The rise of former U.S. President Donald Trump spawned a veritable cottage industry of books purported to offer confused Trump opponents insight into what his supporters were thinking. The New York Times lists as examples George Packer’s The Unwinding, Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal, John B. Judis’ The Populist Explosion, and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash. I would also add books like Katherine J. Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment and Timothy Carney’s Alienated America.
Two of these books — Strangers in Their Own Land and The Politics of Resentment — are especially complementary. They both study how two groups that would ultimately give Trump their full-throated support thought about politics and society. Hochschild spoke with Tea Party supporters in Southwestern Louisiana, while Cramer spent years criss-crossing the Badger State countryside to talk with rural Wisconsinites. Their findings about these related, but distinct groups, mirrored each other in many ways. Both groups felt misunderstood, looked down upon, and, indeed, resentful. These findings sum up to a decent approximation of the worldview of many Trump supporters.
However, both of these studies were published in 2016 and the American right has evolved since then. Today the emotions expressed in those studies — distrust, ignominy, and resentment — call to mind no one more than Fox News host Tucker Carlson. A recent New York Times series paints a portrait of Carlson’s background, rise, editorial policies, and, most of all, the worldview that he sells on his show. Is this worldview, where “they,” the “ruling class,” are out to belittle, shame, and exploit “you,” something entirely different from the worldviews Hochschild and Cramer observed, or is it just an evolution?
A close examination of Hochschild and Cramer’s studies, as well as Carlson’s rhetoric, suggests the latter. To illustrate this, consider a 2021 segment from his show ridiculing Brown University. The school’s undergraduates had just passed an (entirely non-binding) referendum calling for reparations for the descendants of “enslaved Africans harmed by the University.” This is nominally the “news” that Carlson reports on, but the segment quickly turns into a free-wheeling diatribe about queer dance, bongs, and Lagos, Nigeria.
First of all, this rant is incredibly and obviously racialized. Its premise is anger at reparations for slavery, something Carlson dismisses as “banned by constitutional amendment in Rhode Island almost one hundred and eighty years ago.” It somehow ends with hypothetically replacing Brown’s student body with Nigerians, dismaying the current student body and therefore demonstrating their alleged racism. Racial resentment is clearly important to understanding Carlson’s worldview. While Cramer handles race facilely, Hochschild’s work is still insightful in this context. The “deep story” she identifies for her subjects, the story of how the world feels to them, is one of waiting dutifully in line as groups cut in front of them, largely thanks to unfair and identity-based handouts. This is exactly what Carlson invokes when he bemoans reparations as an injustice, as simply “giving people things because of how they look.”
However, concluding this analysis by simply pointing out the obvious influence of anti-Black racism is not enough. Many of Carlson’s targets in this broadside can hardly be waved away as racist dog whistles. “[Q]ueer dance scholars,” “slope-shouldered film studies majors driving back to their parents in Westchester,” and least of all Susan Sarandon and Danny DeVito’s daughters are almost certainly not coded as Black in the popular consciousness. Yet Carlson treats them vituperatively as well.
Here he draws on many of the tropes of Cramer’s politics of resentment, tropes which are supported by Hochschild’s observations in Southwestern Louisiana. Carlson’s targets are absolutely city folk; rural Wisconsin surely faces a dearth of queer dance scholars and Westchester is a powerful — and given the county’s Jewish population possibly antisemitic — symbol of urban wealth. And sure enough, these characters display many of the tropes that Cramer and Hochschild’s subjects see in city folk or liberal outsiders. Cramer notes that “[o]ne key value that rural residents emphasized as they contrasted their communities with city life was the value of hard work” and for many of Hochschild’s subjects “hard work confers honor” (emphasis original). Carlson’s characters, however, “have some free time” and “become quote-filmmakers but never make films, much less anything else.” These phrases paint Carlson’s targets as spoiled and lazy, unlike the diligent and hard-working people Hochschild and Cramer’s subjects see themselves as.
Moreover, Carlson assures his audience that they need not heed the “painful” — in the words of one of Cramer’s subjects — view that they are uneducated hicks. The students of Brown, this so-called elite college, are clearly not that bright. At least this is what he suggests with ironic comments like, “If you lack an Ivy League education, you may be wondering what queer dance is.” The real idiots for Carlson are none other than the most educated, while his audience has invaluable common-sense smarts.
There is one aspect of the mindset described by Cramer and Hochschild that mostly escapes Carlson’s show: economic concerns. In this clip Carlson does once echo Hochschild’s Louisianans’ feeling that government regulation falls lightest on the most powerful. He observes that “[u]nlike you, Brown is not paying taxes on [its investment income],” but that’s it. Admittedly, this was just one four-minute clip, but even in the New York Times’ exhaustive review of his show, culture and emotions predominate economics and material concerns.
Still, we can see in Tucker Carlson’s rhetoric a worldview being built on top of the mindsets identified by Hochschild and Cramer. Economic concerns may often be sidelined, but the antagonism towards what are seen as identity-based special favors; the disdain towards indolent city folk, especially on the coasts; the bristling at perceived condescension — they all persist. And those things are all sharpened to a point: that the “ruling class” is just a bunch of hypocrites and nothing more. They care about equity but wouldn’t move “thirty thousand ambitious young Nigerians to Brown University’s campus tomorrow.” They think they are meritorious but they don’t work hard. They claim to be smart but they somehow think ridiculous subjects are worth studying. They want to tax you but their schools don’t pay taxes. That’s how Carlson wants his audience to see it, at least.
Even in a democratic system elites inevitably set agendas, run for office, and make a lot of decisions. At least a modicum of faith in those elites is necessary to maintain the legitimacy of the system. What Tucker Carlson does in his show is exploit existing — and in cases justified — grievances to wash that modicum of faith away.