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In ‘Dignity,’ Chris Arnade Offers an Empathetic but Ultimately Confused Study of Trump’s America

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With the rise of President Donald Trump, we have seen a deluge of what might be termed “Real America Reporting,” whereby journalists seek out supposedly typical middle-American voters—generally white, generally rural, often eating in diners—in order to conduct sympathetic interviews and glean political insights. Claire Galofaro at the Associated Press went into Kentucky in 2017 and reported that “In the Heart of Trump County, His Base’s Faith Is Unshaken.” Terrence McCoy at the Washington Post encouraged readers to empathize with the plight of white factory workers in Pennsylvania who feel angry and alienated because most of their co-workers speak Spanish. Salena Zito has become famous for Trumpian man-on-the-street interviews, from which she has concluded that the president is a righteous populist hero. (Zito’s anecdotes are almost uniformly so convenient and poorly sourced that she’s been credibly accused of serially fabricating quotes.)

Of all the Real America Reporters, writer and photojournalist Chris Arnade is easily the most thoughtful, the most dedicated, and the least taken in by Trumpian talking points. His new book, Dignity: Seeing Respect in Back Row America, which includes generous galleries of his photos, is a careful, quiet, admirable effort to understand and chronicle the lives of people living in de-industrialized and impoverished communities across the country.

Arnade’s thoroughness, and his respect for his subjects, stand as a rebuke to reporters like Zito, who casually pull into a gas station or diner for quotes and then drive on. But for all its virtues, Dignity still ends up, almost despite itself, reaffirming the preconceptions and some of the reactionary analysis of Real America reporting. Arnade demonstrates the virtues of journalism based on empathy and personal commitment. But he also shows that these virtues alone are insufficient when they’re not supported by a broader historical and political analysis.

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