Jodie

The next morning after speaking with Tiffany, I met Jodie at a café. I was still in listening mode. I was two giant ears sipping a cappuccino.

Jodie recently moved to this part of the country to live closer to her sister. She rents a small cabin with basic furnishings. Born in 1961, she considers herself a member of the working poor. She is a pharmacy technician. She is legally married, though her husband is a fugitive in his home country of Mexico.

Growing up in the Midwest, Jodie’s mother was active in politics, volunteering for Democratic nominees in local and regional campaigns. Jodie left home considering herself a Democrat and, in many ways, this fit her liberal views on most issues. She voted for Obama the first time and for the Green Party candidate after that.

But in this election, she voted for Trump—a decision primarily based on what she believes will be his tough stance on immigration, particularly as it pertains to our southern border. Her interest in this issue has everything to do with her experiences over the last decade or so.

Most of her adult life Jodie lived in a Chicago-area neighborhood chock full of illegal immigrants from Mexico. Her future husband was among them and when they met and fell in love she became privy to the subculture to which he belonged.

The pattern was for young men to travel north, work 5 or 6 years, and then go home. Most had no intention of becoming citizens, though her husband was different. There might as well have been an underground tunnel connecting Chicago to the interior of Mexico with how consistently the men showed up.

A fairly sophisticated network helped newcomers get established. Available identities were garnered by monitoring the obituaries. State-issued identification was then obtained using the recently-deceased’s name, the immigrant’s photo, and a fake address. Now the new person could use the dead person’s social security number to obtain a job.

Jodie shopped garage sales to find furniture for the group apartments new immigrants set up. She visited the village where her husband came from and saw the conditions in which he grew up—11 siblings sleeping on a dirt floor. She felt overwhelming compassion, she understood their motivation.

However, her place of employment was located in inner-city of Chicago. She saw people with real social security numbers who didn’t work, subsisting on government assistance. Many of the illegal immigrants had decent-paying jobs. Her husband, for example, earned $30 an hour fabricating bronze sculptures. She knew something was wrong with this picture, but it took years—and a horrifying falling out with her husband in which he beat and left her in the Mexican countryside—to get honest about it.

She does not take her change of heart lightly. How could she? Tears well in her eyes as she tells me the story. I feel close to tears myself. I’m hurting for the image I have of her, bloodied and crawling from the woods to a road, for the police car that just happened to pass, for her many injuries, both physical and emotional; for all she has gone through—and she does not strike me as an easy victim but, rather, as street smart and tough; for the unlikely chance that the one illegal immigrant with whom she fell in love could be so cruel.

But I have pain to spare for all the immigrants and would-be immigrants. They have the same desire we all have to survive and improve their lives. Only they’re in such dire circumstances that they must risk their lives first. The vast majority are responding to socio-economic forces the likes of which most in this country are fortunate enough not to experience first-hand. In economic terms, they are answering to a free market. They are answering to the demand. Constructing a physical barrier does not address the root of the problem; it’s a Band-Aid on a broken arm. In the history of civilization, walls are symbols that never fail to become obsolete.

For her part, Jodie doesn’t necessarily think a real wall needs to be built. She’s more interested in policy adjustments like fixing information systems whose gaps allow for social security numbers to be misused or a tightening of the rules around state-issued identification cards.

“But what about desperately poor people in Mexico?” I ask, a bit frantically. “What becomes of them? Do you feel bad about that?”

Jodie had thought this through. “No,” she replied, firm but weary. “They are highly capable. A better solution will take its place, something healthier for them and for us.”

What right did I have to pass judgement on Jodie’s hard-earned opinion, one that had come by way of difficult first-hand experience?

If this were love, hers has been battered by the trials of real life. Mine has hardly been kissed.

Tiffany

If it weren’t for the fact that I had interviews already scheduled, I might have stopped this project on Friday, just shy of 24 hours after it had begun. I had spent more than four years investigating religion, including its enigmatic fringes, but just one day in this arena and I felt defeated.

I thought of how, at a rally, Trump told the story about a U.S. general who used bullets dipped in pig’s blood to shoot Muslims prisoners in a firing squad more than a century ago. He said this action helped end terrorism in the Philippines for 28 years, the insinuation being that this was an effective act. Not only was the account untrue, but I found Trump’s use of it deeply disturbing. It spoke of his support for behavior I consider grotesque and unnecessarily cruel.

It pained me how careless he was in his relations with others: hurling insults, mocking people. He did things we teach children are wrong, that as a society we have agreed are counter to basic decency. These knee-jerk responses spoke to me of his inability to gracefully tolerate criticism or opposing opinions.

The only way I could see forward in these interviews was to take Trump’s example and do the opposite. Lay down my defenses. Restrain knee-jerk reactions. Sit calmly and respectfully with another point of view.

I could just listen.

That evening I spoke to Tiffany, who was born in 1975 and currently lives in Milwaukee. When I called, she was in the car driving back to the small town in upper Michigan where she grew up. She was heading home for a reunion of some sort. I didn’t start off with questions about her vote, I just said, “Tell me about yourself.”

Perhaps it was the several hours of driving ahead, or the many old friends and acquaintances she would see when she arrived, but Tiffany started with her childhood. She acknowledged the many factors that contributed to her being a particularly melancholy kid. For starters, she was known as the “smelly girl” in school because of farm chores. Also, her mother, who had grown up in an abusive household, was lugging around her own sadness. But undeniably, a big part was nature: she had come into this world prone to dark moods and low self-esteem.

As a teenager, the sadness gained traction and became white hot anger, which she directed at a multitude of targets, primarily men and herself, though often everyone and everything in between. She was labeled a “man-hating feminist” for how tough she was on guys. She was also known as a “partier” for the substances she consumed. Like millions of others, she was acting on the seemingly contradictory impulse to protect oneself while simultaneously destroying that same self.

At 18, she started taking medication that kept her moods from dipping so low, though she still struggled with a sense of hopelessness. The way she saw it, girls from her town had one of two career options: nursing or something with the nearby prison system. She opted for the latter, getting a BA in criminal justice and then promptly securing a job as a guard at an all-male correctional facility. She also got married. With these big life issues settled, it was just a matter of waiting for a sense of serenity to arrive.

But dissatisfaction continued to haunt her, forcing her through changes: divorce, quitting her job after 7 years and going back to school for a second BA in communications, moving to Chicago and then Milwaukee, going off her meds, and getting remarried.

Now she feels she has finally found peace. She did it with the help of a female friend, a mentor who modeled a different sort of strength—one that embraces vulnerability rather than trying to hide it. She’s become more transparent about her suffering in the hopes of helping others. She works at sharing her story and communicating. She’s learned to let her own desires guide her career choices. She actively practices gratitude.

Her vote for Trump had everything to do with how she feels about Hillary, which appears to be a reflection of how she feels about herself. As she lists the ways in which Clinton is less-than-perfect, I read between the lines. I think in Hillary she sees the remnants of her unhappy past. She sees a woman with a hard outer shell, who isn’t soft, who doesn’t show vulnerability. She sees a marriage held together by forces that do not appear to be about love. She sees a woman who is tough and maybe a little bit angry. She sees a person she wasn’t comfortable being and doesn’t want to be reminded of for the next eight years.

Julie

My goal in interviewing women who voted for Trump is to better understand the “other side” and, in so doing, perhaps diminish that which makes “sides.”

As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t like the idea of an “us” vs. “them.” If there’s one thing I learned throughout my experience worshiping with thousands of people, it’s that every religion teaches of our essential connectedness, the whole of creation derived from a single source of origin that many call God. It may be human impulse to sow division but the divine, as I understand it, always points to unity.

This project is my attempt to apply the lessons of faith in the secular setting of politics.

The hardest part of this approach, I find, is that it forces me to take responsibility when I’d much rather not. If “us” vs. “them” becomes “we,” then no one is outside the circle. We are in it together, each accountable in our way for all outcomes.

In other words, in this faith-infused version of reality, I can’t foist the blame for anything, much less the Trump-is-president thing, on others. I had to find a way to own it.

I had a couple of girlfriends over for lunch the Friday after the election. We had planned it before the election when my friends and I were certain Hillary Clinton would be the next president, just as the pollsters and pundits were announcing in the news. Now it became a somber affair. I had called it “tea and sympathy” to be funny and then it really was.

One friend in particular was taking the election results hard. She was in disbelief that what she considered hate-filled ideology had triumphed. I had never seen her in such a gloomy frame of mind. She’s an illustrator who draws whimsical scenes, bursting with sweetness and joy. You’ve probably seen her work on greeting cards or tissue boxes. Here she was at my table projecting the opposite of what she creates on paper.

I wasn’t doing much better. Before the lunch, I had spoken by phone with Allison, the subject of my last blog post, who previously voted for Obama. During that conversation my own dark clouds had formed, and now over lunch they rolled in closer.

My friends and I ate with no ready laughs. Attempts to steer the conversation to other topics besides the election were fruitless. The words of comfort we offered seemed feeble. “It’ll be okay,” one of us would say. But no one was convinced, the speaker least of all.

After the lunch, I had a date to call Julie. She was friendly and forthcoming, upbeat compared to my friends. She was born in 1975 and lives in St. Louis. She has a bachelor’s degree in communications, and works as an account manager for a large firm. She’s a strong woman—literally, an athlete—who is all for equal rights.

The number one reason she voted for Trump: he’s not a politician.

Here was another relatively young, socially liberal, educated white woman who supported Donald Trump.

Maybe I was hoping Julie would say something to reassure me that what we had done—basically hiring a character from television, and not a particularly benevolent one at that, to run our country—would not result in disaster. Who better to defend Trump against my doubts than a woman, much like myself, who had voted for him? Who better to soothe my worries than a person who was optimistic about our president-elect?

But Julie didn’t try to justify her choice against my questioning. She acknowledged that voting for Trump was a risk. She said, “He could very well mess things up.”

I thanked her, my frustration tempered in the moment by an appreciation for her honesty.

But I hung up feeling grim. I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk to another female Trump supporter, or that I was interested in understanding the other side. My efforts felt like a betrayal to my own heartbroken friends. Maybe in this case, “us” vs. “them” was the only option. If the trade-off was hopelessness coursing through me like poison, I would have to live with that.

Allison

It was around the time I spoke with Allison that the rollercoaster of my post-election emotions took a sudden dive. In the 48 hours after the election, I had felt confused and frightened and powerless. Then I began this project of interviewing women who voted for Trump and I started to feel optimistic. I might somehow wrap my brain around this after all. Or, if not, at least I was being productive. I was making lemonade from lemons. Just like Beyoncé.

I hate blaming Allison because I liked her very much. In fact, that was the problem.

The first three women I interviewed were so different from me. They were all politically conservative and had been their entire lives. Of course they voted for Trump. This was not such a departure.

Allison was different. She has always been a democrat. She voted for Obama.

Allison lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband, who is both an engineer and an immigrant from India. She’s lived a lot of other places—Michigan, Arizona, and India. She was born in 1980. Before becoming a full-time mom, she worked for 10 years in higher education. That may help explain her three masters’ degrees. (Three!)

She grew up with a single mom. They were on welfare. She is a survivor of sexual assault. She describes herself as “97 percent pro-choice” (holding 3 percent back because she wishes women who opt for abortions received emotional support). She believes in equal rights, including marriage equality. It is not her concern which bathroom a transgender person uses.

When she voted for Obama in 2008, she wanted the “change” his campaign promised. She hoped it was more than a slogan. She was tired of domestic policies like the social assistance programs on which she grew up that breed low expectations of people and keep them stuck in a cycle of poverty. She was sick of foreign policies that fuel the industry she believes war has become.

President Obama may have intended to transform many aspects of our government but given the nature of the political system he was capable of only so much. Perhaps his health care reforms are emblematic of what he was up against. He did what he could to make sure more Americans could become insured, but his failure to address the very nature of the system has meant that the cost of the insurance is still out of reach for many of those who need it. Allison is disappointed that President Obama did not fundamentally alter a system in need of radical revisions.

Talking to Allison, I was forced to confront my own feelings about “the way things are.” If I’m being honest, I’m not all that satisfied with many aspects of our domestic and foreign policies, or the degree of “change” that has occurred over the past eight years. Maybe it’s unfair to expect such substantial alterations in such a short time, but I can’t think of any significant differences besides marriage equality and a less gloomy economy (and the fact that we had our first black president, which alone is huge). I think Obama is a fantastic human being, but I’m not sure even he is satisfied with the degree of change his presidency was able to usher in.

Allison says she’s the first to admit that Trump is not a particularly likeable guy. She thinks he was “pandering to the base” throughout his campaign. She hopes much of what he suggested, such as a ban on Muslims, was “just talk.”

To Allison, the vote for president was between two things: keeping things as-is or hurling a stick of dynamite into the status quo.

It’s horrible what washes over me when I finish my conversation with Allison. For one brief and terrifying moment everything in the looking glass makes perfect sense. But it’s like the bright flash from a nuclear explosion, offering a single moment of clarity, before a dim and bleak aftermath. I’m left gazing at an ugly path of destruction.

Dina

“He loves America,” Dina says when I ask her to tell me the number one reason she voted for Trump.

We are talking by phone on Thursday evening, two days after the election. I had been put in contact with her by a mutual friend, a yoga instructor whose classes I often take. Dina is a massage therapist who was born in 1958.

“What do you mean?” I ask because that response seems both obvious and vague. Didn’t all the potential candidates love this country? Does one run for president and not love America?

Dina is a quirky combination of characteristics. Given her profession and the inclinations of our mutual friend, whose teaching is infused with an all-encompassing spirituality, I would have thought Dina would land somewhere left on the political spectrum. Instead, she’s a far-right Christian who hits every stereotypical evangelical nail on the head: opposes same sex marriage, thinks homosexuality is unnatural, and considers abortion murder. Before completing her license for massage, she was a cashier at a grocery store for 13 years. She became a Christian at age 25 at about the time her first marriage disintegrated.

“I just think everything he’ll do as president will be to our benefit,” she says, trying to clarify her statement about Trump loving America. “Like he’ll sign trade agreements only if they favor us or he’ll secure borders to make sure the people who live here are safe. He loves this country.”

As she explained, I found myself having to reorient my point of view.

I have such a different idea of what it means to “love America.” To me, it exists in the realm of ideas: equality, freedom, acceptance of a vast spectrum of being and expressing. My thoughts on the matter have been shaped by the Statue of Liberty and the famous poem that goes:

 “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Dina went on: “Trump’s life would have been so much better had he not run for president. I truly think he did it because he cares about this country. I think his top priority will be us.”

Dina’s love demands a concrete manifestation. The huddled masses are here, many of whom are not so far from wretched that they are eager to welcome more. She wants safekeeping; she wants the security of knowing a roof will always be over her head and the heads of her children. The star-spangled sky is great as long as that’s not all that’s overhead every night when you fall asleep.

I again got that sense of being at the looking glass, peeking into another version of reality. I could see how, from Dina’s perspective, the dramatic changes in our society over the last 20 or so years—the internet, globalization, the extension of civil liberties to more people—has eroded a sense of wellbeing. Changes that I might consider progress, she finds threatening. I don’t know exactly why this is, only that my ability to see it differently, and the fact that I’ve so easily shrugged off any other way of viewing it, is one of a number of qualities that marks me as privileged.

It’s sobering to realize the ways in which your vision is narrow when for so long you’ve congratulated yourself on how broad your scope. As if a mind can only open in one direction.

It’s possible that our approach to the topic was so different that “President of the United States” didn’t even have the same job description to us.

Dina is concerned with reinforcing our physical borders, identifying enemies, and focusing on national security. Her priorities include strengthening our country’s physicality in a world that’s becoming ever-more “virtual.” She wants our national identity to be reinforced in the face of globalization. She wants an “us” vs. “them.” I guess you could say that I’m more blasé on this matter. I like the idea of “us” being the entire world. I hope someday there is no “them.”

To me, a big part of what a president does is to represent the U.S. on a global scale, leading the charge when countries address matters that affect the entire planet like climate change or humanitarian issues like populations displaced by war and natural disaster.

I can see how my perspective can only exist in the context of a sense of security and, in that way, is a luxury. I also see how depending on what is meant by “loving America,” my version may not win first prize. And, really, who’s to say Dina’s isn’t a more accurate description for a job that’s title is also “Commander in Chief.”

So I’m sitting at the looking glass, but I’m starting to recognize a few words amongst the gibberish from the other side.

Janet

Whereas Carol is not bothered by what I consider Trump’s questionable outbursts and comments, the same cannot be said for her best friend Janet. Janet, born in 1952, is one year older than Carol. They met in Catholic grade school. Though neither has maintained a steady relationship with Catholicism, their friendship is still going strong.

Janet has been married to the same man for more than 40 years. Her husband is often on the road for his job selling agricultural supplies throughout the region. She has two grown children. Her son is a police officer. Her daughter is married to a Mexican-American. She is a grandmother to several tiny tots.

Though she actually may be steelier at the core than Carol, her exterior is much softer. Janet gives out far more hugs than business cards. Janet has held a range of jobs from clothing store manager to tax preparer. Now she oversees the day-to-day operations at the marijuana shop where she is the salt to Carol’s pepper.

Janet, perhaps more than most of the women I’ve spoken with, finds Trump disgusting. Unfortunately, she finds Clinton more disgusting. Trump may be guilty of various forms of sexual misconduct, but Clinton is guilty of downplaying similar behavior perpetrated by her husband. In the aftermath of Bill’s sex scandals, Hillary did not come across as being particularly supportive of his victims. If Hillary had denounced her husband’s actions, perhaps even separated from him or divorced him, it might have been easier to believe she took those issues seriously. Instead, it appeared that women’s concerns only mattered if they didn’t get in the way of her political ambitions.

Janet points out that for every bad thing about Trump, Clinton pretty much goes toe-to-toe. Both have insulted or dismissed groups of people, both have gotten rich and powerful using questionable means, and both have ties to elite groups (deep-pocketed interest groups vs. billionaire cronies) that likely will affect their agendas.

Both give off a similar sense that “normal people” rules don’t apply to them. Private server? Not paying taxes? Perhaps neither is illegal exactly, but they don’t seem particularly ethical either.

To Janet, here is the number one difference between the candidates: Clinton has done all of these things while in various positions of public service. For this reason alone, Joyce says she holds Clinton to a higher standard.

Janet finds Clinton untrustworthy at least in part because she is so much more adept than Trump at concealing her true motives and feelings. Trump may mock a disabled person from a worldwide stage, but if he can’t keep a lid on something as obviously wrong as that, there’s probably not much he keeps hidden.

I’ve heard and read the opinion from some people who didn’t support Trump that a vote for him was an affirmation of every aspect of his character—the implication being that you, too, support a registry for Muslims or that you give a metaphorical thumbs up to everything he’s said about women or black people or Mexicans. This seems reasonable until I turn the tables.

I see clearly the ways in which Hillary was a less-than-ideal candidate. She voted for war. She’s gotten rich on the dime of special interests groups—and who knows how many “backroom deals” she’s negotiated. Looking back, I don’t think she handled her husband’s various sex scandals as well as she could have. Undeniably, an element of her political persona is less than authentic. I’ve chalked this up to the compromises she’s had to make to be taken seriously in the political arena. But maybe I’ve been too dismissive of her flaws.

When I voted for Clinton did it mean I supported every comment or decision she’s ever made? I certainly hope not.

But if I’m willing to let myself off the hook for Hillary’s bad qualities, why am I so inclined to hold Trump supporters accountable for his every misogynistic or xenophobic impulse?

Janet doesn’t think Trump’s bad qualities are more evil than Hillary’s. Janet thinks the worst of his are hyperbole and bluster whereas Clinton’s have actually hurt and killed people. Yes, I say, but do you know how many people he is likely to harm and endanger now that he’s in office?

Then I realize how insane this conversation is. We are judging presidential candidates by who’s done or will do the least amount of damage, by who is likely to ruin the fewest lives, by who we think has lied and cheated less.

This makes the evangelical Christian support for Trump all the more mysterious to me…

Carol

The thing is, I really like and respect Carol. She’s one of the few women I’ve interviewed for this project who I knew before the election. If I scroll to the word “scrappy” in my mental dictionary, there’s an image of Carol, all 100 pounds of her, deep tan and blond-tipped pixie hair. She IS genuine—and often hilarious. Like Trump, she will blurt her truth regardless of who might be within earshot—though her outbursts tend to reveal a charmingly goofy character. I know she appreciates me and doesn’t care who I voted for. She would love me even if Hillary had won.

In the aftermath of the election, what am I to do about my friendship with Carol? How am I to feel about the millions of women like her who supported Trump? Was their ballot also cast against the sisterhood we hold dear?

Carol grew up in a middle class household, which was likely more secure than my own bohemian childhood. She had parents who were married and a house full of siblings. My parents were broken up by the time I was six; my half-brother didn’t arrive until I was 16. But instability can have its perks. Carol has not lived in a bunch of cities or travelled like I have. She did not feel compelled to earn advanced degrees in some desperate attempt to prove her worth.

Nor did Carol’s upbringing automatically translate into a cushy life. For a while worked at a bank. Then for over 20 years she ran her framing shop as sole proprietor and worker. Most of that time, she didn’t have the safety net of a dual income household.

Watching her get her new venture (the marijuana retail shop) up and running has given me a sense of the struggle of business ownership. I’m accustomed to being an employee; I can see that in the business world, that’s a bit like being a child. I don’t put the food on the table or the roof overhead. Someone else worries about revenue and how all the little mouths will get fed. I just eat off my plate.

If it weren’t for Carol’s scrappy nature, I don’t think she could have done it. Of the few new pot shops in town, hers is the only owned by a woman and not backed by a pre-existing corporation. I’ve witnessed her go toe to toe with officials at all levels of government. Just when she thinks she’s complied with every rule and regulation, new ones pop up as well as slight variations to old ones. We hear so much talk about the importance of small businesses to our economy, but from an owner’s perspective I can see how the relationship with government doesn’t exactly feel supportive. Small businesses have the normal fight of appealing to customers and generating income, but they also struggle with the entities tasked with their oversight. It’s a battle on all fronts. I’m sure this challenge is magnified due to the nature of Mary’s new business.

Carol might be right in assuming that under Clinton this situation would likely have stayed the same. I can understand why she thinks Trump might be more sympathetic. As a businessman, his has faced a similar struggle on a grander scale. Whatever the case, for me to pass judgment on Carol’s opinions regarding the matter seems inappropriate and disrespectful. Having never shouldered the responsibility of a small business myself, I don’t think I’ve earned that right.

But I had to know one thing. Carol is not conservative when it comes to social issues. She freely admits that had she been unable to have an abortion when she was younger, her life could have turned out very differently. She is glad to have had that choice.

“How will you feel if Roe v. Wade is overturned, which could make abortion illegal?” I asked.

“I don’t think that will happen,” she said. She is under the impression that existing civil liberties either can’t or won’t be turned back. “But if it does, I’ll be angry.”

Regardless, Carol had no hesitation voting for Trump. Several months before the election she enthusiastically declared her support for him. I laughed because I thought that was a funny one.

The joke was on me.

Janet, Carol’s best friend, cast her vote for Trump with far more angst. “He’s an egotistical bastard,” she told me in no uncertain terms. “But she’s an egotistical bitch. The big difference is she’s been in office all these years, which changes everything in my mind.”