Chris Arnade Visits Trump’s America: Part One

Since deploring Trump’s victory at the polls, has anyone bothered to talk to the other side of America that voted for him, tried to find out who these people are, what their goals and aspirations are? One man, at least, has, the photographer Chris Arnade (see previous blog Forgotten America Then and Now). We feel that this is a most important bit of reporting and we are therefore reproducing this article from the Columbia Journalism Review in its entirety. Because of its length, we will be posting it in two parts. Here is Part One:

trump_america_photos-2A group of Trump supporters and “Hardee’s Breakfast Club” members in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, put the politics talk on hold to pose for Chris Arnade.

By Chava Gourarie for CJR (Columbia Journalism Review)

CHRIS ARNADE HAS LIVED IN TRUMP COUNTRY for much of the last year, sleeping in motels in Midwestern factory towns, talking up old factory hands at restaurants, sharing laments about how the country has gone to shit.

The 100,000-mile journey put Arnade—an independent journalist, former Wall Street trader, and a fan of Bernie Sanders—in the position of being less blindsided than most by Trump’s presidential win. His reporting, published in The Guardian, added more nuance to the prototypical Trump supporter profile—the frustrated, high-school educated, white, small-town, rural American voter.

What emerges from Arnade’s boots-on-the-ground reporting is an honest look at brewing hate and anxiety while avoiding the think-piece pitfall that treats Trump voters like an anthropological curiosity. It shows communities facing not only economic ruin, but social ruin; not just loss of jobs, but loss of dignity. “The town feels disrupted,” Arnade says of his own hometown in Florida, where orange groves have been replaced by retirement communities. “It feels like there’s no heart anymore.”

CJR first spoke with Arnade in June about his travels. We caught up with him this week after the election to help us break down what the media missed about the Trump voter, and where we go from here. The following has been edited for clarity and length.

Since the election, the media has engaged in some self-flagellating over a failure to accurately forecast the outcome, but also of everything we’ve been missing over the last year. Do you think things would have been different with more reporters on the ground?

Ultimately, there were people doing that, but it felt very much like parachute journalism. I think people went in with an expectation of what they would find, and they found it. That’s reflective of the fact that they come in from a bubble.

The [national] newspapers used to read the wires, read the local papers. If there was a story that was breaking in Alabama, they knew it because they would read all the Alabama papers. The regional papers were the feeder that gave the bigger papers a sense of what was going on, and those papers aren’t there anymore.

So there’s this real bubble mentality that the media is in, and it was reflected in the coverage. There was no long-term commitment. [The national reporters] went in with no context, almost like anthropologists going on an expedition.

It crept up on people this year, but it’s been out there for years, the sense of a town feeling frustrated and left behind; the loss of town centers; the loss of mills; the loss of factories; the loss of jobs. There just hasn’t been continued reporting on what impact that has had on these communities.

The profiles of the white working class that are being done now should have been done five years ago. Why weren’t they done five years ago?

Prestonsburg_Kentucky.jpg

Paul, who posed for a photo outside a Dollar Tree in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, told Arnade of his Confederate flag: “I’m proud of Southern heritage. I’m proud of hunting and fishing.”

A big blind spot has been this tendency to call anyone who voted or supported Trump a racist. Is it that people are simply putting themselves first, rather than actually hating minorities and women? Is there a better way to be addressing this tension?

Is a larger segment of Trump voters more viscerally and aggressively racist than the average public? Yeah. But is it the main driving force behind Trumpism? No.

Is it part of his appeal? Yes, very much so. But again, I maintain, if you have a group of white people who are feeling frustrated and humiliated, they are going to be a very easy targets for racial-identity politics.

It’s kind of a scam to give them meaning, cheap meaning. Trump has been selling scams all his life. This is no different.

What’s one place that you’ve been that represents the phenomenon of the left-behind white working-class voter?

I’ll tell you about Prestonsburg in Floyd County, Kentucky. It’s 3,500 people, all white, a coal industry town and hasn’t had a good run economically in the last 15 years, since coal has tumbled. The town center, which used to be dominated by local businesses in the seventies and eighties is now basically addiction clinics, and the community center is at the Walmart plaza, or McDonald’s, or at the churches.

There’s a real strong sense of community, but the entire community is feeling humiliated. The whole town feels like it’s suffering, and with the economic decline has come a large increase in the things that follow: addiction, breakup of families. The place feels very hurt.

And in comes Trump with a message of restoring pride—partly through white identity—that resonates there, because from Prestonsburg, Kentucky, America does not seem great.

I feel bad for the people—broadly, the poor, frustrated whites—who voted for him because he’s not going to deliver what they think he’s going to deliver.

My questions to you thus far have been about how the media has reported on this segment of the population, but they’re same American public that the newspapers are supposed to be writing to, not just writing about. Have you seen, or can you see, any way for the media to speak to and for these communities?

If I walk up to a group of Trump supporters and I’m carrying The New York Times or the Washington Post—it’s just not going to be considered, it just isn’t valid. There are certain media names that have been so tarnished—I can’t tell you why—tarnished by talk radio, tarnished by Fox, tarnished by politicians for so long.

It probably doesn’t help that those same papers run editorials and opinions that are pretty harsh towards the people that are in these communities. These [newspapers] are places that supported free trade, supported social agendas like gay marriage that aren’t necessarily popular in these places, so you know, the editorial side hasn’t really done anything to help these papers gain credibility in these towns.

How bad is the information divide, and the misinformation that’s being spread?

It’s gotten further than just a divide; it’s two separate realities now. There are two separate narratives of how things happen. In red states or red communities that voted for Trump, they digest Fox and conservative talk radio… There’s plenty of misinformation too, and you just can’t argue with it.

Was there ever a Trump supporter you spoke to who changed their mind about him because of something he said or did?

Nobody. Nobody. It was amazing. There was nobody who said I’m out, I’m done, he did blank and I’m over. Nobody. In fact I remember going to a crowd of Trump voters the day after the video was released—the “grab the pussy” one—and they were laughing about it, like “Oh you know, that guy!”

And then I remember speaking to a woman a day later in my hometown, Dade City, Florida, and she’s like, “Oh men, you’ve got to learn how to fight them off. They’re crazy. That’s men!”

I didn’t know what to say to that.

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