To a person, the subjects in her study felt that her parable was their story (“l live your analogy,” “you read my mind”). Many greeted her story with a sense of rapture, a look she saw on many of their faces a few years later at a Trump rally in Baton Rouge. We all have deep stories, Hockschild says, that we tell ourselves to capture who we are; our values, our hopes, our disappointments and fears. These deep stories are more powerful than our material predicaments, deeper than any set of political issues.
This deep story may explain the “great paradox.” People were not voting against their economic needs so much as for their emotional needs. The American Dream parable above provided a unifying emotional logic that accounts for their political choices. Donald Trump’s narrative of what ails America tapped into this deep story. As Hockschild said, “The scene was set for Trump’s rise, like kindling before a match is lit.”
Hockschild issued a caveat about her parable: “Deep stories don’t need to be completely accurate, but they have to feel true.” Sadly, this caveat turns out not to just be a bug, but a virus that crashes the empathy mission. Because so much of what felt true was based on misinformation, ignorance or prejudice (e.g., of her subjects, large majorities believe Obama is a Muslim, that hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees are flooding across the border, that Hillary really does deserve to be in jail, that one out of four people, rather than one in seventy-five-work for the federal government). When Hockschild presented “alternative” (i.e. realistic facts) however gently and respectfully, there was blowback (“I’ll be goddamned if some moralizing northerner from some regulated, clean blue state is going to preach to us”). Trump’s margins in Bayou country were historic. The people Hockschild developed affection for and came to be friends with were—as political animals—irredeemable.
Cramer and Hockschild demonstrated that constituents in Thibodaux, Louisiana or Janesville, Wisconsin were not drawn to Trump (or Scott Walker) because they were ignorant or hoodwinked. No, it was (drumroll, please) the empathy. Trump—would you believe it—was more faithful to Atticus Finch’s admonition than any Democrat. Okay, he didn’t illuminate every aspect of their predicament and, okay he didn’t exactly challenge them; but he did nail the most evocative qualities of their current plight: their resentment, persecution and pride, as embedded in their deep stories.
As the over-the-top enemy of their enemy, Trump was the flame to their moth. As one Bayou resident put it, “He sounded as angry as we felt.”
He called out the “tax-eaters,” the “lawless blacks,” the immigrant rapists, the lying media and the smug cosmopolitans of the big cities. He extolled the virtues of the Red Tribe, the Real Americans who feel (but don’t want to acknowledge) victimized, who are patriots that just want to put their country first; as opposed to the treasonous cosmopolitans who don’t.
Alas, it appears that we Blue Tribers are at the end of the empathy trail. Even when shepherded by such high practitioners of the art as Cramer and Hockschild, we are still stunned because we assumed reason and revulsion against Trump would allow continued ascent. Our trail ends in madness. We’ve been cul-de-saced by a reassertion of tribal loyalty (all the GOP base, all the Evangelicals stand by him) plus just enough disaffected white working-class voters to flip the electoral middle finger. The end of the empathy trail -shepherded by Trump- is rapture and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Now, in retrospect, we castigate ourselves. We should have known. We took our foot off the pedal as we watched his rolling carnival of a campaign careen through the primaries. Many of us were slack jawed, but also giddy as we watched Trump annihilate the GOP establishment Giddy because his cartoonish nature, manifest unfitness for the job and flashes of cruelty portended a November wipeout. In our eyes (and Hillary’s to be sure) he had become his own attack ad. His foul demagoguery would repulse more voters that it would attract. We dismissed his raucous and well attended rallies as white trash gatherings that turned off most of the country.
Going into the conventions we had two worries: that the Republican party elders and #Never Trumpers would execute a coup; or that Trump, the actor, would pivot, execute a “tell” where he would at least make a show of sobriety and win over some independents.
It was a show alright.
The first night of the RNC Convention in Cleveland was devoted to weaponizing grief. One widow after one mother after another stood up and held Hillary Clinton personally responsible for the loss of loved ones because of her stewardship as Secretary of State. They came across as hyperbolic rather than heartfelt, a channeling of raw primitive feeling, punctuated by blood lust roars of “lock her up” from the party faithful. Somewhere Goebbels was blushing.
Night two focused on racial fear. America was depicted as a dystopian wreck, overtaken by people of color, most, of course, Muslims. Dropping crime rates, the actual threat of terrorism, facts on the ground? Meant nothing.
Then came Trump’s Darth Vader acceptance speech. Michael Moore, Bill Maher and Andrew Sullivan fretted over its nativist appeal to half of America. But the major media panned it as a mendacious and mindless appeal to tribalism, unbecoming of a candidate for President of the United States.
His poll numbers ticked up,
What a contrast with the Democratic Convention that convened a week later in Philadelphia. That convention was upbeat, noted for well-crafted, passionately delivered speeches* that celebrated America’s DNA and depicted a country on the rise, ascending from great to greater.
*Hillary was the exception: most found her speech pedestrian and her delivery forced.
It was “ls this a great country or what?” vs. “Trust me, this is a hellhole.” Framed this way, Blue Tribers felt confident. Optimism and sunniness, historians of campaigns assured us, always prevails. The Democratic convention was compared to Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” convention that preceded his blowout win. The most popular placard at the Democratic convention was “Love Trumps Hate.” The GOP looked to be imploding. The White House and Senate looked to be in hand.
But the polls did not shift significantly. Trump’s vitriolic campaign did not crater. We shouldhave known. The frame that emerged by the end of the summer was both darker and more absurd: it would be a WWF-like death match between red resentment and blue apoplexy.
Cramer and Hockschild documented the breadth and depth of the resentment. But they did not have an explanation of it, much less a solution for it. Both were flummoxed. Cramer expressed despair over her findings, while Hockschild (in my opinion) engaged in magical thinking that empathy and kindness would serve as a counterweight.
John Judis, in his recent The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politicsdoes offer a theory of the resentment case based on a historical appreciation of populist movements. He observes that resentment fits comfortably in the tradition of populist movements which are always anger-based and flourish in times of income disparity and corruption.
If Oz was the great neoliberal mecca of globalized markets, open borders and diminishing tax obligations that would generate so much wealth that everyone would benefit, then the Great Recession pulled the curtain back to reveal there were winners and losers, that many in the middle and lower-middle classes had been pushed aside by the post-industrial economy. It also revealed the wizardry behind the esoteric financial instruments and maneuvers that contributed significantly to the accretion of wealth to the elites.
There was abundant kindling for a populist cataclysm.
Judis defines populism based on his analysis of populist movements dating back to the 19th century. Populism, he notes, is not an ideology, but rather a movement, an uprising. It is the coming together of ordinary people (almost always from the middle and lower-middle class), a “noble assemblage” that is mobilized by their opposition to financial and/or government elites they view as self-serving, undemocratic and corrupt.
Judis points out that populism is not inherently tied to left wing or right-wing politics. However, in the current predicament, right wing populism (think, Trump, the Brexit movement) has an electoral advantage because it offers a more diverse set of villains, more targets of resentment. Judis describes the anger underpinning left wing populism as “dyadic,” meaning that it is only directed upward to the financial elites and their government apologists. Right wing populism is “triadic”: the anger is directed upward and downward. Upward to the financial elites and, more importantly, to the educated upper middle class that has benefited from the post-industrial economy. Also, downward to the “benefactors” that the elites have coddled: the Lexus-driving welfare recipients, the lawless immigrants, the line-cutters of Hockschild’s parable.
Do the math. More targets and more familiar targets for resentment are going to deliver more votes. The right-wing narrative, largely because of the immigration crisis, is privileged (electorally) over the left-wing narrative.
The resentment runs wide and deep. It’s in the DNA of large swaths of the South, Far West and rural America. Let me give two examples that capture the depth of the feeling. In the 2004 Presidential race, when campaigning, W. would often start his stump speech with “You may have heard I am running against the Senator from…”—this is where it gets ugly. He would draw out the pronunciation of Massachusetts for what seemed like minutes; his tone was mock contempt; he had his not so friendly smile on his face that said “can you believe this effete snob has the presumption, the sense of entitlement to run against a good olé’ boy like me, and stick it to good people like you.” In the crowd there would be a rumble of boos at the mention of Massachusetts, replaced with whoops and hollers of “no way.”
Here’s the point: this rhetorical drawling of blood was little remarked on, often treated as authentic banter from our down-home President. Outside of urban America, he was applauded for the put-downs. Can you even imagine Kerry pronouncing Mississippi or Texas in such a contemptuous manner and how that would have been received, even in big cities, even by the mainstream media?
A more recent example involves the special election in the Georgia 6th district where Karen Handel defeated Jon Ossof. Pundits and experts agree that one of the kay variables in Handel’s victory was to link Jon Ossof with Nancy Pelosi. The GOP commercial that played in the last few days of the campaign consisted of a number of people expressing their support and warmth for Ossof. In the background was no mistaking the city of San Francisco with the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, and so on. The people expressing support for Ossof were out of central casting for San Francisco residents with their long, unkempt hair, free flowing garb, absence of makeup, etc. But otherwise the San Francisco “residents” were not portrayed in an unflattering light. No need. The notion that coastal elites would warm to Ossof was quite sufficient to incite the tribal motivations in Georgia’s 6th district.
This “they think they’re better than us, but we know the truth is the opposite” stretches far back I suspect. I mentioned earlier I lived in Iowa and Richmond in the 1970’s. I remember encountering—not infrequently—putdowns of New York City. The locals seemed a bit …obsessed with the place, and not in a good way. There were stories in the paper about New Yorkers who had seen the light and moved West or South to God’s country; cracks by TV anchors on the Sodom and Gomorrah goings on in Manhattan; references to rudeness or expressions of superiority by some Yankee and so on.
Mostly I just chuckled at the phenomenon. I kept looking around for these brash New Yorkers condescending to the locals and just didn’t see any. As far as I could tell, I wasn’t behaving disrespectfully. Why this preoccupation? This assumption of condescension?
Yeah, I chuckled at the cultural imprinting, but maybe I underestimated it. I think, for much of my adult life, if someone had asked me “do you measure up with someone from the Heartland on some yardstick of moral strength and decency?” My gut level answer would be “no.”
My tacit assumption, l realized, was along the lines of, I’m just an educated city slicker gazing up at a gritty cowboy. Blue Tribers are smart, but smart ass (e.g., Billy Crystal) whereas Red Tribers are plainspoken and trustworthy (e.g., Gary Cooper).
Of course, once I make this implicit assumption about moral worth explicit, I wholeheartedly reject it. After all, Paul Ryan Mike Pence and the Bushes have been seen as paragons of virtue in the heartland, so…(And for the record, if my kid needed to be rescued from a burning house and I could pick the state of the next possible passerby rescuer, I would go with New York.)
In the therapeutic realm, resentment is viewed, as almost all painful emotional states, as a target for intervention. It is also considered a destructive state with its own particular path to resolution.
The destructive nature of resentment is best understood when we compare it with anger. Anger is also a painful state, but not necessarily destructive. While the expression of anger can be either constructive or destructive, the feeling itself often has adaptive value. Anger usually has a clear-cut trigger, which is an offense against oneself, a loved one or sympathetic other. Anger helps to provide energy and focus to protect boundaries, identify unfair treatment, and prevent violation of norms. Anger, especially if it is expressed constructively and in proportion to the offense, often leads to resolution or an ability to accept what happened and move on.
Resentment, in contrast, is not seen as adaptive. It has a blinding quality and keeps people stuck. Expression of resentment rarely leads directly to resolution. Resentment is mostly about deflecting self-blame and the search to blame others. Thus, the classic resentment dance “I drink because she nags me” vs. “I nag because he drinks.” Resentment is so often a disguise to oneself and minimizes the degree to which one’s own decisions and conduct have been responsible for their plight.
Resentment is considered to be a “secondary” or defensive state. Resentment often does not have a clear-cut trigger, is frequently related to past events and often has to do with one’s relationship with oneself (e.g. a threat to status, a desire to avoid self-blame) rather than violations from others.
People tend to get stuck in resentment, mostly because there is a payoff in the deflection of blame—a kind of sour pleasure or bitter happiness (to be a victim in an unjust world is not a failure). If you go to clips of Trump rallies, notice all the smiles even when, especially when, he is railing about Real Americans getting the short end of the stick.
The therapeutic task with resentment is not to just encourage expression, but to explore/confront the ego protecting aspect of the feeling and help the individual face their (usually) more painful and difficult realities (e.g., “I don’t drink simply because she nags me.” “my nagging is not helpful and may contribute to his drinking”). That’s the clinical dish on resentment. But if we substitute the rhetoric of character for the rhetoric of therapeutics, we might characterize resentment as “shrinking from responsibility,” or, more bluntly, “weak.”
As a rule, resentment elicits resentment (see the case of the nagging wife and alcoholic husband). Not only are the resentful stuck with the feeling but the stickiness affixes itself to the object of resentment, whether it’s a loved one or a more abstract entity (e.g., “coastal elites”).
But rules are not inviolate. l don’s think Blue Tribers are caught up in the resentment dynamic. Similar to my experience in Red Land, here in the belly of the Blue Land beast, I just don’t hear or see much resentment. Perhaps because we have it so good. And perhaps our exasperation and apoplexy are beginning to curdle to something more sour, as we absorb the recklessness and cruelty of Trump/Republicans rule and witness the inflexible loyalty of his base. But so far, resentment is not the animating force in Blue America.
Blue Tribers do, however, bring a powerful aphrodisiac to the polarization dance: disdain. We hate to acknowledge it since tolerance and egalitarianism are central virtues here. But, even if kept out of sight and earshot, it’s there. Maybe only a portion of my friends view Trump supporters as insensitive or cruel, but all of my friends view them as ignorant. We are knowledgeable, informed and realistic. They, to be sure, are not.