[Note for TomDispatch Readers: We've got a special offer today (and a scheduling notice as well). The remarkable sociologist Arlie Hochschild, whose books have helped change our world, has just spent years climbing what she calls "the empathy wall" in rural Louisiana; years, that is, hanging out with and studying Tea Party members. The result is her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, which will be published early in September. It's a fascinating journey deep inside a world most TomDispatch readers might otherwise find alien indeed. For a contribution of $100 (or $125 if you live outside the United States), you can be the first on your block to have a signed, personalized copy of her book! Just check out our donation page for the details.
As always at the end of August, TD is shutting down through Labor Day. Next post: Tuesday, September 6th. Tom]
You might not care to admit it, but there's a little bit of Donald Trump in all of us. Yes, his curiously insinuating, allusive, and always inflammatory comments -- from his invocation of gun owners as the force to deal with a Hillary Clinton presidential victory to his dubbing of "Barack Hussein Obama" as the "founder" of ISIS -- are regularly dangerous, remarkably ignorant, and often quite crackpot; yes, he plans to defend the working man by cutting taxes on the ultra-wealthy; yes, he's left just about every group that ever depended on him holding the bag; yes, we've never quite seen such an unfiltered narcissist on the public stage (with the thinnest skin in human history); yes, he's "unfit" to hold much of anything, no less the presidency; yes, his reported comments on nuclear weapons and their possible uses should make your hair stand on end. But come on, admit it: sometimes, just sometimes, he says something and you go: Oh yeah, right. And maybe it's just a little too often for comfort.
I know that I, for instance, experience this whenever he points to Hillary Clinton's role in the disastrous U.S. intervention in Libya. ("We came, we saw, he died," was the way she summed up that particular triumph, speaking of the death of the autocrat Muammar Qaddafi before his whole country fell to pieces and looted weaponry from his arsenal was shipped to terror groups from the Sinai Peninsula to Nigeria.) I feel it when, responding to 50 Republican national security types who, in an open letter, denounced Trump as potentially "the most reckless president in American history," he said that "these insiders -- along with Hillary Clinton -- are the owners of the disastrous decisions to invade Iraq, allow Americans to die in Benghazi, and they are the ones who allowed the rise of ISIS." You might, it's true, argue with parts of that formulation, but the crew that signed that letter are indeed a rogue's gallery when it comes to Washington's disastrous wars and national security policies of the post-9/11 era. I even feel a hint of it in his comments on Obama's role in the creation of ISIS. Yes, that claim is genuinely off-the-wall. In withdrawing American troops from Iraq in 2011, Obama was simply following through on an agreement already negotiated by the Bush administration. But it's also true that George W. Bush & Co. in particular did have a major hand in creating the conditions for ISIS's predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq to establish itself and flourish, and that the U.S. military essentially introduced just about the complete leadership of the Islamic State, including its "caliph," Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to each other in one of its notorious Iraqi prisons.
In other words, The Donald has rich material to draw upon when it comes to what's distasteful these days in American life and in the country's militarized global reach. I mention this only to put you in the mood for the remarkable journey you'll be taking at TomDispatch today: a piece adapted from Arlie Hochschild's riveting, soon-to-be-published new book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. It transports you directly into a world where Trump rings far truer, far oftener than in ours, a world where, as John Feffer has recently written, there is a yearning for "simpler solutions... a fundamentalist message that appeals to British nationalists, Trumpian exceptionalists, and Islamic State reactionaries alike." It's important to get inside this mindset if you really want to understand the contradictions that now power our increasingly strange American world. Tom
Donald Trump in the Bayou
The Tea Party, a Sinkhole in Louisiana, and the Contradictions of American Political Life
By Arlie Russell Hochschild
[This essay has been adapted from Arlie Hochschild's new book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (The New Press), which will be published on September 6th.]
Sometimes you have to go a long, long way to discover truths that are distinctly close to home. Over the last five years, I've done just that -- left my home in iconically liberal Berkeley, California, and traveled to the bayous of Tea Party Louisiana to find another America that, as Donald Trump's presidential bid has made all too clear, couldn't be closer to home for us all. From those travels, let me offer a kind of real-life parable about a man I came to admire who sums up many of the contradictions of our distinctly Trumpian world.
So come along with me now, as I turn right on Gumbo Street, left on Jambalaya, pass Sauce Piquant Lane, and scattering a cluster of feral cats, park on Crawfish Street, opposite a yellow wooden home by the edge of waters issuing into Bayou Corne, Louisiana. The street is deserted, lawns are high, and branches of Satsuma and grapefruit trees hang low with unpicked fruit. Walking toward me along his driveway is Mike Schaff, a tall, powerfully built, balding man in an orange-and-red striped T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. He's wearing tan-rimmed glasses and giving a friendly wave.
"Sorry about the grass," he says as we head inside. "I haven't kept things up." On the dining room table, he has set out coffee, cream, sugar, and a jar of homegrown peaches for me to take when I leave. Around the edges of the living and dining rooms are half-filled cardboard packing boxes. The living room carpet is rolled into a corner, revealing a thin, jagged crack across the floor. Mike opens the door of the kitchen to go into his garage. "My gas monitor is here," he explains. "The company drilled a hole in my garage to see if I had gas under it, and I do; twenty percent higher than normal. I get up nights to check it." As we sit down to coffee at the small dining room table, Mike says, "It'll be seven months this Monday and the last five have been the longest in my life."
After the disaster struck in August 2012, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal issued an emergency evacuation order to all 350 residents of Bayou Corne -- a community of homes facing a canal that flows into an exquisite bayou (a river through wetlands) with white egrets, ibis, and spoonbills soaring across the water. When I visited in March 2013, Mike was still living in his ruined home.
"I was just starting life with my new wife, but with the methane gas emissions all around us now, it's not safe. So my wife has moved back to Alexandria, a hundred and eighteen miles north, and commutes to her job from there. I see her on weekends. The grandkids don't come either, because what if someone lit a match? The house could blow up. I'm still here to guard the place against a break-in and to keep the other stayers company," he says, adding after a long pause, "Actually, I don't want to leave."
I had come to visit Mike Schaff because he seemed to embody an increasingly visible paradox that had brought me to this heartland of the American right. What would happen, I wondered, if a man who saw "big government" as the main enemy of local community, who felt a visceral dislike of government regulations and celebrated the free market, was suddenly faced with the ruin of his community at the hands of a private company? What if, beyond any doubt, that loss could have been prevented by government regulation?
Because in August 2012, exactly that catastrophe did indeed occur to Mike and his neighbors.
Like many of his conservative white Cajun Catholic neighbors, Mike was a strong Republican and an enthusiastic supporter of the Tea Party. He wanted to strip the federal government to the bone. In his ideal world, the Departments of Interior, Education, Health and Human Services, Social Security, and much of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would be gone; as for federal money to the states, much of that, too. The federal government provides 44% of Louisiana's state budget -- $2,400 per person per year -- partly for hurricane relief, which Mike welcomes, but partly for Medicaid and, as he explained, "Most recipients could work if they wanted to and honestly, they'd be better off."