Sarah

My last conversation for this phase of my project speaking with female Trump voters would be in person with Sarah, born in 1963. As I drove to our meeting spot, I had time to reflect on what this experience had taught me. It hadn’t made me more of a Trump fan, but it had done something important—though I was still trying to figure out what.

As a university professor who practices yoga, attends a Unitarian church, and lives in the Pacific Northwest, Sarah is not your typical Trump voter. In fact, just about everyone in her social network is opposed to Trump. In the weeks leading up to the election, she took a yoga retreat with a group of girlfriends. The campaigning was in full swing, and the audio of Trump’s comment about “p—y grabbing” had just become public. Perhaps emboldened by the assumption that everyone in their midst felt the same, the women spent much of the weekend criticizing Trump.

Sarah found herself in an awkward position. She did not feel safe speaking up. She would have liked to engage in a conversation about the reasons she would be voting for Trump—her preference for his party’s stance on abortion, what she believed was his more serious approach to homeland security, his focus on keeping jobs—but she worried about her friends’ reactions. She thought it unlikely that level heads would prevail, so she kept her mouth shut.

Had the women on the retreat known that an alternative perspective was in their midst, would they have wanted Sarah to speak up? Or was it better to maintain the impression that they were all on the same page? Certainly that illusion was more comfortable. But since when did failing to acknowledge a point of view ever benefit society? Isn’t that a big part of what has made the current socio-political climate so painful—the biases that are being revealed? And not just that they exist, but the force with which they have come forward?

In the days after the election, Sarah’s town organized a “peace” vigil. (Perhaps this was code for “anti-Trump”?) Regardless, Sarah took the event’s label at face value. Among the candle-holding attendees, she spotted an acquaintance from her church. She approached and greeted the woman who she considered a friend. On this evening, the friendliness was not returned. The acquaintance, who knew Sarah had voted for Trump, asked what she was doing at the vigil and told her that she should to leave.

As she recalls this encounter to me, Sarah’s eyes well up. She does not strike me as someone who cries easily, and I can tell how hurt she was, and still is, by this encounter.

Several days after our conversation, I’m still thinking about it.

I suspected that this blog project would circle back to what I learned during my explorations into religions. At last it appears the eagle is landing. During those years of worshipping with Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims, I came to understand that the one truth each faith points to is humanity’s interconnectedness. If this is so, then each of us is, in our own way, accountable for the ideas and actions of the collective. It’s an uncomfortable notion, but one that challenges us to do better.

This endeavor has been a personal test. Can I tolerate viewpoints that differ from my own? Perhaps even some I dislike or might consider harmful? Can I sit calmly with the discomfort that acknowledging these ideas may create within me?  Am I strong enough to admit when aspects of those ideas exist within me? What if I thought that ideas denied—forced into hiding—only gather potency? What if the light of attention works to diminish an idea’s ability to do harm? What if listening is a radical political act?

Trump does not take this approach. He lashes out at opinions or viewpoints that do not support his own. He seems unable to give opposing thoughts the space or respect they need simply to exist. What he does not appear to understand is that he empowers the ideas he denies.

I want to take Trump’s example in this regard and do the opposite. If humanity is a singularity, as religions tell us, then whatever thoughts and feelings some of us are having are part of the bigger picture. No amount of rejection will change that reality. The challenge, then, is to tolerate the discomfort of disagreement, even if it means uncovering in ourselves some of the same characteristics we find distasteful in others. There is no hope for peace if we can’t even listen to one another.

Patty

“Hello.”

The no-nonsense voice at the other end of the line offered the greeting as a statement, not a question.

Patty was born in 1926. At 91, she still lives on her own.

I told her who I was. Her grandson, one of my longtime friends, had prepped her for my call. He said the only thing I had to do in exchange was to start the conversation with an enthusiastic statement about his awesomeness.

“I know that,” Patty said in response to my extolling of her grandson’s virtues.

“Why did you vote for Trump?” Patty didn’t seem like one for superfluous chit chat.

“I live in Maine,” she said as if that should provide sufficient explanation.

“Ok, but why…”

“We all did. Maine voted for Trump. He said he’d help with jobs here, so we voted for him.”

I wanted to say, “You believe that?” But I bit my tongue. That was my own cynicism talking. I find it hard to believe any specific promises politicians make. For most of my adult life, our representatives in Congress have been battling one another as if their jobs are to keep legislation from being passed.

Patty obviously did believe Trump’s campaign promise—and that, by itself, struck me as significant.

I tried to get Patty to tell me other reasons she voted for Trump, asking this way and that. After a few minutes, I could tell she was getting annoyed.

She had given me her answer. What more could I want?

It occurred to me how Patty must see this endeavor to better understand Trump voters as a supremely ridiculous use of time.

When I thanked Patty and said goodbye, it was relief I sensed from her. She could hang up and not waste another second looking back.

Rebecca

“There was an inevitability to it,” Rebecca says, referring to Trump being elected. Born in 1965, Rebecca is a lifelong Democrat who lives in Ohio. At the start of the campaign, she was a Hillary supporter. Last August, she began to question her choice. In September, she seriously weighed not voting for Clinton. By October, her mind was made up to vote for Trump. The steps were that quick and decisive.

Rebecca is single. Most of her adult life, she has worked as a nurse’ aid and caregiver to people with autism and physical disabilities. In 2004, she began to pursue an interest in alternative approaches to wellness. Since then, she has taken courses in metaphysics to acquire the skills to work with people whose suffering has less tangible origins. Today, she assists clients in identifying areas of dysfunction in their bodies and lives and helps to repair them.

Trump strikes me as a person so firmly rooted in the material world that it’s an odd juxtaposition to be talking about him and then switch within seconds to auras, chakras, and energy channels. Rebecca’s thinking is progressive in the true sense of the word: pro-choice, pro-marriage equality, pro-civil liberties.

I’ve heard many times during my conversations with female Trump supporters that they cast their vote to see change or shake up the status quo, but no one I’ve spoken with has articulated it quite like Rebecca. She sees the time in which we are living as one small step in the evolution of humanity, and Trump as a catalyst, a means to a better end.

To hear Rebecca speak of it is to understand that she sees our political system as a sick patient. It suffers from corruption, lack of transparency, and inertia. Even small-scale changes take great effort, and politicians resort to secrecy and sabotage. Our society is riddled with deep resentments, festering anger, boils of hate. These are all indicators of lack of health—and, yet, many of us have come to accept them as normal.

One side has had power of attorney over the suffering patient and has been trying to apply therapies here and there, the deep breathing of broader healthcare coverage or positive visualization of marriage equality. But the side without power of attorney is frustrated because it thinks those things are not helping or don’t address the real problems.

Perhaps what matters now is not whether the remedies they have in mind will work or not, but that they have a chance to try them. If coal jobs are saved, if migrant workers are blocked from entering the country, if the Supreme Court reconsiders abortion—will we be better off? Will working-class Americans have better job opportunities? Will we pay more attention to caring for vulnerable populations? Will we be civil to one another? Or, will it become clear that real solutions lie elsewhere?

Rebecca explains that what we’re in now is the “chaos stage,” which, in both a real and metaphysical sense, is the precursor to rebirth. If our society were a forest, this would be the point at which a fire is raging. It seems destructive but it’s actually part of a healthy process. Dead branches and leaves are being turned into nutrient-rich ash, clearing space for the sunlight to get through.

This phase forces us to examine our values, to speak up and get engaged in protecting the ideals we hold dear, to participate in crafting a government that reflects its people, to become a democracy in a truer sense of the word.

“We had no choice because we couldn’t stay on the path we were on,” Rebecca says. “And Trump may be a dictator, he may end up being the worst thing in the world, but we’ll be better in the long run because of the young people. We’re clearing the way for new growth.

Is Rebecca right? Will we ultimately be better off for having had Trump as president? He may question every piece of legislation passed in the last 8 years, he may force the courts to reconsider previous rulings on civil rights, and he may try to build a wall. But maybe in some mysterious big-picture way, these challenges will help us clarify who we are and build greater solidarity with one another. And if all else fails, I think Rebecca is right about the young people. The people coming up today are the most tolerant and fair-minded our country has ever seen.

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.”