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.”

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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.

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.