One day, Chris Arnade strolled into an area of New York City he rarely ventured into: the Bronx. That day began a journey, spent in McDonalds and churches, in drug dens and places where the homeless congregate, for the Wall Street trader. In his new book, “Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America,”Arnade highlights the America too many of our elites would rather ignore. He joins the podcast to share what he learned about politics (and why he correctly predicted Donald Trump would win in 2016), religion, addiction, and much more.
Read the interview, posted below, or listen on the podcast here:
We also cover these stories:
- There were 144,000 migrants apprehended at the U.S. – Mexico border in May.
- A teacher who is transitioning from male to female made a video he showed to his elementary school students to explain his new persona.
- YouTube is tightening its censorship.
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Katrina Trinko: Joining us today is Chris Arnade. He is the author of the new book, “Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America.”
Chris, let’s start with how you came to write this book, where you travel all over America and talk to people across the country. You were a Wall Street trader in New York City for 20 years, so what made you start caring about the lives of Americans not living on Wall Street?
Chris Arnade: I guess I would say, what started making me care again. I did come from a small town. I grew up in a small town in Florida, but what a lot of the book is about is what I ended up doing, is basically leaving my town very quickly and getting a Ph.D. and going to Wall Street.
That is very similar for a lot of people I ended up being around and, on Wall Street, people who have left their home. I call us “the front row,” people who went off and kind of moved away from our town and got an elite education.
But what prompted me to go back, in some ways, in a simple word, was a financial crisis. If you had asked me before the financial crisis, I would have told you what we did on Wall Street, was what I felt was benign.
But after the crisis, I felt basically it was no longer benign. What I was doing was not necessarily benign. It was harmful. I was frustrated that us bankers seemed to not change our views on the world after what happened.
But really what I wanted to do, in some ways, was I had realized over the course of falling five years after the financial crisis, that for most of my life, I’d been sitting in front of computer screens looking at numbers flashing, and making decisions based on that without really knowing the consequences of those decisions.
Not the human consequences–I knew kind of what the numbers would say–but not the human consequences. And I had always walked a lot, up to 20 miles, these long walks to reduce stress. And the walks started taking on more of a tenor of just wanting to talk to people, people I met along those walks.
And where I walked to kind of changed.
It started going to neighborhoods people told me not to go, what I would now called stigmatized neighborhoods. Neighborhoods that might lead statistics in highest in crime or highest in poverty or highest in drug use.
And it was in those neighborhoods I started being drawn into more and more, and where I started to see necessarily the consequences of kind of my actions on Wall Street, but also kind of how, what I call us front row people, myself included, had really lost touch with both maybe where we came from or with the vast majority of people in the United States.
Trinko: And how did people–you mentioned going to a Bronx neighborhood in New York. How did people respond to you when you started walking there? Did you stick out like a sore thumb?
Arnade: To be blunt, I was the only white person. So, I did, but I was treated well wherever I went. Over the course of five years, I stuck out like a sore thumb in many, many places, many different situations. But I was always greeted well.
I went into drug dens, I went into crack houses, I went underneath bridges where homeless people live. As I got deeper and deeper into it, it wasn’t just the neighborhood I walked in, it was kind of where I went in the neighborhood.
And during that period, over the course of those years doing that, nobody ever threatened me, nobody ever stole from me.
There might be some people who thought I was a cop, and I would have to kind of use some tactics, like say, “If the police are putting a white guy under cover in this neighborhood, they’re not that dumb.” But using humor to deflect the obvious.
But there was other things I would do. I would just simply … I really believe that if you treat people with respect and trust, they’ll do the opposite to you. And so I felt-
Trinko: You mean the same, I assume?
Arnade: Yes. Sorry.
Trinko: I was like, whoa, that’s a really dark view of human nature. OK.
Arnade: No, they would treat you the same way, you know?
And so one of the things I would do to gain trust, to show people I trust them if I felt that somebody wasn’t necessarily sure of my motives, like if it’s 1:00 in the morning in a crack house and I have a camera which is worth like $,3000, and I would hand it to them and say, “Excuse me, I’ve got to go back to my car and get something. Just hold this for me.”
Just to show them that I trust them. And then I’d come back and the camera was always there. Nobody ever stole from me.
Trinko: So one thing I wanted to talk to you about is you bring up McDonald’s constantly in your book. Why did you go to so many McDonald’s, and why did it become such a pivotal part of this journey you went on?
Arnade: Because the people I ended up spending a lot of time with initially were the homeless addicts. That’s really where the walks took me. It took me to the Bronx, it took me to south Bronx, and that’s where for the three years I spent time dealing with homeless addicts.
And in a neighborhood that has had a lot of problems, been stigmatized, I think the poverty rate in the neighborhood is 60%, 50%–I went there because the people I was talking to went there. And they went there because it was one of the few functional institutions.
It was one of the few functional institutions that worked, but also kind of let people go into it on their own terms. There weren’t a ton of rules.
You go into a public library, which are wonderful places, but there’s all these rules about you have to follow. You go into nonprofits, which are also wonderfully well-intentioned, but there’s all these rules you have to follow.
People don’t necessarily want to go into a nonprofit and be told they have to eat a certain way. They want to eat the way they want to eat, man.
And the thing about McDonald’s is it’s just, it’s nonjudgmental in that sense. It’s a space that allows people, especially people on the extreme margins, to rejoin society on their terms and maintain a little bit of dignity. To sit there and just be part of society again.
It might mean you go into the McDonald’s and grab a newspaper out of the trash can and a soda cup so that you can look like you belong, but whatever, you know? Once you do that, you fit in. You just interact with people.
And then as I took this project away from the Bronx and started driving across the country, I saw that this wasn’t true just of the McDonald’s in the Bronx, it was true of the McDonald’s in so many different communities, especially communities that had been really decimated or stigmatized.
McDonald’s served as effectively what I called ad hoc community center. You would have these old men groups who got together, or old women groups as well. It wasn’t just older [people] who get together every day and have meetings and hang out.
I saw Bingo names at McDonald’s, I saw church groups, Bible studies. I saw people playing chess, people playing poker, all sorts of things. It became in many ways a community center.
Trinko: That’s fascinating. I have never seen a Bingo game at McDonald’s. But I would love to see that.
Arnade: Actually, it’s not far from this studio in an African-American neighborhood, I spent some time in a McDonald’s there, where people come together to play chess.
Trinko: OK, you need to tell me the one after we’re done. So you also mentioned that you went to a lot of neighborhood churches across the country. What did you see there and what experiences stuck with you?
Arnade: I think it’s important to say that when I started this project I was an atheist, and a very adamant one. Not a yelly one, but one who was very firm in my beliefs. And I would say I started going to churches for the same reason I was in McDonald’s; the people I was talking to were going to churches.
And I wasn’t such an adamant atheist that I’m so close-minded to say, wait, this is working, this is working for people. Just like McDonald’s, sometimes the only functional institution in these neighborhoods were the churches.
I also felt that if I was going to learn, so to speak, from the people I was hanging out with, I had to do the full experience. They’re going to church on Wednesday and Sunday? I’m going to church on Wednesday and Sunday.
And it made me rethink a lot about the role of faith, certainly my own personal view on it, but also my broader view on how faith operates and what the role of faith is in society in a much more positive way.
I can’t say I’m a particularly religious individual now, but I certainly respect the value of religion, and it’s even more than that. I think that it’s not just that I don’t respect it just as a utilitarian thing, I mean it’s good, it’s useful. But I think it’s actually, as I write in the book, religion is as true as anything can be true.
So it’s wrong for me to say, just as a scientist, you know, that’s a dumb thing. I look back at how I viewed religion, I feel really bad.
Trinko: But when you were talking to people, and you said they went every Sunday and every Wednesday, why did you sense that it was so important to them? What kept them coming back do you think?
Arnade: A lot of it is, and a theme that runs in my book is, it’s community. I think the classic scientific role is community and regulation.
All these experiences I had in different churches–I’m trying to choose which one to talk about because there were so many of them. It was just how important and how meaningful it was, especially because I was hanging out with people who were addicted often.
And there, in that community, I had walked in assuming everybody, if you’re an addict and the world’s been really cruel to you, you can’t believe this stuff. I looked up and was like, how can they believe this? The world’s kicking them in the gut.
But actually it’s one of the most religious groups of people I know. It may not be traditional religion. Some of it’s superstition, but there’s a real core sense of faith there, and it really, for them, for many people it’s the only path out.
The community that religion provides, the stability is often the only way out of addiction.
But it’s also, I think, when you’re living that far down, that stigmatized, I think it’s much easier to understand that we’re all sinners and that we’re all fallen. And kind of the ego and the arrogance of atheism just kind of strikes you as kind of being exactly that, the arrogance that somehow you have it all figured out.
Trinko: Yeah, that’s really interesting. There’s a book from the 1940s, “Brideshead Revisited,” that ends with–spoiler alert–a pivotal character essentially being a drunk who lives at a monastery and keeps crawling back.
And it’s always struck me as one of the most interesting depictions of faith, because you really sense that this character gets it because of what he’s gone through and what he is going through. He can’t seem to master this addiction. But in a weird way, it’s made him more spiritual.
But throughout your book, you talked about going to crack dens, etc., like the role of drugs. And of course we talk about that a lot with the role of opioids in America.
Why do you think people are falling into addiction? How are they coexisting with it? What does that seem like?
Arnade: I’m kind of in the minority camp in terms of people who look at addiction. I see it as entirely about demand, not supply. There’s a need there.
Drugs are popular because drugs work. They work in two ways.
One is they kind of numb the pain. A lot of what I write about in the book, certainly in the Bronx, a lot of people who are lifetime addicts who are on the streets, have suffered intense trauma through their childhood, and this is a way to kind of cope with that trauma, kind of numb it.
But trauma isn’t just about [the] physical necessarily, it’s about the trauma of being stigmatized. And I think a lot of these communities I go to, one of the things I write about is, if you kind of grew up in a small town or a less big city, or kind of a neighborhood that’s been stigmatized as poor or minority or crime-ridden or backwards, people look down on you.
People mock you, and you know it.
People in the big cities, the elites, they kind of look at your religion as backwards. They look at your maybe staying in the hometown as kind of provincial. They look at your dedication to family as also kind of backwards and kind of provincial. And I think that stigma hurts.
And I think in that sense, drugs kind of placates some of the pain, an escape. But also, one of the things I talk about in the book is, I think a lot of people don’t understand well, is when you walk into a drug den, it’s a community. It’s a bit like a bar. It’s their version of a bar. Everybody knows your name.
Trinko: They’re not completely dissimilar.
Arnade: You know? So, I get a lot of pushback, and I’m careful about saying that because I don’t want to encourage people to use drugs. They’re reckless and nothing good comes from them. But there is a community there.
And especially for people who are on the margins who’ve always feel rejected, it’s their people. They can walk into a drug house and there are people like them there, people who don’t necessarily judge them, people who don’t mock them.
As long as they take the drugs, they’re all good, they’re all the same.
One of the things I say in the book is everybody kind of wants to feel part of something larger, a valued member of something larger than themselves.
And so many of those things that used to play that role are kind of being eroded. I think a lot of people are searching for what that is to replace that.
In some cases, it’s the church. That’s what provides them kind of a sense of membership, and a valued membership in something greater than themselves. Sometimes it’s the local community, but that’s what’s fallen apart many times. Maybe it was a labor union, that’s fallen apart.
But in some senses, the drug den provides them that. It gives them a community.
Trinko: So did you meet anyone who was able to become sober? And if so–I mean, you’ve now in a weird way almost made a compelling case for drug addiction–why would they be able to turn away from that?
Arnade: Well that’s the problem, right? That’s why I say drug addiction is such a problematic thing, because it’s not easy to escape.
Again, I’m hanging out with very hardcore users. I’ve seen a few successes on the margins, but it’s not people close to me. The people I got very close to, the only way out for them has either been death or in jail. Or, you know, hopefully church.
Trinko: Well, on another really fun topic, racism. You talked to a lot of people across the country, you mentioned some African Americans you interviewed in your book. How is racism playing a role in today’s America?
Trinko: I know, we’re just hitting all the upbeat [topics].
Arnade: First of all, one of the things that struck me, is within the black community–and almost half my book is set in minority communities–there’s a feeling among especially the elder members that things haven’t necessarily gotten better. They’ve gotten different, but they haven’t gotten better.
And so as part of my book is set in Selma, and one of the things that I kind of explore is the idea that we celebrate Selma for these great victories, civil right victories, but here on the ground, the lived reality of Selma is bad. And certainly residents there don’t necessarily feel things have gotten all that much better.
I think someone said racism is just dressed up differently now. I don’t want to be, as a white person, making broad statements about the way the black community feels, but the people I interviewed, there was an undercurrent of I’d say about half that things haven’t gotten a whole lot–I mean, they’ve changed, they’re a little bit better–but it seems like only symbolic victories.
I think one of the things that worries me is, in my book, I talk about this lack of meaning. If you’re not an elite, it’s harder and harder to have something that’s meaningful to you, because everything we value these days is economic, and everything we value these days tends to require credentials–get the right resume, go to the right school.
And for people who don’t have the ability to do that, because that’s very hard to do, or don’t necessarily want to do that because that’s not what their strength is, there is these other, you know, what I call non credential forms of meaning that are appealing.
Faith is one of those. It doesn’t require credentials. You just walk into a church and it’s accepted as long as you play by the rules. You don’t need to go away to go to school necessarily to be a good member of the church.
Place is another one. You’re born into a place. You’re gifted that place as part of your legacy, and you can make that very valuable to you.
Another one is race. And I fear that it can be very appealing, especially to the majority, to identify through race. I worry that kind of white identity politics, as you call it, or as people call it, or kind of white racism, can be appealing to people.
I don’t want to have that taken out of context, you know, it’s an awful thing, but I worry that it can draw people in who are otherwise trying to find a way to find meaning.
I say in the book that identity–meaning through identity–is one of the few unique freedoms we provide minorities. As a member of a black [community], you can celebrate racial identity, and I believe you should be able to. I think that’s positive.
But we don’t allow that to whites. And I understand why we don’t do that in society, because it’s gone very bad places in the past–very, very bad places. I worry that that stigma, even though a stigmatized people would be drawn to it, because in many ways it’s a very easy way to feel you’re a member of something, a valued member of something.
Trinko: Right. And I think that’s why it’s so important to give people a way to feel a member of something in a different way than race.
Arnade: Right. Again, I say that very carefully, because the topic these days is so touchy. I differ from liberals. I’m a liberal. I differ from liberals in the sense that I think that racism isn’t this static thing that just is always there. It ebbs and flows.
And if you want it to diminish, you have to figure out what you need to do to diminish it. And I think you have to provide other alternatives.
Trinko: Well, we certainly appreciate you as a liberal coming on The Daily Signal.
Arnade: I was about to say, am I the only one to have come here?
Trinko: No, we’ve had a couple.
Trinko: One of the few, though. Well, speaking of politics, President Trump’s election has unleashed a whole lot of coverage about forgotten Americans, what’s really going on in the country, etc.
How did your experience reporting and talking to these people across the country–did it inform how you think about how the U.S. is going politically, or no?
Arnade: Very much so. I mean, I kind of got this book partially because I got notoriety within the left for predicting Trump’s victory. And I predicted it as I was out there talking to people.
And I thought I was giving them a warning, you know? As a leftist, I’m like, hey, this isn’t good for us, you know? But the reason I saw it coming is because I was talking to people.
And again, politics wasn’t my primary thing. It’s still not my primary thing. My primary thing was addiction and poverty.
But the places I went, the white communities I went, Trump was resonating like you wouldn’t believe, and it really was frustrating because here I was on the ground, and I’d go onto Twitter or look at social media or look at CNN or whatever, MSNBC, and they had no clue.
They didn’t understand that this guy was popular. And they didn’t understand the reasons he was popular. And for me, the reasons he was popular was pretty clear, which was, it’s the stigmatized form of meaning.
I jokingly say about my party, the Democrats, is that we go into these communities and say, “Your job’s obsolete, your lifestyle is icky, you should move, now vote for me.”
Or they go into these communities and say, “Your job’s obsolete, and then here’s 500 pages of proposals of what I’m going to do about that.” And people’s eyes glaze over.
But you know, I went in these communities [as] kind of that person. And after about the 15th time, 20th time of sitting in McDonald’s, and someone literally pointing to an empty field and saying, “That’s where a factory used to be.” It’s gone now, what’s replaced it?
Or pointing to a lot surrounded by barbed razor wire, or an empty building surrounded by barbed razor wires. That’s gone. What are you going to do about that? And Trump was the first person that went in there and said, “I hear you.” Everybody else went in there and said, “Well actually, you know, it’s complicated.”
It wasn’t complicated. Their communities were falling apart.
Trinko: Yeah, and it’s interesting. You say the Democrats didn’t hear you, well I think, frankly as we’ve seen in Trump’s presidency, a lot of Washington bubble Republicans are similar. They’re struggling to understand.
Arnade: Well again, my view was, when I talk about the front row on the political side, George Bush is Hillary Clinton. I mean, Jeb Bush, it’s the same thing—they all went to the same schools, they all believe the same thing. There’s variations on the theme.
You know, I worked on Wall Street for 20 years. The Clintons were very good for Wall Street. Liberals don’t like to admit that.
But [Trump] was the first person to go in there and say, “I hear you.”
Now, as a leftist, I think his solutions were crazy, but you know what? He went in there and said, “I hear you,” and that goes a long way for people who are frustrated.
The other way I think about it is, it’s a bit like the voters were knocking over the checkerboard. They kept playing checkers with the elites for 50 years, and they kept losing, and the elites kept saying, “Oh no, don’t worry.” And the elites kept saying, “The game’s not rigged, the game’s not rigged. What do you mean?”
Eventually the voters were like, “The game is rigged, man.” And they just knocked the checkerboard over. It’s their version of volatility.
I think in some ways, Barack Obama was their version of that too. Here’s this guy, an outsider with a crazy name, he was another gamble. I ended up realizing I had gone to a lot of what I call “OOT counties”–Obama, Obama, Trump counties.
I hadn’t intended to do that, but because where my focus on basically addiction and poverty was taking me–and kind of desperation and frustration, places that had lost a lot of community–they ended up being a lot of the OOT counties.
And I think what you realize is that voters just want to try something, man. Nothing’s working. We’re just going to try to knock over the checkerboards. And in some ways, Obama was that for them, too.
In many ways, it didn’t work for them. And if Trump doesn’t work for them, they’ll just knock him over and go with somebody else.
Trinko: That’s really interesting. At The Daily Signal, we covered an Obama-to-Trump county back in 2017. That’s how we looked at the opioid crisis in New Hampshire. It’s interesting, and I don’t think it’s a perspective frankly that people in D.C. understand.
But you, again, mentioned that you were a Wall Street trader. What would you say to the elites? How do they learn about the rest of America? Are there particular lessons that you learned that you think they really need to get through their heads?
I mean, how do we change things?
Arnade: Number one is you have a lot of privilege, man. You have to realize that. And I’m not saying you, I’m saying the elites–
Trinko: I mean, that’s OK
Arnade: The elites, myself included. If you’re in D.C., and if you have a degree from an Ivy League school–
Trinko: For the record, I do not, but yes, I know the type.
Arnade: You know the type. You have a lot of privilege, and you have a lot more privilege than you realize. And one of the things that was most frustrating to me, and I say that’s true–I think it’s more true of your party than it is my party, but we’ll put that aside–I don’t want to get into that game.
Trinko: Conservatives have plenty of issues with the GOP.
Arnade: But the centrist elite are the same, in aggregate. They both went to the same schools, they go to Princeton, Harvard, Yale. They believe in the same things. And it’s a very quantitative way of looking at things.
You look at models. Congress provides you models and you’re like, oh, that says it’s going to be good for the economy, it’s going to be good for efficiency, then we’ll do it.
But you don’t look at the downsides of the lost column. The lost column is the destruction of communities. And when a community is destroyed, into the vacuum comes drugs.
The other thing I say is I haven’t made the next step into cynicism. I believe that those elites are well intentioned. I actually think they think they’re doing the right thing. I don’t think their heart’s in the wrong place.
I think the problem is that privilege has made them not understand the people they advocate for. They think they’re actually helping these communities.
I voted for Hillary Clinton, I still kind of like her, sorry. I think she really, really, really, really believes she’s doing the right thing. I’m not cynical enough to think that she’s doing this for her own personal wealth or whatever. I think she really believes in her heart, she’s doing the right thing. And I think a lot of people in the front row are like that.
But they are so detached from the people they advocate for. It’s the McDonald’s test. To go back to McDonald’s, how do people view McDonald’s? Do you view it as a place that serves awful food, and it’s just where kind of losers go—
Trinko: You know, and it’s fascinating you bring that up, because people in D.C. cannot forgive Donald Trump for liking McDonald’s.
Arnade: You know, I can tell you, he knows what he’s doing. When he does that, he’s making the front row scream. He’s making the elite scream, it’s a huge win for him.
So, in my party, leftists don’t like McDonald’s. They don’t like it for the wage issue, they don’t like it for the health issue, they don’t like it for a bunch of reasons. And I get those. I understand those. I wish the wages were higher.
That’s not the issue.
The issue is, if you’re in a small town, and you’re poor, McDonald’s is very good. McDonald’s provides cheap, good food. I mean, I get my coffee every day there. I love it. It provides a community. It’s an important part of your life.
That’s especially true of minorities. McDonald’s is big in the minority communities because on average minorities have less money. And I think the Democrats are often mocking their own base. Not just Democrats, elites mock their own base.
When you mock McDonald’s, you’re kind of mocking the people who you’re asking to vote for you.
Another one of those is Wal-Mart. I don’t particularly like Wal-Mart for a variety of reasons. But you know what? If I go into a town and want to find an immigrant community, I go to the Wal-Mart. That’s where they are. That’s where they’re shopping, that’s where they’re working, that’s where they’re interacting with other members of the community.
In Lewiston, Maine, where there’s a large Somali population, one of the few places where the Somalis and the Quebecois interact is a Wal-Mart, because both of them use it. Both of them shop there. The parking lot is where people often, unfortunately, sleep in their car to live.
I mean, Wal-Mart is in some ways like McDonald’s, a town center. So, when you have this mocking–it’s big on the internet to mock people, like people who go to Wal-Mart, right?
Arnade: That’s your voters. Why are you mocking your voters? Why aren’t you learning from them? Why aren’t you asking them why they go there? Why aren’t you asking them what are they getting from there? Why are you making fun of them? I just don’t get it.
Trinko: Yeah. No, and I would say probably in Washington, D.C., that it’s more socially acceptable to get drunk or to take drugs than go to McDonald’s.
Arnade: I said once on Twitter jokingly, the elites would rather eat a 12-course curated meal of insects, if the New York Times suggested it, than eat at McDonald’s.
And everybody made fun of me saying that’s crazy, and then an article came out, that in Brooklyn, there was somebody who was doing like a five-course tasting menu of insects and it was having a waiting list to get in.
Trinko: And I would actually say in D.C., and I believe it’s run by a prominent chef who has had his back and forth with Trump, there’s grasshopper tacos at a bougie restaurant, so there you go.
Arnade: Look, I’ve eaten grasshopper tacos because it’s big in Mexico.
Trinko: Yeah, but this is not Mexico.
Arnade: I understand, but your point’s the same, right? Which is that how we think about food is very much a very social issue.
So, the emphasis that I would say is that, to the question, is the gap between the elites, the front row and the back row, is huge.
And as I said before, it’s almost like, I think there’s two different languages to the way they think about things. What they value, how they think, is just so fundamentally different, and I think our ruling class, the elites, just don’t get it.
Trinko: Unfortunately, true. Well, Chris, thank you for joining us.
Again, the name of your book is “Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America.” And one thing that we obviously can’t get into in a podcast is there are a lot of really great photos in it, so I encourage you to check it out.
Arnade: All right, thank you very much for having me.
Republished with permission. Original here.