Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild on the Trump demographic: “Elite of the left behind”
Five months ago, supporters of Donald Trump attempted a coup to nullify the results of the 2020 presidential election, launching a lethal attack on the U.S. Capitol. Since then, the Republican Party has chosen to try to erase or rewrite the story of what happened that day, in order to conceal its culpability. Public opinion polls and other research show that the Republican Party’s war on the truth about Jan. 6 — and reality more generally — is working. A majority of Republicans actually believe that the election was “stolen”. A not insignificant number of Republicans also believe that the events of Jan. 6 either did not occur or were somehow crimes committed by antifa or Black Lives Matter activists as part of a plot to “discredit” Donald Trump.
In the months since Trump’s supporters attacked the Capitol, what have we learned about them? To this point, 510 people have been charged with crimes for their participation in the Capitol attack, and 130 of those have been charged with assaulting, or otherwise causing harm to police or employees at the Capitol. Out of those 130 defendants, 40 have been charged with using deadly or dangerous weapons or causing serious bodily harm. Several dozen of those who raided the Capitol that day have been charged with conspiracy, and three defendants have also been charged with terrorism.
At least 62 members of right-wing paramilitary organizations and street gangs were among Trump’s attack force on Jan. 6. Some of those present that day did in fact have serious plans to capture and kill Vice President Mike Pence and prominent Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Many of Trump’s foot soldiers believe that they are “patriots” who were following his direct commands to overthrow the results of the 2020 election and keep him in power. Dozens of active-duty and retired military and police also participated in the attack on the Capitol.
Right-wing propaganda media, the antisemitic QAnon conspiracy cult, and white right-wing churches and other extremist groups played an outsized role in radicalizing Trump’s supporters — which in turn led to the Capitol attack.
Trump’s attack force was not exclusively “working class.” It also included middle- and upper-class white people from all parts of the country — not just “red states” — who have been radicalized by racist fears of somehow being “replaced” by nonwhites.
Robert Pape, a political scientist and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, recently discussed the demographics of the Capitol assault in the Washington Post:
The charges have, so far, been generally in proportion to state and county populations as a whole. Only Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and Montana appear to have sent more protesters to D.C. suspected of crimes than their populations would suggest.
Nor were these insurrectionists typically from deep-red counties. Some 52 percent are from blue counties that Biden comfortably won. But by far the most interesting characteristic common to the insurrectionists’ backgrounds has to do with changes in their local demographics: Counties with the most significant declines in the non-Hispanic White population are the most likely to produce insurrectionists who now face charges.
In an article for the Atlantic, Pape provides further context:
[T]he demographic profile of the suspected Capitol rioters is different from that of past right-wing extremists. The average age of the arrestees we studied is 40. Two-thirds are 35 or older, and 40 percent are business owners or hold white-collar jobs. Unlike the stereotypical extremist, many of the alleged participants in the Capitol riot have a lot to lose. They work as CEOs, shop owners, doctors, lawyers, IT specialists, and accountants. Strikingly, court documents indicate that only 9 percent are unemployed. Of the earlier far-right-extremist suspects we studied, 61 percent were under 35, 25 percent were unemployed, and almost none worked in white-collar occupations.
In total, Trump’s loyalists who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6 represent a wide swath of American life. Those same people also collectively embody so much of what is broken in America.
One dominant narrative about the rise of Trumpism is that it reflects a type of “working class” revolt, in which the feeling (and the reality) of economic precarity made Trump’s fake populism seem like a viable solution to the country’s problems. But such claims often obscure as much as they reveal about the rise of American neofascism and Trump’s enduring power over his political cult members.
Research shows that the median household income of Trump’s voters is around $72,000 a year — significantly higher than the median household income in the United States as a whole. Other research shows that white supremacy, racial resentment and a desire to protect white privilege are the central or perhaps principal values and beliefs that motivate Trump’s followers.
Many members of the white upper class and rich voted for Donald Trump for reasons of personal financial self-interest (i.e., greed). Other Trumpists were attracted to his movement for ideological reasons such as a belief that America’s secular democracy should be replaced by a Christian fascist autocracy.
One of the main rebuttals against a simple claim that working-class angst and rage was the swamp that birthed Trumpism is the fact that Black and brown members of the working class (and poor) overwhelmingly rejected Trump in both 2016 and 2020.
In an attempt to better understand these complex relationships between race, class, Trumpism and the events of Jan. 6, I recently spoke with Arlie Russell Hochschild. She is a professor emerita of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of nine books, of which the most recent is “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.”
In this conversation, Hochschild explains how a group she describes as “the elite of the left behind” are Donald Trump’s real base of support. She discusses how Trump exploited feelings of shame, failure, entitlement and fear among the white working class to win them over to his fake populist movement. Hochschild also shares her thoughts on the Jan. 6 attack, which she sees not merely as an attempt to overthrow the results of the 2020 election but an attack on the idea of democracy itself.
Given the Age of Trump, his coup attempt and the Capitol attack, along with the myriad of other things he has wrought, how are you feeling?
I’m anxious. Was Jan. 6 a planned coup? Yes, I see it as definitely planned. But was it intended to kill people? I feel like it was a mixed event in that regard. Part of what happened that day was Donald Trump putting on a type of reality TV show. People were dressed in horns, for example. It was entertainment. The events of Jan. 6 were a type of assault — not just on people and property but on the very seriousness of democracy itself. So I had a double reaction. It was killing something, but what was it killing? It was killing a culture of faith in government and respect for civil servants.
You are absolutely right that there were mixed elements at work among Trump’s attackers. But they did have a core group of people who were screaming that they wanted to kill Mike Pence, senior Democrats and others they targeted as enemies. If Trump’s attack force had been successful and killed enough congresspeople, a quorum would have been impossible. I believe that was Trump and his co-conspirators’ plan, to create enough death and chaos to declare martial law. How did you make sense of the obvious rage shown by that mob?
The people who voted for Donald Trump did so for a variety of reasons. There were those who voted for him because of taxes or social issues, guns or being “pro-life.” Others because they liked Trump’s bravado. Some because they feel a generalized sense of decline. Some Trump people supported him because of racism. I think that the dominant group of Trump voters are people I would call “the elite of the left behind.” These are not the abject poor. However, they are not rich either.
They’re rural or small-town and white. They sense themselves as being part of a declining part of society. I believe such feelings are also global with right-wing populism, as seen in response to such issues as race and immigration. Fear and anger is displaced onto scapegoated groups.
But the group that’s doing such things here in the United States specifically are the “elite of the left behind.” Going back to 1970, there are winners and losers to globalization and the winners are generally coastal and more cosmopolitan and better educated. They can have jobs that are not as vulnerable to being automated or off-shored.
These losers from globalization consist of different kinds of people. But the people who are mobilized are the elites of that group. I remember going to a Trump rally in a bus. This was in New Orleans, with a member of the Tea Party who I had gotten to know and who I was following around for my research. On the bus, people were saying, “Oh! Look how many of us there are! We’re all for Trump!” Trump has mobilized them. He’s pulled them together. He’s gotten them to see each other.
And here is how I believe race is operative. The white Trump supporters I met actually see themselves as some type of minority group: “We’re being put down. We are being prejudiced against. They call us rednecks and hillbillies.”
The Age of Trump is a story of emotions. One of the main emotional beats is that Trumpism is a response to a declining sense of social capital on the part of his followers.
The folks that I got to know around Lake Charles, Louisiana, go to church once or twice a week and they know each other. They are the ones who stayed. Black people have left the community. The highly educated entrepreneurs and other change-makers have left too.
We see lots of rage on the television from these communities. But there are other emotions at play as well. We need to discuss shame. This is a group that is ashamed of itself. This is partly the fault of American Individualism. If you’re doing well, you take credit for it. If you’re failing, that’s your fault and you feel ashamed. That is connected to being part of the economy and community that is vulnerable to offshoring, which is part of a more general story of the American Rust Belt.
These people are not doing as well as their fathers, which is the classic male comparison to make in terms of the American Dream. They are supposed to be doing better than their parents did, but they are not.
In many ways the data shows that class differences cut deeper than they did 20 or 30 years ago. In 1970, if you had a B.A. or you did not, it didn’t make too much difference in terms of the likelihood that you’re married, that you’re staying married, that you’re living with the mother of your children, that you’re coaching basketball, that you’re going to church, and that you’re employed. Those things were pretty similar whether a person had a B.A. degree or not.
But now a B.A. degree has an entire biography attached to it in terms of what it means and represents. Now a person without a B.A. may have a narrative where they are living with their third partner. They lost custody of the kids. Their grandparents or parents are taking care of them.
Another version of this story sees you having a hard time kicking an addiction. You’re out of the labor force. You’re selling drugs. You’ve got a little bit of jail time. You’re ashamed. This isn’t a story just of deprivation or whining about deprivation; it is a story of loss and shame.
Many of these people I spoke to are feeling a sense of loss. They’re feeling shame because they are not doing as good as their father and grandfather and the era they harken back to. Donald Trump has brilliantly exploited such feelings and presented himself as an answer to that shame.
Here is how Trump accomplishes it. Trump does something outrageous. For example, he says, “Mexicans are rapists.” Then the press and punditry will say, “You can’t say that! It is outrageous!” The mainstream news media shames Trump and then he rages at the shamers.
I believe that there is something cathartic there for the “elite of the left behind,” a group that is right-leaning. It is about getting rid of shame, almost like going to confession at Catholic church. Trump’s followers love him for that. They are proud to “make America great again,” and that includes “Make you and your class and your race great again” as well.
The “elite of the left behind,” as you describe them are not poor people. As we know from research Trump’s supporters have a median household income of about $73,000 a year. These are not poor people. How and why do they believe they have been “left behind”?
Among the 47 percent of people who voted for Trump, some of them are just really rich and wanted to cut their taxes more. They want to get richer. But the people that I talked to, who I consider “the elite of the left behind,” are not rich. They’re not even upper middle class. These people are middle and lower middle class.
With these intersections of whiteness, class and social capital there is also a deep anxiety that somehow they will “slip down” America’s hierarchy and be equal with or perhaps (in their minds) below Black people.
I believe that is correct. They feel very similar to how they imagine poor Black people to be, and they are afraid of that: “Now it’s our turn. This is going to happen to us.” In one of the chapters of my book, I examined the position of poor whites as being wedged between rich whites and black people. They think the only way out is to identify up to the other white people. That is the psychology at work. It happened in the plantation South and it is still here in the 21st century.
What are your thoughts about the book “Hillbilly Elegy”? I have heard many people speak about your book “Strangers in Their Own Land” with “Hillbilly Elegy” literally in the same conversation. I found the praise for “Hillbilly Elegy” very much unwarranted.
I didn’t have that response to the book. I took “Hillbilly Elegy” to be a type of fairy tale. It’s a kind of a rags-to-riches narrative. It has the structure of “I was a born of an addict, which means I was born psychologically poor, I had one dad after another.” That means there was no steady male figure in the picture. That is the “rags” part of the narrative. Then the narrative becomes “I had a steady partner who was a Supreme Court law clerk, and I will be a better person than I came from.” At its heart, “Hillbilly Elegy” really is a psychological rags-to-riches story.
There remains so much superficial writing and other coverage of and about the so-called white working class in the mainstream news media, especially among the pundit class and political reporters. To your eyes, what did they get wrong?
They’re listening through a hardened shell. It takes emotional labor to disarm your deep moral and political alarm system and permit yourself a great deal of genuine curiosity about people who you see as some type of Other. That’s hard work to do. You have to do it purposefully. That’s what I think many people can’t do. If one feels like the person in front of you would attack you under normal circumstances, it is not a natural act to open up to them.