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The Financial Whisperer to Trump’s America

BRENTWOOD, Tenn.—On a Tuesday afternoon in January, an audibly anxious young man—Chris from Midland, Texas—finds himself live on the air explaining his economic struggles to a perfect stranger. Chris, 28, is a truck driver and the family breadwinner; his wife is a stay-at-home mom. They have accumulated $ 14,600 in credit card debt and borrowed twice that much from their retirement account. They owe $ 59,000 on an SUV that is worth $ 46,000. His annual salary of $ 60,000 can’t buy a shovel big enough to dig out of the hole. Feeling strangled by the financial stress, Chris is turning to someone for help: Dave Ramsey, whose radio show a friend has recommended.

“The car is gone. It’s insanity. It’s absolutely nuts. It owns you,” Ramsey says in his cigar-smoky southern drawl. With millions of people listening, he orders Chris to sell the SUV and the couple’s other vehicle—a paid-off pickup truck with a value of $ 15,000. Then he instructs Chris to take out a $ 5,000 loan for a clunker to drive while paying down other debts. “You guys are in such bad shape that I’m scared for ya,” Ramsey says. But, he adds encouragingly, all is not lost. “When I was your age, I was going broke and going bankrupt. And I had to start completely over, with little babies, and my marriage was hanging on by a thread. And I was so scared, I couldn’t breathe,” Ramsey says. “You can clean this up, dude. And I can show you how, if you’ll do what I teach you to do.”

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Ramsey might not be a household name in Washington or New York, cities where the chattering classes worry about their blue-chip stocks and wonder whether “economic anxiety” in the heartland really propelled Donald Trump to the presidency. But for the past 25 years—and especially in the decade since the recession—this Tennessee realtor-turned-talk-radio-host has spent his time considering nothing but economic anxiety, walking tens of thousands of callers through a nightmarish gauntlet of debts and defaults, job layoffs and pay cuts, underwater mortgages and punishing student loans.

Beloved for his down-home manner and direct, time-to-take-your-medicine approach, Ramsey is the pro bono financial adviser to millions of Americans who otherwise could never afford one. Privately owned and self-syndicated, “The Dave Ramsey Show” is carried by more than 600 stations and heard by more than 13 million listeners each week. Despite that scale, the relationships he forges with listeners can be intensely personal; people travel from every corner of the country, and occasionally from around the globe, to visit Ramsey in person and thank him for changing their lives. He makes himself readily accessible, hosting three hours of his eponymous call-in program every weekday from a glass-encased studio on the first floor of the Ramsey Solutions headquarters here in suburban Nashville.

When Ramsey listens to America talking, what does he hear? Two hours before he goes on air that Tuesday afternoon, I ask Ramsey about that term, “economic anxiety.” He hesitates. “If you define economic anxiety as, ‘Do I think I can get out of my mess?’ … there is probably more of that out there now than when I started doing this 25 years ago,” Ramsey says. “And it’s kind of disturbing.”

Sitting in his wood-paneled studio, flanked by copies of his best-selling books and a Tennessee Volunteers football helmet autographed by Peyton Manning, Ramsey laments about something more fundamental: the loss of a certain kind of can-do thinking among the people who need it most. He is a conservative, fiscally and culturally, and sounds cautiously bullish about the economy under President Donald Trump. But he worries that more and more Americans of all political persuasions have become economically paralyzed, and are mistakenly looking to the government to help them solve their problems.

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In the Studio Privately owned and self-syndicated, “The Dave Ramsey Show” is carried by more than 600 stations and heard by more than 13 million listeners each week. Ramsey hosts three hours of his eponymous call-in program every weekday from a glass-encased studio on the first floor of the Ramsey Solutions headquarters in suburban Nashville. | The Dave Ramsey Show

“There’s more of a hopelessness than I think there was,” Ramsey says. “If you don’t believe you can do it, you won’t do it. So as cheesy as it sounds, there’s a real reality in this discussion to hope. Does somebody believe that if I plant corn, I’m going to grow corn? That if I sell my car, take an extra job, get on a budget, don’t go on vacation, don’t go out to eat, and use all of that to clean up my debt, will it actually work? … That has more to do with hope than it does math.”

***

For an illustrious media figure with an estimated net worth of $ 55 million, Ramsey is convincing as an everyman. Bespectacled and balding with a crown of white hair to match his goatee, the 57-year-old has a round face and an untamed cackle. He is fond of phrases like “daggum sure” and “friggin’ awesome,” and tends to quote Jesus and his grandmother more than any economist or business mogul.

Like other financial gurus, Ramsey built his empire on a fairly straightforward insight (“debt is dumb”) given a catchy name (“the seven baby steps”) and applied to more or less every customer. That doesn’t make it bad advice: The foundation is drafting and following a monthly budget down to the dollar, ensuring that every penny has a purpose. Once you’ve put a real number on your discretionary income and disciplined yourself to spend it according to plan, Ramsey promises, you will find yourself climbing out of debt—and then building wealth—faster than you ever thought possible. “Live like no one else now,” he likes to say, “so you can live like no one else later.” This austere approach has earned Ramsey celebrity status in the self-help universe. In addition to the radio show, there’s a collection of books—The Total Money Makeover is his best-seller—and, for the truly committed, a nine-lesson course, Financial Peace University, which covers everything from paying down debt to planning charitable donations. The class costs $ 129 and is taught online and by FPU graduates at more than 5,000 locations nationwide, primarily churches, schools and nonprofits.

Today, Ramsey is the No. 3 talk-radio personality in America, behind only Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

Ramsey has his share of critics. His projections of stock market returns are overly rosy, some say, and his insistence on freezing retirement savings until escaping from debt (mortgage excluded) robs workers of free money in the form of employer 401(k) matching. Most reliably, these critics argue that his “debt snowball” method—which recommends paying off debts from smallest to largest—costs people cash by leaving them with higher-interest loans for longer. A body of academic research, however, from Northwestern to Texas A&M to Boston University, suggests Ramsey’s program is an effective psychological strategy: Clearing each successive debt, no matter how small, creates the motivation needed to tackle the bigger ones.

Ramsey is successful in part because he is relatable, having once bottomed out himself: As a hot-shot real estate investor in the 1980s, he went bust when the market went belly-up. After filing for bankruptcy, Ramsey sought out feedback about what he had done wrong, compiled the best advice and turned it into a seminar at his church. It wasn’t until a serendipitous guest appearance on local radio that he and others saw a much wider appetite for financial guidance—a discovery that launched a quarter-century radio career, as well as a simulcast Fox Business show from 2007 to 2010, and appearances on everything from “60 Minutes” to “The Oprah Winfrey Show” along the way. Today, Ramsey is the No. 3 talk-radio personality in America, behind only Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity; his show is the cornerstone of the Ramsey Solutions empire with 650 employees spread across a sprawling campus.

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‘I’m Debt-Free!’ Visitors are free to camp out in the lobby of the Ramsey Solutions headquarters and watch him broadcast live; he comes out for hugs, handshakes and selfies at commercial breaks. And the true die-hards star in Ramsey’s trademark segment, the “debt-free scream,” in which they announce how much they’ve paid off, over how long and how they did it, before shouting: “I’m debt-free!” | The Dave Ramsey Show

The Ramsey faithful who make the pilgrimage to Brentwood, Tennessee, are free to camp out in the lobby of the Ramsey Solutions headquarters and watch him broadcast the show live; he comes out for hugs, handshakes and selfies at commercial breaks. The true die-hards star in Ramsey’s trademark segment, the “debt-free scream,” in which they announce how much they’ve paid off, over how long and how they did it, before shouting: “I’m debt-free!”

There were no screamers on the day I visited, but plenty of fans were paying their respects—including Sam and Sheryl Christner from Alaska. The couple started listening to Ramsey as newlyweds, took his nine-week course and say he still serves as their de facto financial adviser. “I’ve never sat down with a professional,” Sam tells me. “I don’t need to—Dave fills the gap.” Another tourist, Jordan Archibald, a high school senior from Portland, Tennessee, is currently taking Ramsey’s class. In fact, a lot of students these days are taking Ramsey’s class, and not always by choice: Five states require high schoolers to take some financial planning curriculum before graduation; Ramsey Solutions has a team actively lobbying more state governments to do so.

I now have to spend more time talking someone into believing they control their own destiny than I used to,” Ramsey says.

Archibald says his family’s fortunes changed five years ago when his parents began following Ramsey’s program; they have since gotten off food stamps and are no longer living paycheck-to-paycheck. “I wish they had listened to him earlier,” Archibald says.

***

It’s a small sample size, but every visitor I met at Ramsey’s studio was from a red state—and most are Trump supporters. The president, of course, is a debt-wielding businessman who sent his companies into bankruptcy six times; one struggles to imagine the snowball approach applied to Trump’s onetime casino empire, or the Ramsey rant that a caller with those problems might have triggered. Yet people who admire Ramsey, who have bought into his message of self-reliance and frugality, also gravitated toward the messianic, I-can-fix-it economic promises of a billionaire whose administration has embraced increased spending and deeper national debt.

That worries Ramsey—not because of Trump per se, but because of what it says about the Americans counting on his help. “This idea that I’m going to get elected—senator or congressman or president or governor—and jobs are going to increase, and you’re going to get a job, your life is going to be fixed if you elect me, is by and large patently untrue. It’s a lie. It’s the oldest lie in politics,” Ramsey says. “This idea that a President Obama or a President Trump can take credit for jobs being created is laughable. If I’m a person who watches too much news, I start to think these guys are going to fix my life for me—and when they don’t, I feel stuck.”

Ramsey says a handful of GOP presidential candidates reached out in 2016 to solicit advice. Rick Santorum asked him over dinner what he wanted to see the next president do to help the economy, Ramsey says. His response: “As little as possible.”

Thinking back to conversations with voters during the “revolutionary” elections of 2008 and 2016, Ramsey believes the victories of Obama and Trump were driven by similar if ideologically distinct strands of economic insecurity. The commonality was a belief among the candidates’ bases—one Ramsey confronted daily on air—that new political leaders would change their lives. “The last two presidents were both elected on it. And neither one of them can deliver it, because they don’t have the capability,” he says. “The office does not have that much power.”

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Percentage of Americans with debt in collections, by U.S. county. One in three Americans hold debt in collections, and they owe a median amount of $ 1,450. | Data: Urban Institute

Today, Ramsey sees more Americans predisposed to economic dependence—and believes politicians are to blame. “I now have to spend more time talking someone into believing they control their own destiny than I used to,” he says. “I don’t know if I blame that all on ‘hope and change’ from Obama, or ‘Make America Great Again.’ They’re both hope slogans. Different ideologies, different politics, but both hope slogans: I’m going to deliver something for you that you can’t do for yourself.”

The mass appetite for these messages, Ramsey argues, pairs with a broader feeling of economic fragility that he believes is unique to this era—a direct consequence of the Great Recession. Not only does he devote more time these days to convincing people of their own financial self-determination; he is spending more energy persuading listeners not to base their decisions on the ghosts of a decade ago. “The good result of 2008: There are some people that got punched, and now they know how to duck a punch. They’ll never be without an emergency fund again; they’ll never be that deeply in debt and just assume everything’s going to be OK,” Ramsey says. “The negative part of getting hit that hard: You don’t want to get back in the ring again,” he adds. “When you don’t believe in the future—when you think the only light at the end of a tunnel is an oncoming train—you don’t get in the tunnel.”

The regular guy can make it just fine if government will leave him alone … and not take away his belief that it is up to him.”

From the discussions he has every day, Ramsey says, the once-bitten-twice-shy mentality is creating a whole new set of problems. For one, people reluctant to invest have missed out on a long run of stock market success. And it has created a kind of resentment gap. “The S&P went up 19.4 percent last year. But a lot of people did not have money in their 401(k) mutual funds because they lost everything in 2008,” he says, putting air quotes around what he calls an emotionally exaggerated sentiment. “If you have no money in the market, the market could triple, and it doesn’t affect you. It just makes that rich guy over there who I’m mad at that much richer.”

Stacy Austin, a 42-year-old Panasonic salesman from Hickory, North Carolina, is thankful to be feeling the effects. Having found himself swimming in debt and deep underwater on his home after 2008, Austin turned to Ramsey and turned his family’s finances around. Right around the time Chris is receiving his dose of tough love on the air, Austin—who has brought his three young children to visit the studio—describes what Ramsey’s advice did for him. He paid down his debt; he stayed in the stock market. There’s just one area where he breaks with his financial guru: Austin, a conservative who expresses uneasiness with Trump’s behavior, nonetheless credits the president’s tax and regulatory policies with boosting the economy. “I feel like, for the first time in a long time, people have stopped looking over their shoulder,” he says.

Ramsey is not oblivious to such sentiments. A business owner himself, he cautiously endorses the Republican tax overhaul, believing it will allow him to accelerate new hires—and make more of them. Yet he realizes there is a fine line between rejoicing in a party’s legislative achievements and contributing to the cycle of political reliance he is trying to break. “I find the regular guy can make it just fine,” Ramsey tells me, “if government will leave him alone, let him keep more of his money—and not take away his belief that it is up to him.”

It’s a message that, after 25 years of dishing advice on the radio—spanning 9/11, the recession, Brexit and two seismic presidential elections—has remained brutally consistent. “If you’re waiting on a president to fix your life,” Ramsey said on the radio one week before Election Day 2016, “your life is gonna always suck. Have you not figured that out yet?”

Tim Alberta is chief political correspondent at Politico Magazine.

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