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Strangers in Their Own Land: The 'Deep Story' of Trump Supporters

Though Donald Trump's policies may not help his voters economically, sociologist Arlie Hochschild says he is speaking to them on a deeper level: meeting their emotional needs.
MICHAEL MATHES
/
AFP/Getty Images
Though Donald Trump's policies may not help his voters economically, sociologist Arlie Hochschild says he is speaking to them on a deeper level: meeting their emotional needs.

Researchers have long been confused by what seems like a paradox: many people in America vote against their economic self-interests. Whether it's the working class conservative who wants a tax cut for the wealthy, or a member of the liberal elite who fights for safety nets that raise his own taxes — we don't always act in the way that would help usthe most.

In her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land, sociologist Arlie Hochschild tackles this paradox. She says that while people might vote against their economic needs, they're actually voting to serve their emotional needs.

Hochschild says that both conservative and liberals have "deep stories" — about who they are, and what their values are. Deep stories don't need to be completely accurate, but they have to feel true. They're the stories we tell ourselves to capture our hopes, pride, disappointments, fears, and anxieties.

Hochschild spent years in Louisiana trying to understand the deep stories of conservative, white, heterosexual, working-class Americans. Their deep story focused on the American Dream: the idea that, if you work hard and play by the rules, you can have a better life. But what happens when that dream doesn't come true? When people see "line cutters" getting ahead while their own lives don't seem to be going anywhere?

According to Hochschild, Donald Trump was able to tap into these deep stories. He offered a narrative that confirmed how these people feel. His rhetoric gave them a way to talk openly about their deep stories — perhaps for the first time.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, and Renee Klahr. Our intern is Chloe Connelly, and our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.
Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor for NPR's Enterprise Storytelling unit, working across Embedded, Invisibilia,and Rough Translation.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Chloe Connellly