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.