Hochschild’s “Strangers in Their Own Land,” Trumpism, and Mimetic Theory, Part 2

In Part 1, the authoritarian, ‘Strong Man’ assault on reason and truth was posed as a crisis of our age that urges a depth of analysis that anthropology provides. Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land was offered as a sociological study that helps bridge the way to anthropology. In Part 2, in fact, we will soon see that Hochschild herself reaches a point of anthropological analysis. She begins with the personal stories of people in Lake Charles, LA, and moves to their “deep stories” of being made to feel like strangers in their own land, especially by northern white elites. And that brings us to Trumpism, the phenomenon of Donald Trump’s attempts at a Strong Man presidency.

And so into the 150-year history of southern resentment of northern elites stepped Donald J. Trump, promising that they would no longer feel like strangers in their own land (Ch. 15). Hochschild writes:

All this was part of the “deep story.” In that story, strangers step ahead of you in line, making you anxious, resentful, and afraid. A president [Obama] allies with the line cutters, making you feel distrustful, betrayed. A person ahead of you in line insults you as an ignorant redneck, making you feel humiliated and mad. Economically, culturally, demographically, politically, you are suddenly a stranger in your own land. The whole context of Louisiana — its companies, its government, its church and media — reinforces that deep story. So this — the deep story — was in place before the match was struck. (222) …

[Trump’s] supporters have been in mourning for a lost way of life. Many have become discouraged, others depressed. They yearn to feel pride but instead have felt shame. Their land no longer feels their own. Joined together with others like themselves, they now feel hopeful, joyous, elated. The man who expressed amazement, arms upheld — “to be in the presence of such a man!” — seemed in a state of rapture. As if magically lifted, they are no longer strangers in their own land. (225)

Girard - The ScapegoatAnd this is precisely the moment that Hochschild herself goes to an anthropological depth, citing Emile Durkheim — and if one happens to check the endnotes (page 307), an added citation to René Girard, The Scapegoat! She writes about Trumpism as if herself a Mimetic Theorist:

“Collective effervescence,” as the French sociologist Emile Durkheim called it in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, is a state of emotional excitation felt by those who join with others they take to be fellow members of a moral or biological tribe. They gather to affirm their unity and, united, they feel secure and respected. While Durkheim was studying religions rites among indigenous tribes in Australia and elsewhere, much of what he observed could be applied to the [Trump] rally at the Lakefront Airport, as well as many others like it. People gather around what Durkheim calls a “totem” — a symbol such as a cross or a flag. Leaders associate themselves with the totem and charismatic leaders can become totems themselves. The function of the totem is to unify worshippers. Seen through Durkheim’s eyes, the real function of the excited gathering around Donald Trump is to unify all the white, evangelical enthusiasts who fear that those “cutting ahead in line” are about to become a terrible, strange, new America. The source of the awe and excitement isn’t simply Trump himself; it is the unity of the great crowd of strangers gathered around him. If the rally itself could speak, it would say, “We are a majority!” Added to that is a potent promise — to be lifted up from bitterness, despair, depression. The “movement,” as Trump has increasingly called his campaign, acts as a great antidepressant. Like other leaders promising rescue, Trump evokes a moral consciousness. But what he gives participants, emotionally speaking, is an ecstatic high. …

One way of reinforcing this “high” of a united brother- and sisterhood of believers is to revile and expel members of out groups. In his speeches, Trump has spoken of “something within Islam which hates Christians,” and of his intention to ban all Muslims from entering the country. He has spoken of expelling all undocumented people of Mexican origin. And only reluctantly and in truculent tones (“I repudiate, okay?”) did he repudiate the notorious Louisiana KKK grand wizard, David Duke, thus signaling blacks as members of an out group. In nearly every rally, Trump points out a protestor, sometimes demonizing them and calling for their expulsion. (One protestor was even falsely depicted by his campaign as a member of ISIS.) Such scapegoating reinforces the joyous unity of the gathering. The act of casting out the “bad one” helps fans unite in a shared sense of being the “good ones,” the majority, no longer strangers in their own land. (225-26)

In short the Reality TV star, whose genre features a weekly expulsion, has found a way to tap into the same culture of resentment of the millions who watch such shows, and to integrate it into the real-life venue of national politics. Should we count this as an amazing feat? Or simply the inevitable outcome of a culture that is reverting back to a more primitive tribalism such that it consumes expulsion of the Other as entertainment?

I believe that we won’t begin to find answers, much less solutions, to our crisis (surely, a “mimetic crisis”), unless we reach the anthropological depth of understanding revealed in the anthropology of the Christian revelation — especially as brought into the modern scientific framework via René Girard’s Mimetic Theory.

First of all, MT makes it clear that rationality is not the core of being human; mimetic desire is. Hochschild seems to offer emotions as more central to being human, which is closer to the truth than reason. But neuroscience is also helping to paint the portrait of healthy human beings achieving an integration of reasoning and emoting toward intentions that are shared with other human beings (intention being the more scientific word for desire). Shared intentions. Mimetic desire. Our brains themselves appear to be constructed for such healthy integration, not simply as individual brains but as minds linked together into a social network by mirror neurons. (See, for example, the work of Daniel Siegle, who names his findings as the “Neurobiology of We.” There is also growing literature on the connection between mimetic desire and mirror neurons; see Mimesis and Science: Empirical Research on Imitation and the Mimetic Theory of Culture and Religion, ed. by Scott Garrels.)

But to fully make the connection to the Christian revelation, let us choose a text which Girard wrote about early on (The Scapegoat, ch. 14, “Satan Divided Against Himself”), a sort of mini-anthropology that happens to also include a Strong Man:

When Jesus’ family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin….” (Mark 3:21-29)

Jesus indicates that binding the Strong Man cannot begin without correctly understanding the parabolic truth of “Satan casting out Satan.” The so-called Strong Man of today — Nietzsche’s Übermensch, Ayn Rand’s warmed-over version of Nietzschean philosophy popularized in the Tea Party version of the Überindividualist pursuing ‘objectivist’ rational self-interest, and arguably not too far off from Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom (whose version of capitalism Friedman and his Chicago economists actually implemented in the aftermath of Strong Man Pinochet’s 1973 military coup in Chilé) — all these manifestations of Strong Man philosophy continue to base attempts at iron-fisted Rule by getting the crowds to go along with fear of the Other, convincing them that they are on the side of the gods in casting out the satanic evil-doers.

Hope of binding the Strong Man, on the other hand, continues to begin with Jesus’ anthropological insight that such casting out of other human beings is never on the side of the true God who created the entire human household. Casting out the perceived satanic one(s) is actually satanic work itself. It is ‘Satan casting out Satan,’ not the gods casting out evildoers. It is the age-old structuring element of human anthropology which results in the continual divisions within the human household. It is as old as ancient tribalism.

And how can one begin to plunder that Strong Man’s house? Through the Holy Spirit of forgiveness (Mark 3:28-29). Through acceptance of each person — even the Strong Man himself — as a child in the Creator God’s household. A binding of the Strong Man’s violence, then, can only come through nonviolent engagement of the ‘Satan casting out Satan’-dynamic of human cultures. Jesus himself begins this movement on the Cross, letting himself be cast out as a satanic blasphemer against both Yahweh and Caesar, the Son of the gods.

Surrounding this passage are snippets about true family. Jesus’ own family perceive him as “out of his mind.” The follow-up to his parabolic anthropology is this response to news that his family is outside asking for him: “And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mark 3:34-35). Shared intentions. God-aligned mimetic desire.

How does one achieve such shared intentions with God? A life of prayer. On the night of his being handed over into the machinery of Satan casting out Satan, Jesus prays in the garden, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36). He teaches all disciples to pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:9-10).

And Jesus also stresses the role of forgiveness in prayer: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12). Or, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25). Such forgiveness-centered prayer is the key to undoing the line-place-keeping “deep story” that was apparently common in Jesus day, too. Because when Jesus teaches his disciples about true discipleship, he consistently says things like, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Mark 10:31). Or, “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45). And a saying accompanied by a prophetic action:

He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:35-37)

By placing a child in their midst, Jesus has turned our most common human “deep story” metaphor from line-place-keeping into a circle of friendship. Forgiveness is a willingness to give up one’s place in line for one who is more vulnerable. Forgiveness is not an allowing of the Strong Man to take a place at the head of the line, at the expense of the vulnerable. Such behavior is precisely what Jesus came to prophetically confront and expose. But neither is it a violent intervention. It is a nonviolent engagement that challenges our human castings out as satanic, offering inclusion into God’s family, where the most vulnerable have center-stage.

As I did in a blog earlier this year, I bring things back to our American context and give the last word to Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II:

A nonviolent struggle has two possible ends: winning the opposition as friends or giving up the battle. Though our coalition included the full spectrum of North Carolina’s diversity, we had come to recognize a common vision for our future in the history of the South’s antiracist freedom movement. Our relationships with one another were not simply transactional — a means to achieve our various organization’s goals. They had become transformational, lifting each of us to a new understanding of our interconnectedness as human beings and living members of one family. None of us would be free until all of us were free. (The Third Reconstruction, pp. 94-95)

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