this is little more than authoritarian rhetoric. But to these people, this is the man they wanted to be our next president.
The website Vox published this fascinating article, The rise of American authoritarianism
authoritarianism — not actual dictators, but rather a psychological profile of individual voters that is characterized by a desire for order and a fear of outsiders. People who score high in authoritarianism, when they feel threatened, look for strong leaders who promise to take whatever action necessary to protect them from outsiders and prevent the changes they fear.
So when Trump talked about the Mexicans sending their rapists, most of us cringed. But his base voters approved. The same thing happened when Trump announced a proposed ban of Muslims.
Unlike most convention speeches made by their nominees that promise a sunny future for America, Trump’s speech dwelled on all that he felt was wrong with America along with of course, his promise to fix things. And the more uneasy an electorate is, the more an authoritarian can hit home with his message.
So the message of this article was that even before Trump ran for president, there was an authoritarian following waiting for somebody like him. And this following had enough momentum to make Trump a candidate with serious winning chances long before most of us began to take him seriously. And this is from an article posted last March!
Unfortunately, the transition from Trump’s election to his inauguration has been anything but reassuring. If anything, his authoritarian tendencies have been more on display. This excellent Robert Reich video expresses the fear that Trump’s authoritarian behavior could ultimately be a threat to our democracy if left unchecked for too long. Frankly, I found the video to be a bit disturbing. But I urge the reader to watch it!
The big problem with the authoritarian mindset in my view is its unconditional faith in certain people or ideologies. For example, the people in Louisiana discussed before are suffering horribly from the effects of pollution. But because they believe that all government regulation is bad, they feel they have little other choice but to endure it.
Although Trump has to be charitable, stretched the truth on countless occasions, his followers seem to believe every word he says as gospel. When truth takes a beating like this, is it any wonder that fake news and legitimate news can become indistinguishable to many?
The only antidote to authoritarian thinking is critical thinking where logic and the search for the truth rules over fear and closed mindedness. But are enough of us capable of that? I like many others around the country and the world are fearful of what the upcoming months of a Trump administration will bring to our democracy. The only comfort we can take is to remember that America has made it through some really rough times before. We will do it again!