Q&A: Chris Arnade on his year embedded with Trump supporters

A group of Trump supporters and "Hardee's Breakfast Club" members in Prestonsburg

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 “The town feels disrupted,” Arnade says of his own hometown in Florida, where orange groves have been replaced by retirement communities.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?

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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.”

Related: His photos are striking and real. But is Chris Arnade a journalist?

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.

Related: Eight steps reporters should take before Trump assumes office

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.

 

Shirley_New_York.jpg

Trump voters Connie and Fiore Napolitano hang out at a roadside hot-dog stand off Montauk Highway in Shirley, New York. 

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.

 

Cleveland_supporter.jpg

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 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.

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Chava Gourarie is a freelance writer based in New York and a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @ChavaRisa