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The Enduring Power and Danger of the ‘Deep Story’

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The Enduring Power and Danger of the ‘Deep Story’    

By Max Stephenson Jr

The Institute’s Community Change Collaborative (CCC) consists of an interdisciplinary group of graduate students and faculty from multiple colleges at Virginia Tech who share an interest in examining the dynamics of economic and social change. That common focus has led to work with several small communities located in Appalachia that have been devastated by the ongoing decline of the coal and tobacco industries in the region.[1] These towns have taken up the challenge of finding new paths forward as they confront ongoing population decreases, youth flight and a difficult opioid crisis. Such trials have been exacerbated by the fact that many of these communities’ citizens have chosen to believe President Donald Trump’s assertion that the coal industry will return at his behest. These citizens also believe that national government policies and, especially, its support of specific minorities, have occasioned the crisis in their way of life, rather than a range of plausible other factors, including growing global demand for less expensive natural gas and, increasingly, solar and wind energy.

Trump’s supporters in Appalachia are not unique in accepting this narrative as a way to make sense of their situations. Arlie Hochschild has argued on the basis of an intensive six-year engagement with 60 Louisiana Tea Party members that those citizens have unquestioningly accepted a story concerning the difficult economic and social changes that have beset their beloved bayou community in recent decades. These shifts, they contended, were the result of the federal government in the guise particularly of the Democratic Party and of individuals they labeled “line-cutters”: women, minorities, immigrants, and refugees receiving special attention from that government. Hochschild found that the individuals she came to know clung to this view, even when it did not fit their lived experience.[2]

These claims constituted the principal elements of what Hochschild has labeled the “deep story” that fueled the Louisianans’ individual and collective rage and their anxiety about the manifest difficulties besetting their community and state. As Hochschild put it, “A deep story [or] a feels-as-if story - it’s the story that feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel.”[3]  This felt narrative suggested to her interviewees that their way of life was being undermined by national sympathy for people they considered social parasites who were receiving public support and President Barack Obama’s backing, even as the Tea Party members’ own way of life was threatened. Hochschild’s interviewees saw themselves continuing to stand in an economic line in which they perceived they never moved forward. Hochschild found, too, that this story, while widely accepted by those whom she came to know well, was not rooted in reality, nor was it coherent. Instead, it had been adopted as a way for these individuals to make sense of a complex set of changes that had beset them and their communities whose causal contours seemed opaque to them at best.

Another sociologist, Robert Wuthnow, recently came to a similar conclusion in his multi-year study involving hundreds of residents of rural communities across the United States.[4] Like Hochschild, he found that the individuals with whom he spoke felt that their way of life was under threat and that concern had led to moral outrage that had to be targeted somewhere if the question of who was to blame for such cataclysmic change was to be answered:

The moral outrage of rural America is a mixture of fear and anger. The fear is that small town ways of life are disappearing. The anger is that they are under siege. The outrage cannot be understood apart from the loyalties that rural Americans feel toward their communities. It stems from the fact that the social expectations, relationships, and obligations that constitute the moral communities they take for granted and in which they live year by year are being fundamentally fractured.[5]

Like their counterparts in Louisiana, these residents had adopted the narrative that the national government, understood narrowly as the Democratic Party, had allowed certain minority groups special advantages and those populations were undermining these citizens’ way of life. This argument closely tracked Hochschild’s finding that the individuals she followed believed that a “natural hierarchy” in their communities had been disrupted in recent decades and along with it, their shared way of life and of knowing the world:

Along with blacks and immigrants, women were also ‘line cutters,’ although in men’s minds, women tended to divide into separate mental categories, daughters, … wives or partners, … and potential rivals at work. … So, race, class, national identity, religion, region, views of gender and sexual orientation¾all these joined to reinforce a sense that outside of Louisiana, too, a precious way of life, like the nation itself, was being left behind.[6]

CCC members also have encountered this narrative, or deep story, in their work in small Appalachian communities. These findings are critical to understanding how many GOP partisans view events and why as the nation has fallen into a deepening governance crisis concerning possible impeachment of President Trump in recent days. The immediate precipitating event for the present concern about the president is the revelation in a whistleblower’s complaint that he sought to manipulate United States foreign policy for personal political gain. He did so by seeking to persuade the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, in a July telephone call to launch an investigation into former Vice President Joseph Biden’s dealings with that nation, and those of his son, Hunter, while alleging that those ties were corrupt. Trump had no evidence for his assertion of corruption and his apparent decision to solicit the assistance of a foreign leader in an upcoming U.S. election (Biden is a potential rival) clearly broke the law. More, the President implicated his personal attorney Rudolph Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr in his request for this “favor,” as he termed it, of Zelensky.[7] Meanwhile the Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Legal Counsel, obliged by statute to share the whistleblower’s complaint with Congress, did not do so and Barr has refused to recuse himself from this matter as it is investigated by the legislature, raising profound concerns about corruption within the DOJ. The episode took on increased urgency when Trump released a rough version of the transcript of the Zelensky call whose contents revealed that the whistleblower had also alleged that some White House staff members had sought to cover up the incident.

All of this is of moment because these events precipitated additional outrage among House Democrats and their supporters, many of whom were already convinced that Trump had committed several other impeachable offenses during his tenure in office. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had resisted previous calls for an impeachment inquiry, however, largely on political grounds, believing the GOP controlled Senate, which has accepted or ignored Trump’s lies and disregard for the law to date on partisan grounds, would never convict, whatever the evidence against the President. The Zelensky revelation however, convinced her to launch an inquiry formally into whether Trump should be impeached on the basis of his behavior in this case.

While these are the facts, it must be emphasized that it remains unclear whether any Trump violation(s) of law might prove sufficient to persuade Republican Senators and the president’s most fervent supporters, from whom those legislators take their cue, that he should be removed from office. The lion’s share of Republican voters has remained stalwart in support of Trump on the basis of the deep story that Hochschild, Wuthnow and the CCC have all encountered in their research and work.

Similarly, the conservative media has staunchly supported the president in the Ukraine matter. Here, for example, is how Michael Savage, a conservative talk radio host and Trump supporter, described the impeachment inquiry, “It’s not about Trump is it? It’s about us. It’s about our love for America. It’s about our love for our own borders, language and culture.”[8] Savage also said on September 25, “[Trump] is already in the hay wagon on the way to the guillotine because of the fascist vermin in the media.”[9] Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh, another conservative talk radio host and Trump supporter, offered the following concerning the President’s solicitation of the support of a foreign leader in investigating a possible opponent by alleging, without evidence, that “Joe Biden may be the most corrupt politician in Washington bar none.”[10]

Savage appealed to the deep story when he did not address directly the allegations against Trump for allegedly misusing his office and abusing the public trust, choosing instead to seek to persuade his listeners that any allegation concerning the president must be considered not only as partisan, if not fascist, but as an attack against them and against their way of life and values more generally by “vermin.”  For his part, Limbaugh, for the same reasons, suggested without foundation that Biden, a figure who might displace Trump and who is linked to the Obama administration, must be wholly corrupt.

This all points to the power of the deep story for millions of citizens in many American communities, including a large majority across Appalachia. To date, Trump has been able to call on the status and economic anxiety that has fueled that narrative among many GOP partisans as a bulwark against all criticisms of his attacks on the rule of law, freedom of the press and of speech and on the human and civil rights of refugees and immigrants as well as members of other minority groups. Whether that will continue in the present case of his purported abuse of his elective office remains to be seen. But it seems clear that any result other than the predicted outcome of Senate acquittal on a party-line vote should impeachment occur will hinge on whether GOP voters come to view the President’s actions objectively, rather than via the lens of the deep story. If those citizens continue to believe the President and GOP represent their means to protest change and to stymie it, irrespective of whether that view bears any relationship to reality, they may well countenance Trump’s behavior in this episode. If not, the nation may yet turn the corner and begin to move toward a politics of deliberative possibility in lieu of its current politics of hate mongering, division and lies. As we have found in our CCC work, the same question now hangs in the balance across the Appalachian region as well.

Notes

[1] Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance, “The Community Change Collaborative,” https://communitychange.info/, Accessed September 27, 2019.

[2] Hochschild, Arlie Russell. Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, New York: The New Press, 2018. 

[3] Hochschild, Strangers in their Own Land, p.135.

[4] Wuthnow, Robert. The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.

[5] Wuthnow, The Left Behind, p. 6.

[6] Hochschild, Strangers in their Own Land, pp. 258-259

[7] Goldberg, Michelle. “Just how Corrupt is Bill Barr?” The New York Times, September 26, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/09/26/opinion/trump-william-barr.html  Accessed September 26, 2019. 

[8] Peters, Jeremy W. “‘Everything You’re Seeing Is Deception’: How Right-Wing Media Talks About Impeachment, ” The New York Times, September 27, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/26/us/politics/impeachment-conservatives-republicans.html   Accessed September 27, 2019.

[9] Peters, “‘Everything You’re Seeing Is Deception,’” September 27, 2019.

[10] Peters, “‘Everything You’re Seeing Is Deception,’” September 27, 2019. 

Publication Date

October 15, 2019

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