Empathy and the desire for vindication? On poor and working-class Trump support

Patrick Blanchfield, in a review of Arlie Hochschild's Strangers in their own Land:

What her subjects want, Hochschild repeatedly says, and what they apparently see in Trump, is an opportunity for “vindication.” But “vindication” means something more than just “recognition” or “being seen.” Etymologically, “vindication” derives from a word for vengeance, and, ultimately, the assertion of authority through force. In America, such appeals to emotional revanchism, even when nominally colorblind, have never been neutral, and have fueled centuries of both structural oppression and extrajudicial violence (as documented brilliantly in Carol Anderson’s magisterial White Rage).

"Vindication" strikes me as a particularly good word for thinking about some of the affective structures that are percolating, here. And I think what is vexing about vindication gets at why empathy is not really the right form of engagement even if I agree with Hochschild that a rich engagement with understanding the structures of feeling at work here is important. Or to put it another way, I wonder if the politics of empathy stop with Bill Clinton's "I feel your pain." (Tbh the hot-take alternatives to empathy like calling people out for supporting a racist are probably necessary in some cases but wildly insufficient, too, but that's another story.)

The post-election incidents that have caught my attention most in this regard have been about angry white people making a scene in public, getting into an altercation, and then saying, more or less, I voted for Trump! That's right! We won and you lost! Wanna fight? There have been at least two of these kinds of incidents widely reported in the media, one in an airplane, the other in a craft store. And we could probably read some of the school taunting incidents (where a mainly white group of students taunts a group of students of color with something like "Trump's gonna build the wall and send you back") in a similar light.

This is not the behavior of people who won something and now have hope that their lives will be better. This is a behavior of people who seek a salve of vindication for wounds that they know full well are never going to heal, who know full well that their lives are never going to be better. (Perhaps this is a kind of non-regional version of a politics that have circulated around aggrieved Southern US whiteness for a long time.)

Incidentally, this is why some of the arguments that Trump won't fulfill his promises, won't drain the swamp, won't stick up for the little guy, won't bring change, etc. ring a bit hollow with respect to the intended audience, I think. Trump is not the mirror-image of a social-democratic politician promising material reforms who will be judged, by his staunchest supporters, by the measuring stick of whether he delivers those reforms. He may lose some of his marginal supporters by failing to deliver, and people who cared about vindication may decide to stop caring about it and care about something else. But right now it's the performance of something other than business as usual that is mattering.

So I mostly disagree with the author's final sentence in this same paragraph: 'However unpleasant it may feel, acknowledging a desire for restored dignity on the part of marginalized whites is likely vital if the nation is to move forward – but the task of severing that demand from an all-too-proven history of racial and other persecution is an absolute moral imperative.' Tbh this sounds like a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ repackaging of empathy.

The alternative to all of this isn't repackaging an already existing set of liberal and social-democratic policies as "solutions" to a set of rational "grievances." The alternative is, I think, as Stuart Hall suggested in a series of writings about Thatcherism in the 80s, the articulation of an entire alternative politics, a way of viewing being in the world as people who are part of communities that, over a long period of time, creates a space for different kinds of political affects and visions, replaces pain for some who can forswear their own need for vindication with affects and real political possibilities that work in a very different register, say, for example, of solidarity.

What was exciting about the Sanders campaign was that it started to articulate such a politics, a politics that hasn't existed at the level of the national-popular in the US for a really long time. Sanders now seems to think, quite logically as an extension of that, exactly the thing I'm pretty sure is not going to work, that the answer to Trump is to repackage an already existing set of liberal and social-democratic policies as "solutions" to a set of rational "grievances." I hope that he's right and I'm wrong, but the fact that he's trying to do this now more than ever within the confines of the Democratic Party suggests to me that the best he will achieve is a muddle of neoliberalism and New Deal liberalism which might just muddle ahead of Trump's muddle in four years with, say, Warren as the candidate if Trump's presidency is enough of a muddle.

I'm not actually that interested in turning attention back to the electoral muddle right now. I suppose that even if the creative part of what came up in the Sanders campaign is totally spent and compromised, the kind of thing it represented (a left-wing, solidaristic, anti-racist, anti-neoliberal, populist, social-democratic form of politics) is still a wind that is blowing around the world. However, people speak of these forms of populism, far-right populism, perhaps center-right populism (I'm thinking here of the Five Star Movement in Italy, though I realize that is a rough categorization), and a new left-wing populism which has not managed yet to survive its own articulation as if they are just mirror images of each other. In my view they are not; they are entirely different; they come from different political instincts and feelings and modes of being political. I do think there is a space, now, for some kind of left-wing populism / democratic socialism that has not been part of the conversation in much of the advanced capitalist world -- certainly in the US -- for a very long time. But the articulation of such a politics, of its ways of being political, of answers to problems that could survive their own articulation rather than being instantly folded back into neoliberalism, is a project, it seems to me, that still lies mostly ahead of us. It is not at all a matter of saying to people who voted for Trump, "I feel your pain, but have you considered this instead?"

That said, I think the Sanders campaign shows that the articulation of a new politics is not all alchemy and fifteen-step plans and contradictions. (My own weakness is to get lost in these things.) It can be articulated frankly and openly and in ways that make sense to millions of people. Occupy did something similar in a different register. So did the immigrant rights movement. I would guess, based on a total hunch, that the next articulation of this in the US will probably be outside of the electoral sphere.


On treating "Trump supporters" as an undifferentiated group: the conversation around Hochschild's Strangers is relevant for thinking about rural or exurban, largely poor and working-class areas of the country ... and of course the particular regional or local experience may be even more specific than that. Hochschild's work was originally designed to look at Tea Party supporters, and it seems like people have assumed that it can be applied pretty straightforwardly to Trump support, even though other people seem to think that the Tea Party and Trump phenomena are completely distinct. I tend to agree with the approach that sees a lot of continuity, but it's worth noting.

That that group of people in many places probably includes some hard core right people (who aren't going anywhere, but might pipe down if the balance of forces was different) as well as some much softer supporters / people who have been hegemonized by that set of politics in the absence of other possibilities, some with serious commitment and some very casually. It's probably an article of faith on the left that some of these folks could respond to a solidaristic, left politics if you built it, though the evidence for that is mostly anecdotal. It seems unlikely to me that many of these people would be mobilized by a better neoliberal candidate, though maybe if we were looking at a similar demographic in a different region it might be a different story. (And as I think about it, who knows: the Biden/Bill Clinton answer was always to appeal through interpersonal charm, and that definitely worked for them, even though it makes me want to wretch.)

There's also the matter of what you think an end game would mean: electing a Democrat in 2020; building a left-populist/social-democratic mass political force; for subordinate social groups to become directive? I'm invested in the latter two, and not the first. Lots of other people involved in this conversation care a lot/only about the first or else think that the second might be nice, but it is so far beyond the realm of what's on the table as to be not worth thinking about.

Of course I will be an interested observer, nonetheless. And on that level I think we can see pretty clear anecdotal evidence that Hillary Clinton went after the moderate, cosmopolitan Republicans rather than the kinds of people who were excited by Sanders and that there's a battle over the direction of the Democratic Party now to some limited extent. I'm interested to see where that goes, but I don't really think there's a "hopeful" outcome of that inside-the-DP fight.