Finding Common Ground with Trump Supporters in Buffalo

Lafayette Square in Buffalo, NY (Photo by Michael Silverstein)

I am a teacher. I speak in front of groups of people all day long. Teenage people. I’m used to having to win over my audience and then win them over again ten minutes later.

Despite this, speaking to other adults one-on-one terrifies me.

Back-to-school night and the marathon day of parent-teacher conferences both make my blood run cold. Meeting — or worse, re-meeting but not being able to place — a rapid succession of other adults: this is my nightmare.

Naturally, I nearly backed out of deep canvassing several times. I would say I have no idea how I found myself going door to door starting conversations with total strangers about Donald Trump, but that’s not actually true. I did it for my students. I did it because I worry about the message my students take away when they hear a presidential candidate make blanket statements about women, or Mexicans, or Muslims, whether my students fall into those categories or not.

So out I went, on a sunny Saturday morning, to engage total strangers in political conversations on their own doorsteps. As I walked up to the first house my mouth went dry and I had to actively unclench my fist after knocking on the door.

“Hi, I’m out today with a group called SURJ, and we’re hoping to talk with you about Donald Trump.”

“No thank you.”

Every time. No one wants to stop their day to talk to a stranger about Trump — this is one of the great truths that unites Trump’s supporters and opponents.

Before the door could close in my face, though, I followed up with the words that make deep canvassing special. “I’m wondering if you could tell me a little bit about the concerns you have right now that Trump is addressing.” I want to hear what you think.

And then the conversations began in earnest. People mentioned employment and immigration quite a bit, along with concerns that were more specific to their individual situations. At some point, I found that this all felt familiar: listen. Find something to connect with. Add to what the other person is saying, or ask a follow-up question. I teach and practice these skills in my classroom every day.

What really surprised me was that I wasn’t the only one listening. I started my responses with common ground: I, too, want to bring new jobs to our region. I, too, think the country has an obligation to ensure that our men and women in uniform are adequately cared for during and after their service. But then, timidly at first, I explained one of my concerns. I shared the fears of my students and students across the country whose families are from other countries or cultures. I shared how difficult it can be to encourage respectful classroom discussion when a presidential candidate routinely resorts to language designed to silence and shame his opponents. I shared my own fear of what can happen when people focus on the things that divide them, not the things that unite them.

This is the true beauty of deep canvassing: these strangers, people who almost certainly regretted answering the door as soon as they saw us standing there with our clipboards, took the time to listen to my concerns. I’m not sure if I changed any votes or not. I am sure that these conversations resulted in a deeper understanding — on both sides — of the things that unite us. While I find parts of Trump’s campaign rhetoric hateful, his supporters are mostly not. Mostly, they are like me: people who want the best for their loved ones. I believe that we can accomplish that without hate and without division, but only if we are willing to listen to each other’s fears.

I will certainly be back out deep canvassing again before long. And you know what? I’m actually kind of looking forward to back-to-school night.

This article represents my own ideas and not those of my employer.