A Country Divided
To some, Trump’s rise to power in the United States may appear to coincide with a massive crisis in morality. The leader’s platform of stringent nationalism appeals to many Americans, but explicitly excludes others. The nationalism that Trump champions, with his flag-hugging antics and America-first attitude, does not belong to all Americans, but rather creates the narrative of the ¨true American:” a decidedly non-immigrant individual proudly living in an immigrant-built country.
Morality becomes an issue in the “America first” attitude when it so narrowly defines the nation that it becomes a principle of exclusion. The “othering” effect of Trump’s brand of nationalism completely defies the moral imperative of helping those outside the nation´s borders, and has created victims within the borders as well.
From the outside, to other countries that look on in fascination or dread, the political movement behind Trump may seem unsurprising in that it confirms the worst caricatures of Americans: simultaneously ethnocentric and ill-informed. However, within the country, the election left many perplexed.
One explanation for the bewilderment experienced by Trump opponents following the election is the idea that the United States is a country divided. George Saunders describes two countries: LeftLand and RightLand, subcountries with distinct ideologies and non-intersecting versions of reality (Saunders, 2017). He likens the ideological divide between left and right America as “housemates no longer on speaking terms” (Saunders, 2017).
Saunders’ bleak depiction of partisan realities in the United States alludes to the utter breakdown communication, and a consequent desire to understand those on the opposite side of the divide, particularly the “white working class” widely recognized for Trump’s win. In an attempt to explain the turn of events that culminated in a (decidedly not) self-made billionaire capturing the American vote, many resorted to the “explanatory power of white working class resentment” (Brownlow & Wood, 2017). This desire to explain why so many voted for Trump led to the emergence of “popular ethnographies” that describe the cultural and political life of the white working class, and create a narrative of a previously overlooked class of Americans.
The Deep Story
As poignant as Saunders’ illustration of estranged companions living under the same roof is, it is the narrative of the white working class Trump supporter. It is a narrative equally necessary in understanding why so many Americans voted for Trump, and why so many Americans remain shocked by that decision. Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociologist who dedicated years to understanding white middle class voters that favor Trump, describes a “deep story” stripped of judgements, and focused on the feelings and opinions that inspire votes. According to Hochschild, it is a story “of unfairness and anxiety, stagnation and slippage—a story in which shame was the companion to need” (Hochschild, 2017)
Hochschild describes a scenario to which many Trump supporters connect emotionally:
“You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black - beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for?
The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.”
The American dream, to them, revolves around working hard, earning money, and then giving to others. Ambition and earning money are both virtuous acts because they allow you to support yourself without burdening others. While earning money is a source of pride, “receiving government benefits [is] a source of shame” (Hochschild, 2017). The deep story draws a line between hardworking, good Americans, and those who accept welfare.
The problem is that many of these Americans are both hard-working and in need of welfare. They fall in the limbo of middle class, far from wealth and security and uncomfortably close to destitution. The reluctance to accept welfare is deeply ingrained in them; it means they have fallen and cannot get back up. It strips them of their pride.
Then Trump changed the deep story. He spoke directly to the hearts of those Americans in the middle class RightLand. He granted dignity to accepting benefits and welfare. He never spoke against government help, but he made an important distinction: help should be for real Americans. At the same time, Trump “shamed virtually every line-cutting group in the deep Story - women, people of color, the disabled, immigrants, refugees.” The white middle class felt that someone had finally acknowledged their story.
The Deep Story extends well beyond shame for Trump supporters. It is a story of crippling anxiety, insecurity, and fear. These narratives suggest that Trump played into profound anxieties of Americans surrounding job security, globalization, and immigration. The narratives also suggest that the increasingly visible xenophobia, racism, and sexism are mere manifestations of that profound anxiety. The deep story is both valuable and dangerous; it allows for empathy, but verges on justification of intolerance.
Dangers of Popular Ethnographies
As engaging as popular ethnographies like the work of Hochschild or J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy prove to be in trying to understand those standing proudly at the other side of the political divide, the narratives carry several risks.
First of all, narratives gain attention by oversimplifying the intersection of political, economic, and cultural factors, opting for stories that entertain or sensationalize. One popular narrative is that of the forgotten middle class, mostly residing in the middle of the country, and the story of their demonstration of power after years of neglect. While it may be true that many of these Americans felt slighted and neglected over the years, these narratives tend to imply a degree of resentment and even vengefulness that may not apply to the majority of cases. It is equally likely that Trump’s rhetoric spoke to the deep story of the voters on an emotional level than the implication of the spiteful, plotting voter eager to overthrow the liberal agenda.
This leads to another complication of popular ethnographies of Trump supporters: their speculative nature tends to project convenient or sensational intentions onto their story. In an attempt to understand, many contribute to the “othering” effect, reeling between condescending empathy to bitter blame. Many claim that the only way to improve the political conditions in the country, with its divided realities, is to understand those working-class white voters. The irony, though, is that the supposed attempt at empathy is indistinguishable from a strategy for political gain.
The Moral Preferences of Trump Voters
While popular ethnographies provide interesting insight into the emotions behind Trump voters, more concrete information regarding the ideologies of Trump supporters sheds light on the country’s crisis of morality.
The theory that social scientists present is that Trump supporters share the psychological trait of authoritarianism, meaning that they are especially sensitive to “signs that the moral order is falling apart” (Ekins & Haicht, 2016). In response to the perceived degradation of moral order, they tend to align with their in-group, express intolerance for outsiders, and favor strong leaders who promise to restore the moral order. In fact, a study in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology asserts that Trump supporters are likely to have authoritarian personality syndrome and social dominance orientation, which is the preference not only for separation of groups within society, but the enforcement of a hierarchy in which high-status groups dominate (Pettigrew, 2017).
The Moral Foundations Theory, developed by social psychologists to assess the moral differences across cultures, draws upon anthropology and evolutionary biology to describe specific moral preferences (Ekins & Haicht, 2016) These preferences span six dimensions:
Care vs. harm
Fairness vs. cheating
Liberty vs. oppression
Loyalty vs. betrayal
Authority vs. subversion
Sanctity vs. degradation
The Moral Foundations Theory combines the last three dimensions, which tend to overlap significantly to form the foundation of strong conservatism. Loyalty manifests itself as strong patriotism and dedication to the flag, while sanctity refers to beliefs related to the sanctity of life and issues like abortion and same sex marriage. Authority refers to faith in the state and its institutions.
Proportionality is one conceptualization of fairness, a focus on merit that emphasizes rewarding effort and letting those who are undeserving fail.
The Moral Foundations Theory reveals that Trump supporters have the strongest preference for proportionality. The idea that Trump voters value merit and a share a harsh view of those who are not considered hard-working coincides with Hochschild’s description of the Deep Story - the reluctance to accept welfare, the disdain for those who do accept help, and the admiration of those who earn money and demonstrate ambition.
It also supports the Deep Story in that the conceptualization of fairness as proportionality differs from fairness as proportionality. While the Left favors fairness as equality, or the equal resources and treatment between different groups, the Right is less inclined towards social justice. The strong preference for proportionality coincides with the aggressive views of the “line cutters,” or out groups perceived as undeserving.
The Moral Foundations Theory shows that after proportionality, Trump supporters value the combined concept of loyalty, authority, and sanctity - or strong conservatism. In support of the theory of Trump voters’ inclination towards authoritarianism, the data shows preferences for moral order, strong leadership, and nationalism.
The evidence shows that Trump supporters also reported a weak preference in the dimension of care, or empathy for others and out groups. The article “Social Psychological Perspectives on Trump Supporters,” may offer an explanation, suggesting that Trump voters share a relatively low experience of intergroup contact (Pettigrew, 2017). Exposure to people from different groups lowers prejudice and increases empathy towards those outside one’s ingroup. Another explanation stems from the fear and anxiety that Trump’s rhetoric evokes; fear tends to bring out authoritarian personality characteristics and drive individuals further into their ingroup.
The Deep Story Revisited
The narratives of the blue collar workers and middle-class Americans in the United States and their unwavering support of Trump do not tell the entire story of election win. His support base is far more diverse, and includes those who come from far less humble origins, those who are not intimately familiar with the profound anxiety of the middle class American limbo. His base also includes, curiously, voters from the very groups that Trump deems outsiders.
In observing political trends and weighing moral implications, conclusions will never apply to entire groups, or recognize the complexity of personal motivations and circumstances.
Despite what the most loyal Trump supporters may say, the country is not improving under Trump. His promises never materialized and the social conflict under his leadership has worsened significantly. Despite his racist, sexist, and ableist rhetoric, however, what Trump represents spoke to the deep story of many Americans.
The Deep Story is compelling because it offers a lesson to the United States. The Deep Story is engaging to so many because it is novel, and the characters that populate the story unfamiliar. The deep divide between RightLand and LeftLand has become so prominent that realities have diverged, and many Americans are strangers to their own neighbors.
As the Left distances itself from the Right, and the Right retreats further into its own constructed borders, the United States has more than one crisis of “othering” to overcome.
“An Analysis of Trump Supporters Has Identified 5 Key Traits.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mind-in-the-machine/201712/analysis-trump-supporters-has-identified-5-key-traits.
Ekins, Emily, and Jonathan Haidt. “Donald Trump Supporters Think about Morality Differently than Other Voters. Here's How.” Vox, Vox, 5 Feb. 2016, www.vox.com/2016/2/5/10918164/donald-trump-morality.
Hochschild, Arlie Russell. “Special Report: I Spent 5 Years with Some of Trump's Biggest Fans. Here's What They Won't Tell You.” Mother Jones, 23 June 2017, www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/08/trump-white-blue-collar-supporters/
Pettigrew, Thomas F.. "Social Psychological Perspectives on Trump Supporters." Journal of Social and Political Psychology[Online], 5.1 (2017): 107-116. Web. 16 Apr. 2019
Saunders, George. “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 June 2017, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/07/11/george-saunders-goes-to-trump-rallies.