Donald Trump in the Bayou
This essay has been adapted from Arlie Hochschild’s new book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (The New Press), which will be published on September 6th.
Sometimes you have to go a long, long way to discover truths that are distinctly close to home. Over the last five years, I’ve done just that — left my home in iconically liberal Berkeley, California, and traveled to the bayous of Tea Party Louisiana to find another America that, as Donald Trump’s presidential bid has made all too clear, couldn’t be closer to home for us all. From those travels, let me offer a kind of real-life parable about a man I came to admire who sums up many of the contradictions of our distinctly Trumpian world.
So come along with me now, as I turn right on Gumbo Street, left on Jambalaya, pass Sauce Piquant Lane, and scattering a cluster of feral cats, park on Crawfish Street, opposite a yellow wooden home by the edge of waters issuing into Bayou Corne, Louisiana. The street is deserted, lawns are high, and branches of Satsuma and grapefruit trees hang low with unpicked fruit. Walking toward me along his driveway is Mike Schaff, a tall, powerfully built, balding man in an orange-and-red striped T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. He’s wearing tan-rimmed glasses and giving a friendly wave.
“Sorry about the grass,” he says as we head inside. “I haven’t kept things up.” On the dining room table, he has set out coffee, cream, sugar, and a jar of homegrown peaches for me to take when I leave. Around the edges of the living and dining rooms are half-filled cardboard packing boxes. The living room carpet is rolled into a corner, revealing a thin, jagged crack across the floor. Mike opens the door of the kitchen to go into his garage. “My gas monitor is here,” he explains. “The company drilled a hole in my garage to see if I had gas under it, and I do; twenty percent higher than normal. I get up nights to check it.” As we sit down to coffee at the small dining room table, Mike says, “It’ll be seven months this Monday and the last five have been the longest in my life.”
After the disaster struck in August 2012, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal issued an emergency evacuation order to all 350 residents of Bayou Corne — a community of homes facing a canal that flows into an exquisite bayou (a river through wetlands) with white egrets, ibis, and spoonbills soaring across the water. When I visited in March 2013, Mike was still living in his ruined home.
“I was just starting life with my new wife, but with the methane gas emissions all around us now, it’s not safe. So my wife has moved back to Alexandria, a hundred and eighteen miles north, and commutes to her job from there. I see her on weekends. The grandkids don’t come either, because what if someone lit a match? The house could blow up. I’m still here to guard the place against a break-in and to keep the other stayers company,” he says, adding after a long pause, “Actually, I don’t want to leave.”
I had come to visit Mike Schaff because he seemed to embody an increasingly visible paradox that had brought me to this heartland of the American right. What would happen, I wondered, if a man who saw “big government” as the main enemy of local community, who felt a visceral dislike of government regulations and celebrated the free market, was suddenly faced with the ruin of his community at the hands of a private company? What if, beyond any doubt, that loss could have been prevented by government regulation?
Because in August 2012, exactly that catastrophe did indeed occur to Mike and his neighbors.
Like many of his conservative white Cajun Catholic neighbors, Mike was a strong Republican and an enthusiastic supporter of the Tea Party. He wanted to strip the federal government to the bone. In his ideal world, the Departments of Interior, Education, Health and Human Services, Social Security, and much of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would be gone; as for federal money to the states, much of that, too. The federal government provides 44% of Louisiana’s state budget — $2,400 per person per year — partly for hurricane relief, which Mike welcomes, but partly for Medicaid and, as he explained, “Most recipients could work if they wanted to and honestly, they’d be better off.”
Louisiana is a classic red state. In 2016, it’s ranked the poorest in the nation and the worst as well in education, health, and the overall welfare of its people. It also has the second highest male incidence of cancer and is one of the country’s most polluted states. But voters like Mike have twice elected Governor Bobby Jindal who, during his eight years in office, steadfastly refused Medicaid expansion, cut funding for higher education by 44%, and laid off staff in environmental protection. Since 1976, Louisiana has voted Republican in seven out of ten presidential elections and, according to a May 2016 poll, its residents favor Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by 52% to 36%.
Mike was an intelligent, college-educated man with a sense of stewardship over the land and the waters he loved. Given the ominous crack in his floor and the gas monitor in his garage, could he, I wondered, finally welcome government as a source of help? And had the disaster he faced altered his views of the presidential candidates?
“Alka Seltzer” in the Rain Puddles
The first sign that something was wrong had been a tiny cluster of bubbles on the surface of Bayou Corne’s waters, and then another. Had a gas pipe traversing the bottom of the bayou sprung a leak? A man from the local gas company came out to check and declared the pipes fine. At the time, Mike recalls, “We smelled oil, strong.”
Soon after, he and his neighbors were startled when the earth began to shake. “I was walking in the house when I felt like I was either having a stroke or drunk, ten seconds,” Mike recalls. “My balance went all to hell.”
It was then that he noticed that crack in his living room floor and heard a sound like a thunderclap. A single mother of two living in a mobile home a mile from Bayou Corne thought her washing machine was on, and then remembered it had been broken for months. Lawns started to sag and tilt. Not far from Mike’s home, the earth under the bayou started to tear open, and, as if someone had pulled the plug in a bathtub, the bayou began sucking down brush, water, and pine.Your support matters…
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