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

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 hide caption

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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.

MICHAEL MATHES/AFP/Getty Images

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 us the 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.