With this blog we continue reporting photographer Chris Arnade’s interviews with the other side of America:
By Chava Gourarie for the Columbia Journalism Review
What are some variations on the generic definition we’re giving to the white working class Trump voter? Can you complicate the one-size-fits-all definition?
Trump overperformed in communities that were suffering from the decline in industry, in factory jobs, but the people who voted for him were not necessarily directly impacted.
So if you’re in a county that has lost a lot of jobs to a factory, and you’re a doctor or a lawyer, you’re still probably going to vote for Trump. It’s very community based; if your community in aggregate has been hurt economically and socially, everybody, rich or poor—if you’re white—is gonna vote for Trump.
Did anyone you met defy the stereotype of the white working-class Trump supporter?
One of the things that I wished I had focused more on is the number of white working class men who I would have pegged for a Trump guy—you look at them and they got all the signals—you’re a tired old man in a trucker’s cap, you’ve got your cigarettes, sitting there at the McDonald’s table, drinking your coffee, looking angry. I’m gonna peg you for a Trump guy—there’s one in particular, I’ll never forget, an absolute fan of Bernie Sanders. He called him Old Man Sanders. “I love my old-man Sanders. He talks sense!”
I met many of them throughout my trip in the same places; Ohio, West Virginia, so yeah that’s where I was kind of blown away.
As a writer, how have you navigated being able to understand people’s anger but not justify it? Or try to get other people their anger without justifying the accompanying hatred and racism?
My pet peeve these days is giving context to everything; trying my best to allow the reader to see the ugliness, but at the same time understand the context for which it might come out of. It’s not a justification per se of that ugliness, just hopefully a way to help people understand what’s the best way to solve it.
It’s one thing to call out racism; it should be done. But it’s not clear to me that just calling it out is going to do anything to solve it.
I wonder if you think we need to differentiate between the coverage of Trump, and the coverage of Trump supporters. Trump was and is pretty outrageous, and reporters weren’t necessarily wrong to cover him that way. But did we apply that to the voters too much?
I do think the coverage of the supporters was too late, and when it was done it was biased, and eventually it got there. But it went through an ugly period.
I went to the GOP convention in Cleveland. There were 2,000 people from the media in Cleveland that week, and I didn’t see any of them. Because I spent my time in the neighborhoods. I split my time between a poor black neighborhood, Central, which was only two miles from where the convention was—you could see the helicopters; the other was a poor, working class white neighborhood called Parma, and I wanted to see.
I was talking to voters, not voters who had come down to demonstrate. I was talking to people who were just hanging out in bars and hanging out in McDonald’s. There was too much focus on the machine of politics and not enough on the voters.
This man in Cleveland who gave his name as Jo Jo said he was a strong Trump supporter.
A recurring theme in your work, and a common denominator among the places you visit, seems to boil down to anger. Can you elaborate on where that’s coming from?
I think the bigger word is humiliation, and how that humiliation ends up getting rendered is different from place to place. But at it’s core it’s about frustration, humiliation, and anomie, which is basically meaninglessness, feeling like not having a place, drifting.
How that is expressed is very different based on where you are, and it’s very different based on race. If you’re feeling a sense of meaninglessness and frustration and you’re a black kid in Milwaukee you express it very differently than if you’re a white kid across the park. Also if you’re male or female, and that’s where our racism and sexism come into the dialogue.
I don’t think people understood the full anger out there, and when they did they didn’t want to believe it, so the reporting [that] came back was very anthropological—look at these crazy people and their anger.
What was your feeling on election night, having seen so many different sides of this and having met so many people?
I wasn’t surprised when he was elected. Did I expect it? No. Was I surprised? No. I kept saying before the election that I don’t know if Donald Trump is going to win this time, but a Trump character will win eventually.
I feel really bad for minorities. I feel awful for them, for the minority communities I spent time in, for places like Milwaukee, Buffalo, Selma, and the Bronx. That was my first reaction.
And 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.
What gives you hope?
That I personally know that a lot of people who voted for Trump are decent people who I don’t think would let some of the nightmare scenarios happen. I just don’t see the people I know who voted for him being able to let the world go down that path.
This concludes the series on Chris Arnade’s interviews