Very few cultural moments in our history sent such seismic shockwaves through the media and our institutions than the presidential victory of Donald Trump in 2016. Those blindsided in New York or Washington, D.C. simply did not have peripheral view necessary to see the wave bearing down on them.
But Chris Arnade saw it coming. The writer spent much of 2015 and 2016 talking to countless individuals throughout the country who haven’t traditionally been included in the cultural conversation — the “back row,” as he dubbed them. In his new book, “Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America,” Arnade explores this constituency through compelling photos and interviews. It isn’t a “here’s how we got Trump” book — it’s far more powerful, and essential. It is a tale of what the “back row” is, what they care about, and how they continue to be brutally underserved by the “front row.” And it should be required reading for all the Democrats currently vying to be their party's presidential nominee in November 2020.
It is a tale of what the “back row” is, what they care about, and how they continue to be brutally underserved by the “front row.”
Arnade was a “front row” member himself — he worked on Wall Street for years. But the disconnect he noticed during his travels has been reinforced recently by a book tour full of cable news interviews. “I liken it the NFL,” Arnade told me recently in a phone interview. “The green rooms of talk shows, Twitter — it’s like the Sunday morning NFL programs. They’re very involved in process, they spend time thinking about the candidates and issues as team-oriented. But politics is much more of a sport where fans decide who wins.” The broader themes are missing, he told me. Cable news is about dissecting every small scandal or errant tweet, but those issues aren’t actually compelling to the majority of Americans.
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What is compelling to the so-called back row are values like humility. And through that humility enter two important elements: faith, first and foremost, and place.
Let’s take the issue of faith first. Faith is incredibly important to the back row of America, across gender, race and even religion. Pew has found that, at its core, the poorer you are, the more likely you are to view religion as “very important.” The same differential occurs for how much one prays — if you’re in a household that makes more than $100,000, you’re nearly twice as likely to pray “seldom”or “never” then if you make less than $30,000.
Another Pew survey puts this faith gap into more context. Those who are religiously active are more likely to find people “generally trustworthy.” They are more likely to consider their community “an excellent place to live. ”And this comes at a time when membership in religious institutions is at an all-time low, largely thanks to the millennial, culture-forward, generation.
“You don’t have to get out of the Acela corridor, you just have to get off the Acela,” said Arnade, referencing the Amtrak route between New York and Washington D.C. “I understand the front row sees religion as very intolerant… but churches I went to were accepting of people, gave them in some cases literally a warm place to escape the cold.”
When faith does cross into the cultural ethos, it is often laughed at or even dismissed. Take Kanye West’s “Sunday Service,” an event that has drawn crowds of admirers and devotees. The media coverage has ranged from skeptical to outright disdainful. The New Yorker dismissed it as “album promotion” with a “vaguely cult-like vibe.”
The other major missing piece is place, or community. Arnade is particularly critical of the media, which he says is hopelessly out of touch and stuck in coastal bubbles. “I’m not blaming anybody,” he said. “Journalists do great jobs, they’re well-intentioned, but it’s really confined by the nature of the industry, which is driven by clicks, and which forces people to live in two areas.”
This disconnect manifests in several ways. “When pressed about why the United States is as segregated and unfair to minorities as it is, most of us blame the racism of others,” writes Arnade in “Dignity.” But in fact some of the "most progressive towns are often the most segregated,” he tells me, citing Milwaukee, New York City and Washington D.C.
But it’s not just a localized version of place that the front row is missing from our cultural conversation, it’s also the connection to America.
There is a certain alienation many Americans feel from the greater American dream that author Tim Carney recently wrote about in his book “Alienated America.” Carney’s book more directly relates the concept of place and community to the success of Trump. “These community institutions constitute the infrastructure that is necessary to support families,” writes Carney. “People enmeshed in strong communities rejected Trump in the early primaries while people alienated, abandoned, lacking social ties and community rushed to him immediately.”
But it’s not just a localized version of place that the front row is missing from our cultural conversation, it’s also the connection to America. Displays of patriotism are seen as increasingly negative. Deadspin recently described U.S. Open winner Gary Woodland’s star-spangled golf shoes as “MAGA-friendly spikes.”
In Arnade’s book, he tells the story of Mexican Americans in Lexington, Nebraska. “I love America,” he says one Mexican-American woman told him. “It is about opportunity. I don’t think people would risk their lives in a desert or swimming across a river if they didn’t feel this country provided opportunity for them.”
These are not endorsements of Trump or Trumpism — far from it.
Arnade, who says he is a Democrat, says he didn’t want Trump to win but was essentially chased off Twitter for predicting it. “Before it happened I was called crazy, and after I was called responsible,” he notes.
This is about something bigger than politics — it’s about the connections we make and maintain and value as Americans. Arnade concludes with several suggestions for how we can find ways to close our cultural gaps. A lot of this, predictably, has to do with listening to each other. We need to listen more and judge less, he writes. It’s a simple yet lofty goal. But faith, place, community and country should connect us, not divide us. The diversity that makes us different can also bring us together, even when we disagree.