My Surprising, Painful Dinner With A Trump Supporter
By Jessica Watson
Many of us have been distancing ourselves from those who have strong views in favor of Trump and his plan for America. Two days after the election, I unknowingly welcomed one into my home.
My home is my refuge, my haven, and my escape from the rest of the world. It’s a space that brings me comfort and joy. It has also always been a place where people feel safe enough to be themselves. There is no need for armor behind my brick walls. My friends have always been welcome; they are an eclectic group from many backgrounds, representing a plethora of races, religions, ways of life, and points of view.
My Thursday evening started off smoothly. I was making dinner for two, with ’90s R&B music blaring through my speakers. My vegetable chopping matched the rhythm of “Creep” by TLC. Sam was on his way with a bottle of Malbec. I pictured us, sated from a delicious meal and then warmed by my backyard firepit, watching the few stars not dimmed by the glow of Baltimore’s city lights.
Sam arrived on schedule and I put him on wine-pouring duty while I seared salmon. As it sizzled, we made small talk about how intense the election had been.
I wasn’t ready to have the election conversation with anyone. I’d been in system processing mode since 5:00 a.m. Wednesday, when I rose to dark, ominous overcast skies and learned that Donald Trump would be the 45th President of the United States. Just one day later, I was still at a loss for words, swirling in a storm of confusion, anger, frustration, and depression.
“The Democrats really should’ve come up with a better candidate to go up against Trump,” he continued.
“I disagree,” I replied, “Trump steamrolled his way through our system, making a mockery of it all. It was a game of strategy and marketing, but it was still a game. I’m not sure who would’ve been able to go up against an opponent who was making his own rules as he went . . . ” I trailed off.
“Well I voted for Trump.”
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He said it in between bites of salmon, as casually as if talking about the weather. My world went silent. Sam, a gay man in his early thirties, a child of immigrants, voted for Trump. All I had been conditioned to know about Trump supporters flashed through my mind: A vote for Trump is a vote for racism, a vote against women, a vote of fear. But this supporter is my friend. I am not ready for this, I thought, as I sat in stunned silence.
“Well did you hear his plan for America?” he asked. “I really do believe in what he’s trying to do. We need to make America great again.” I winced at what my open door policy had brought into my home. There was a lion in this sheep’s den.
Immediately I decided I wanted to stay in this uncomfortable space and dig deep. I’d been blindsided by the results of this election. Scientists say animals are attuned to natural disasters moments before they happen; birds will migrate to safe havens right before a tsunami; dogs will start to bark ferociously before an earthquake. What warning signs had I missed? Suddenly I had a burning desire to know: How could a well-educated and seemingly progressive person vote for Trump? Was it conceivable to overlook the ravages of his campaign?
“Sam,” I said slowly, “did you watch his rallies and see the behavior of his supporters?” Maybe we were not seeing the same thing. Sam countered: “Okay but what about his views on bringing outsourced business back to America, taking it away from China? It may cost companies more money to operate and affect profit margins, but so what? This needs to happen to bring jobs back to our country. Made in America needs to be a thing again.”
“But you do know that Trump’s own brand is made in China, right?” I queried, “So he’s advocating for standards that he himself does not adhere to.”
“Well maybe this will force him, and he can hold his companies accountable,” Sam replied casually. I am a person who wears my feelings on my sleeve, and it took every ounce of my being to not show an expression of visible concern. Maybe I should’ve broken my poker face, but instead I sipped my wine, contemplating his words.
Sam went on, “I also like that he funded his campaign with his own money. That pretty much frees him from the influence of any political agenda, so he can focus on the issues. We all know that politicians raise funds, which turn into hands in pockets and loyalties that oftentimes overlook the plight of the average American, especially those in the middle of our country.”
“Okay” I said. I could admittedly see how a candidate would seem more appealing because of where their money came from.
“Think about the middle of this country, Jess,” he said, “they are our farmers, our blue-collar workers, and our brick and mortar people. They used to be the bread and butter of this country, until jobs started moving overseas and people started migrating to larger cities. And, while we continue to invite more people to the table, their way of life is fading away.” I wonder to myself how Sam could possibly relate to the middle of the country; I don’t think he’s ever even driven through it, let alone spoken to its residents about their way of life.
“I’ll explain it like this,” he says, “Imagine you invite someone into your house, and they’re nice and fun for a while but then they start to overstay their welcome. Maybe they eat too much food or start to cause a ruckus or hang out too late and suddenly you’re kicked out of your own house. I’m just saying, that’s how a large portion of our country feels, left out of the equation and forgotten. And then Trump has a plan to bring jobs back in, rebuilding this fallen way of life. That’s why people are voting for him.” He’s right, in that the lack of jobs and wage losses were at least some of the key factors fueling Trump’s popularity among voters who work in manufacturing, trade, and retail.
“But at what cost?” I countered, “Have you not watched the behavior of his supporters? The same rationale is being used to support ostracizing groups of people: people of color, immigrants, Muslims. Do you understand that he’s set ablaze a wildfire I’m fearful we can’t put out? People are afraid, literally, for their way of life — their very lives.”
Is Sam not afraid? Is nothing about his way of life, or the way of life of someone close to him, at stake?
There’s an eerie scene in Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, which shows Trump supporters spitting on, violently pushing, and taking swings at protesters as they are escorted from his rallies. The film juxtaposes this with black and white footage of African American protestors from years ago, being pushed by white men, punched in the face while being shoved away from the scene. The message is clear: You don’t belong here. It’s gut-wrenching. “In the good ol’ days this doesn’t happen,” Trump says in scene, “I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks,” and the crowd cheers wildly.
Sam’s excitement to bring jobs back to America clashes violently with my fear. As a woman of color, I know what hate looks and feels like. And I’m terrified. Since the election, there have been hundreds of reported hate crimes that our country’s systems are failing to take seriously. Sam argues that Trump disavowed the endorsement of the KKK, but that won’t stop them from planning a victory parade for him.
Sam admits that he doesn’t really know what it’s like to be part of an oppressed group in this country, which I find ironic. “I think the response to this election has been dramatic.” He says, “Democrats are now feeling the same disappointment that Republicans felt eight years ago when Obama was elected. Hillary didn’t win the election and that’s frustrating if you supported her.”
But it’s not the same. Because eight years ago, the president-elect wasn’t threatening to invalidate some marriages, to deport some families, to build a wall against some humans, or to renege on international treaties. Eight years ago, the president-elect didn’t suggest that you didn’t belong in this country because of the color of your skin or your faith. Eight years ago, protesters were waving rainbow flags, not painting swastikas on churches. Women weren’t concerned that their bodily rights could be revoked, their pregnancies an “inconvenience” forced upon them. Eight years ago, respected economists in our country weren’t cautioning against this very outcome.
For those who have a history of being marginalized and discriminated against, Trump’s campaign is a direct threat to their constitutional rights.
“I just don’t think that stuff will happen. He’s a crowd pleaser. He just played to what was popular.” He said all this with a shrug, like it was a game of semantics and nothing more. Can’t you take a joke, America?
It suddenly hit me that I was talking to a wall I could not move and a divide I could not bridge. I questioned my original motives for engagement. Did I want to move the wall? Did I want to understand why the wall was there, or maybe why the wall couldn’t see the building crumbling around it? It struck me that, as has been pointed out, Trump won because the establishment took him literally but not seriously, and his supporters took him seriously but not literally.
The overall consensus in the eyes of the casual conservative who doesn’t, at least personally, identify as racist, sexist, misogynist, etc., is that the worst fears people have expressed about this new regime are simply not going to happen. It is easy for them to dismiss Trump’s obvious and profound flaws, to overlook the extremists in favor of all the things they wanted to hear.
There was not enough wine to numb the conflict I felt. “This is so much bigger than politics Sam,” I pleaded.
The once delicious food now tasted strange in my mouth. I immediately changed to topics we usually discuss: family, films, work. I was thankful he seamlessly moved on, and eventually it was as if we never discussed politics at all. Nonetheless, I will have a hard time forgetting our exchange.
Under the stars with the fire ablaze, I quietly thought about the state of things. In the aftermath of the election, there have been tears of joy by many who earnestly believe that Trump will be the emancipation of our nation. But there have also been tears shed from those heartbroken, angry, and fearful of what the future holds, their pain more profound than Trump’s supporters seem capable of understanding.
I’m not sure what will happen next with me and Sam, but my home will continue to be a much-needed place of refuge, a place of awareness for what drives us apart — as well as what brings us together.