Gabby

Gabby, born in 1972 and living in Alabama, says her mom could not bring herself to vote for Trump. Her mom voted the Republican ticket all the way down the line, but when it came to Trump, she just couldn’t mark it. All the questionable remarks about women’s anatomy and his penchant for Twitter rants created a kind of force field around that particular ballot option and her mom choose instead to abstain from selecting a president. As a person who considers herself a fiscal conservative and social liberal, Gabby also struggled with the selection, though she did end up casting a vote for Trump.

As we talk, it becomes clear that the election is just a side note to her personal story of transformation.

She has a degree in fashion merchandising and owned a bridal shop for 20 years. A few years ago, weary from the ups and downs of small business ownership, she sold the shop and went back to school to become a nurse. Since then, she’s weathered the challenge of being a full-time student while parenting her two kids but she’ll soon be qualified to care for patients in a hospital.

Talking to Gabby, I can hear the optimism in her voice. She’s empowered herself by creating a new vision for her life and then doing the hard work to make it a reality. I know first-hand the difficulty of taking such a risk, especially as a woman in mid-life. The countless waves of naysaying and doubt one will face—many from your own mind. The determination one must pull from deep reserves to keep on the path.

Place that struggle on a global stage and amplify the skepticism to a deafening roar for just a taste of what Hillary Clinton’s been through. I respect the fierce willpower she’s had to possess from a young age, when political aspirations for women were even less realistic than they are today. I marvel at the unflinching focus with which she has chipped away at her goals for 50 years, displaying impressive dedication.

For as clearly as the public saw her as a “female candidate,” I think Clinton herself made too few concessions to her gender to please the electorate. Ambition in a woman is a tricky thing; people tend to label a woman with it as “desperate” or “scary.” If you have it, and especially if you have a lot of it, it’s best to keep it hidden. That way, people will think you’ve stumbled into your accomplishments and they will like you more. Clinton did not take this approach—her drive was clear for the world to see.

One of the reasons she was put off by Clinton, Gabby says, is the fact that Hillary received money from Saudi Arabia, a country that does not grant equal rights to women. Again, Clinton was playing the game of politics, more concerned with being a shrewd competitor than one who weighs with every move the implications of being female.

Gabby may not have liked Clinton, but she wasn’t a huge fan of Trump either. She says, of the Republican nominees, she would have liked to have seen more of Ben Carson. On the Democrat side, she liked Bernie Sanders.

In the months since the election, a question I’ve heard raised among left-leaning voters is, “Would the outcome have been different had the Democratic Party nominated Sanders instead of Clinton?” This is the first I’m hearing a Trump voter say something that seems to bolster the theory that Sanders may have been a more viable candidate than Clinton.

Gabby’s comments force me to form words around a vague hunch: Clinton shares responsibility for Trump’s victory. She was so focused on her goal of being president that she turned a blind eye to evidence that she wasn’t the best candidate. She could not sacrifice her vision even as many Americans were clearly stating that, for whatever reason, they did not find her likeable or trustworthy.

“I seriously would have considered voting for Sanders,” Gabby says. The words are barely out of her mouth when something inside me shifts. For all the compassion I’ve had for Clinton during such a brutal campaign and defeat, for the first time I feel angry at her.

As woman, she couldn’t have soared to such heights without outsized ambition, but it also blinded her to how unpalatable she had become to constituents. A complicated Catch-22, if ever there was one, for harboring ambition while being female may have been the very thing that people found so off-putting.

Lynn’s mom

Nancy, born in 1946 in North Dakota, didn’t want to talk directly to me, but she gave her daughter, Lynn, permission to do so on her behalf. This turned out to be a gift because what I got was a conversation with a woman who has been struggling for much of her life to understand the psychology behind her mother’s politics, which are so at odds with her own.

Whereas many of the women I’ve spoken with voted for Trump with the hope that he would shake up the status quo, Lynn feels her mom’s motivations were the opposite. Nancy, she says, is fearful of change. She voted for Trump in an attempt to stop changes, specifically those she sees in her own community.

Nancy has witnessed firsthand the changing demographics of her state. Over the last decade or so, the number of immigrants to call North Dakota home has skyrocketed. For the most part, these are legal immigrants who applied for asylum in the U.S. from countries in Northern Africa such as Somalia. They move there to work in the poultry processing plants and other farming-related industries. (The higher paying unionized jobs of the Dakota Access Pipeline are another major source of imported workers, though these tend to be American-born workers from other states).

As the faces of her neighbors and community members have changed, Nancy has not found herself in a welcoming state of mind or curious about the backstories of these people from faraway places whose customs are so different from her own. Instead, she feels threatened; she thinks her personal safety is endangered. She blames Obama; she believes Clinton she would have further escalated this trend.

Lynn has encouraged her mom to take a closer look at the forces changing North Dakota. She has tried to explain that many of the companies employing foreign-born workers, particularly refugees who have achieved legal status, receive financial incentives from the government and that these sorts of arrangements have a long-standing history in the U.S. and aren’t tied to any one administration. Corporations advocated for these deals with the argument that the local workforce is inadequate to meet their needs. Trump may have talked tough on immigration, but the changes in North Dakota are actually caused by corporate subsidies, which is an area he is unlikely to do anything about and, if anything, will probably protect and expand upon.

Lynn has also tried to explain that the immigrants who are relocating to North Dakota have gone through years of waiting and layers of bureaucracy to achieve this “dream.” They just want to live quiet, peaceful lives.

Nancy does not embrace the more complex story of her state’s changing demographics presented to her by her daughter. This doesn’t surprise Lynn, though Lynn finds it baffling because in an indirect way her mom benefits from the arrangement. If the factories in the region did not import workers, they would likely relocate and the local economy would suffer, compromising the services her mother relies on to live a comfortable life.

Here, Lynn’s tone takes on a somber note, one that speaks to me of a woman who is resigned to the fact that the person she loves most won’t change. Lynn says she has come to accept that her mom’s mindset is deeply ingrained, and is probably the result of thinking that goes back generations in her family. Lynn sees it not just in the realm of politics, but in the personal, too. Her mother doesn’t want to delve beneath the surface on any topic for fear that an analytic eye will find its gaze on her own life, exposing truths better left unexamined.

Cynthia

Cynthia, born in 1951, lives in Ohio, perhaps the most important state as far as modern American presidential elections are concerned. Political forecasters watch the state closely because it’s one of the few whose results are unpredictable and whichever candidate wins there tends to become president. Examining Ohio, analysts can speculate about factors that contributed to outcomes on a national level.

Ohio tends to have a fickle electorate. Barack Obama won the state by four and a half points in 2008 and three in 2012. In the recent election, Donald Trump won Ohio by about 8 points: 51.3 percent to Clinton’s 43.2 percent. What appears to have happened is that the counties in Ohio that are typically democratic strongholds—such as Mahonig County which includes working class stronghold of Youngstown where Cynthia lives—lost considerable ground. Obama won Mahonig by a landslide—as much as 28 points, helping tip the state in his favor—while Hillary squeaked ahead there by only 3 points.

If votes cast by Ohioans and older white women were two of the most significant contributors to electing the current president, then Cynthia herself is a big part of the reason things turned out the way they did. You might go so far as to say Cynthia, and several others like her, decided this election.

If this is true, Hillary didn’t have a chance. Cynthia never had any intention of voting for her. Not that Cynthia hasn’t gone for Democrats in the past. She was all for Jimmy Carter back in the 1970s and though she has tended toward Republicans since then, she has also thrown a wild card or two, voting Green when that felt right.

Unlike other women I’ve spoken with, abortion didn’t factor in to her decision. She wants abortions to be legal, says they’ll happen even if they’re banned, and she’d rather they be safe. She also didn’t seem all that concerned with homeland security or immigration. Unlike other Ohioans who were said to be attracted to Trump’s promises about manufacturing jobs and a revision of NAFTA, Cynthia didn’t list those as influences either.

What appears to have swayed Cynthia is less concrete and more difficult to articulate. During her attempts to put words to it, she pauses so many times to gather her thoughts that more than once I think the call’s been dropped. What she communicates in stops and starts is about the current cultural climate, specifically popular media, which includes Hollywood, music, and even advertising. It’s in the near nakedness of our entertainers, the over-sharing about details once considered private, an almost shock-value openness woven into even the simplest commercial. She feels a sense that most power-holders are complicit in these changes: either promoting them or failing to question them. Regular people who aren’t comfortable with new norm are dismissed as inconsequential or never acknowledged in the first place.

In addition, Cynthia says that we appear to be suffering from over-correction on certain issues, creating worse consequences than those with which we started. She feels that an almost compulsive focus on diversity is fueling racial tension rather than mitigating it. Similarly, she points out that anti-bullying campaigns have gone hand-in-hand with a spike in meanness and harassment both in person and online.

Here I am at the looking glass again, only now I’ve stepped through. I’m struggling to understand how Trump is meant to help with these issues when he seems to me to be a perfect demonstration of much of what she finds offensive in popular culture.

I listen closely as Cynthia explains, interjecting questions here and there to flesh out her meaning because I’m one of those people who has ignored viewpoints like hers. My interpretation is that overall the changes she points to are positive signs that our society is becoming more authentic and inclusive and that whatever anger or cruelty being expressed is poison coming to the surface like a wound that has to weep before it heals. In fact, it seems to me that the worst rage is being spewed by those who feel or have felt voiceless and invisible—and, if this is the case, I’ve been part of the problem. It’s why I was so shocked when Trump won. I had a huge blind spot where opinions contrary to my own existed. I minimized the people who held them.

After speaking with Cynthia, I can see how she and others might interpret recent cultural changes as too aggressive and with correlations that are negative. I don’t even think it matters if I agree or if I can see how Trump is meant to help. Cynthia’s vote for Trump was her way of rejecting a ruling class that does not acknowledge her. The important part is that I opened myself up to trying to understand because I think it’s the mainstream’s reluctance to do this that’s really the issue here.

Courtney

One of my close friends—I’ll call her Gloria—voted for Trump. She said she was undecided leading up to the election and she actively participated in conversations in which we both questioned Trump’s character. She never once defended him when I marveled at his thin skin and what his lack of filter revealed about his psyche. In fact, she always agreed and threw in a few choice criticisms herself. To be fair, we could also be rough on Hillary.

After the election, I asked her point-blank who she voted for. It was rude, I realize. As she told me, I tried to keep my expression neutral. I refrained from shouting an expletive. I think I managed a teeth-baring grimace when she explained that, ultimately, she believes Trump is a “catalyst for change.”

I don’t dedicate an entire post to Gloria because she doesn’t fit the criteria I laid out in the beginning. Namely, she’s not white. She’s officially “Mexican” though previous generations of her family have been here as long as my own.

Like Gloria, Courtney is an unlikely Trump supporter. While a majority of white women middle aged and older voted Trump, millennials (like people of color) overwhelmingly backed Clinton. Courtney, born in 1987, is the youngest woman with whom I spoke. She spent her childhood in a tiny town in Southern Missouri but now resides in St. Louis.

I suppose it would easy to chalk up her vote to ignorance or naiveté, but in speaking with her she struck me as wise beyond her years, perhaps even wise beyond my own. She was forced to grow up fast when, as a teenager, she took on the responsibility of raising her two younger brothers when her mother was incapacitated by mental illness.

In her youth, Courtney was a dedicated member of church youth group but became disillusioned as she got older and their stance on abstinence both inflexible and unrealistic. She is both pro-life AND pro-choice: she doesn’t think abortion is ever good, but she believes it should be among the options for women making decisions about their own bodies.

You’d never guess by looking at Courtney how she voted. She sports a bright rainbow shade of hair, vintage style dresses, and cat-eye makeup—all of which gives her the appearance of a sexy Rosie the Riveter. The rebellious nod to the past seems fitting for a conservative who has found kindred spirits in unconventional people. Her best friend is both gay and black.

Courtney manages a pub while saving money to complete her nursing degree. She plans to specialize in hospice care. This election is giving her plenty of practice comforting those who are facing circumstances that feel like death.

“I want to hug them and tell them it’s going to be okay,” she says of the many people she sees who are expressing pain because of the election results. She voted for Trump because she didn’t like Hillary and she believed he would beef up “homeland security.”

But will it be okay?

“He said what he needed to say to get elected,” Courtney explained. She was under the impression that Trump-as-president would be a gentler more inclusive force than his campaign rhetoric had implied.

In days after the inauguration, I asked Gloria what she thought so far—was the man she’d cast her vote for living up to her expectations? Gloria tends to evaluate things on a macro-level, interpreting events in broad stroke according to what they reveal about humanity at large. It’s a point of view that allows her to stay somewhat detached from everyday details. Some might call this viewpoint spiritual or even biblical. Others might say it’s a cop-out.

“I didn’t say the changes he makes would be good,” she told me. “Only that he’d be a catalyst for change.”

Marianne

On the night of the election, Marianne sat with her two daughters watching the vote results on television. Marianne, born in 1970, lives in San Antonio with her family. Eventually they all fell asleep on the sofa, the TV still going.

Marianne believed with 100 percent certainty that Clinton would win the election. Even in the moments before drifting off with her daughters, she was convinced that somehow the early returns favoring Trump did not provide the full picture and that Hillary would pull ahead. She had voted for Trump, although she preferred other Republican candidates to him. She thought hers was more of a protest vote than a real one.

Marianne is Catholic. Before settling down in Texas, she served in the military, rising to the rank of officer and living the nomadic life associated with that profession. She has a special-needs child. These characteristics are probably the most important contributors to her vote. She required a candidate who would promote a pro-life agenda, honor and protect the military, and come up with a healthcare model that is more affordable than the Affordable Care Act. She says when she was stationed in Australia she admired that country’s universal free health coverage but is unsure if such a system would be realistic here. She felt that of the two candidates, Trump would best represent these interests.

Marianne’s social circle—both online and in person—leans decidedly anti-Trump. The friend she and I share in common is particularly outspoken against Trump.

In the weeks leading up to the election, Marianne wanted to be honest with our mutual friend and everyone else about how she was voting. Silence felt like untruth in that it allowed others to assume her vote was for Clinton. She posted on Facebook what she believed was a respectful explanation of her choice. She wasn’t trying to convince anyone her vote was right; she simply wanted to be transparent.

The comments attached to her post began to roll in. She was called a racist, bigot, and woman-hater—and that was just by her brother. Suffice it to say, many people were unpleased with her. She believes several “unfriended” her because of that post.

She had to search her heart and decide what kind of role model to be for her daughters. She wanted to be the kind of woman who stands by her convictions even if doing so is difficult. She believed a demonstration of being a strong woman is more important than simply casting a vote for a candidate you disagree with because she’s a woman. Still, it is painful for her to realize people she considered friends thought less of her for her honesty or, worse, no longer wanted her in their lives.

Marianne tried to accept that some friends would be lost to her. But a small handful she couldn’t bear the thought of losing. She sent them private messages saying she hoped they could stay friends. She wrote, “All I think of when I think of you is love.” In their replies, they told her not to worry, that they still loved her.

The night of the election, Marianne awoke on her sofa in the wee hours to see the television screen declaring a Trump victory. She says she couldn’t believe her eyes.

A similar scenario played out in my own house. I, too, had gone to bed thinking the results would seesaw toward Clinton, only to check my smartphone at 3 am. I was equally shocked by the headlines in my news feed.

Marianne shook her daughters awake and showed them the outcome. In the privacy of their own living room, they indulged in a moment of celebratory hugs at the unexpected victory. But even in this brief display of jubilation, Marianne was aware that the source of her joy would be cause for heartache among many of the people she loved. Before, hers had been the losing candidate and now he would be president. This shift demanded that she take even greater care in how she handled inter-personal relationships. She would need to dig into her deep reserves of compassion, which was another behavior she could model for her daughters.

Meanwhile, in my home, I set my phone face down on my nightstand and tried to go back to sleep, dogged by a sense that the world outside my bedroom possessed a haunting unreality. I thought of my own family and friends who had voted for Trump. I wanted to find a way back to the love I had for them.

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.