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Talking to Trump Voters

Opinion | December 4, 2016

Over the summer I was spending time with one of my best friends, Jessica DeVivo. Jess is a born-again Christian and a conservative, and although we rarely agree on anything politically, as I’m quite liberal, I was shocked when she told me she planned to vote for Trump. I knew she was a conservative, but I thought that even she couldn’t vote for a man that horrifying. I immediately began grilling her–how could she support a man so sexist? So racist? Who planned to ban all Muslims from America? Who disparaged Latinos, African Americans, and so many other groups of people? She shot back with all of Hillary’s failings, but I didn’t want to hear them. As the conversation went on and we argued past one another and grew more upset, I realized it wasn’t worth it. We were both in New York, which was a blue state anyway, and I didn’t have the energy to continue arguing with her. We both took deep breaths and changed the topic, and went back to enjoying our day together. It didn’t come up again.

About five months later, Donald Trump was elected president, and all the emotions I’d felt while talking to Jess came rushing back a million times stronger. I, like so many others, was horrified to hear that Trump had become president. All the polls had been wrong, all precedents had been destroyed, and we were going to have a bigot as our president. I couldn’t believe that people had voted for him. I couldn’t fathom how they could think he’d be okay, how he’d be a better choice for this country than Hillary. As reports of hate crimes and racism began showing up on my news feed and the reality of the situation began to sink in, I felt defeated.

But as I continued reading Facebook posts and listening to conversations at Tufts, I heard broad, venomous attacks on Trump voters. I saw blanket generalizations–that Trump voters were all racist, all sexist, that it was selfish and hateful that they would put their political beliefs above the rights of millions of Americans. To some extent, I agreed–Trump had said terrible, dehumanizing things, and I couldn’t understand how people could vote for him. But as time went on, I realized that this couldn’t be why everyone voted for him. I personally know Trump voters who aren’t like that, including Jess. Jess has always been one of the most genuinely kind and good-hearted people I know. She’s not a racist, and she’s not stupid. But I truly didn’t understand her.

Finally, I decided to just ask.

This weekend, I reached out to Jess, as well as a handful of other Trump voters, to see why they’d voted for him and how they were able to justify it. I found a range of opinions, from people who’d supported him through the primaries, to people who’d reluctantly accepted him as their candidate after the Republican National Committee, to a man who made up his mind to vote for Trump in the polling booth. Although I didn’t necessarily agree with them on what they were saying, nor did I think their reasons for voting for Trump outweighed what I saw as his unredeemable failings, it was interesting and humanizing to hear what they had to say.

The biggest theme was that they wanted change. Every single person I talked to said they hoped he would fix what Obama had not, particularly in regards to the economy, healthcare, and foreign policy, and many said they had found Hillary Clinton’s promise for more of the same unappealing.

“The people who have voted for Trump are saying that there has been something wrong with the system for eight years,” Jess explained. “They want to see change in the economy, in these other different areas. That is the majority of the Republicans who voted for Trump.”

“I am hoping for change,” said Matt King, a graduate student at Liberty University from Missouri. “I want to see productivity. I want to see foreign relations improve, I want to see immigration laws tightened, like they are in Canada and other places, I want to see the debt go down, I want to see life protected, and I want to see Christian values, the values this country was built on, return.”

Kristina Noto, a junior from New York studying nursing at Dominican College, echoed King’s thoughts.

“I do believe Obama is an intelligent man, as well as a great speaker,” said Noto. “I do not believe he did great for the country, though. I do not see how he helped Black communities, or how he created jobs. I hope Trump will bring jobs, similarly to how he has done throughout his business career. I also do not believe Obama took full control over the terror situation. I think we have become ‘soft’ and afraid as a nation and we do not look into how serious terrorism is.”

Some also offered their Christian faith as a guiding principle.

“I am Pro-Life and that was my biggest strike against Hillary,” said King. “She could have been great otherwise, but my faith, my degree [B.S. in Church Ministries: Youth Ministry], and everything I stand for means I will never give my support to someone who is okay with killing babies.”

“I sat down and looked at what they stood for,” said Jess. “Me being a Christian, I found a lot of things that he stated were what I agreed with, and that some things that she has stated, I don’t…There was just more of a connection to him than for her.”

Noto also explained that she actually liked his demeanor, and found him appealing because he was an outsider.

“I am tired of people making a career out of politics,” she explained. “Political positions are public jobs to serve the people, but many politicians like to serve themselves. I like how he isn’t politically correct because I feel like [political correctness] will hide issues that need to be addressed and could leave gray areas.”

I asked them all about Trump’s racist and sexist and generally bigoted comments, because these were what disgusted me and so many others the most. I couldn’t imagine voting for someone who made these comments, and I wanted to see how they reconciled that with their own moral beliefs, particularly those I talked to who considered themselves devout Christians.

“All inappropriate remarks by Donald Trump are inexcusable, disgraceful, and embarrassing,” said Tyler Lucas, a senior studying social sciences at Liberty University.The things he said made it extremely hard to vote for Trump. I mean, I fought against his election until the day of the election. I was #NeverTrump for a long time… but I voted for Donald Trump. At the end of the day he has said some terrible things and may try to act on them. But our economy needs a facelift and he is the only one who has said anything that might help. And ultimately if he tries to act on them, he will be impeached and removed from office, because the majority of people are not racist. The majority of people are not xenophobic. The majority of the people just want a decent job so they can live a nice, comfortable, middle class life.”

“I hated his comments,” said King. “I love other cultures…Trump’s words were hateful and wrong. He wasn’t thinking. Did this factor into me voting for him…Yes, because in voting for him, I was voting with expectation that he will change in his words and actions. He has a lot to fix.”

When talking to Jess, I pushed further, and asked about the hate crimes that are being committed in the wake of Trump’s election. She got emotional while giving me her response.

“I am so disappointed in the minority, and I emphasize, the minority, of the people who voted for Trump that are doing these things. It is not the majority…I could cry right now because I am sitting here and going, wow, the fact that you look at a person because they’re different and you tell them that they need to leave [the country], that breaks my heart, and I never want someone to sit here and think that’s what I think, because it’s not…And I apologize, from my Republican party, for the minority people who are doing these things, I apologize on their behalf. Because that does not represent all of us.”

Finally, I asked about the divide in the electorate, and what they thought of the relationship between conservatives and liberals right now.

“I think [liberals] hate me,” said Lucas. “I think they hate me and don’t even know me. I think they think I’m defined by a piece of paper I made a mark on. I am not. I think they have an inaccurate image of me and aren’t even trying to find out who I truly am…. [Liberals] argue for tolerance but when it comes to the opposing views such as mine they seem pretty intolerant.”

“The millennial generation tends to consider me an ‘outcast’ due to my conservative beliefs,” said Noto. “They do not see me as intelligent or kind. I am a terrible person who has no right to speak on women issues simply because I supported Trump…I was recently verbally attacked out of nowhere by someone because I voted for Trump. I do not know if all liberals are like that, but similarly to how liberals see Trump supporters as evil, liberals have a negative name to them as well.”

Listening to them talk about liberals and the divide between the two parties was the most poignant for me. After the election, so many people around me talked about using Trump’s victory as a catalyst for change, as a call to action to start fighting for what they believe in. There have been huge protests, and while that kind of action, of course, has an effect, I wonder how students before the election simply tried to talk to Trump voters to try to change their minds? How many listened to what they had to say? How many just wrote them off as a basket of “deplorables” and hoped to outnumber them come November? Because I did. I just wrote off one of my best friends.

Even though I still don’t agree with Trump voters, it’s easier to see where they’re coming from now. Of course, there are still many of them who were attracted to his hateful rhetoric, and that’s scary. The hate crimes that have occurred since his election show that his rhetoric did, indeed, prompt real, horrifying action. This is not the America I want to live in, and it’s not an America that I am proud of. I’m still upset that he won, and I’m still upset that this is happening. But if we want to create change, I think it starts by engaging good people who voted for him rather than further alienating those people from productive conversation and action.
I FaceTimed Jess today to talk about this article and get her thoughts. I told her how much I’d valued having her in my life, being able to discuss our different opinions and beliefs respectfully, and how I think our friendship has really shaped the way I look at the world. She agreed, and reminded me that she’d walked away from our discussions in the past looking at things from a new perspective and mentioned that there’d been instances where I’d changed her mind. Who knows? Maybe if I’d pursued the conversation about the election this summer more carefully, she wouldn’t have voted for Trump after all. Or maybe she would have, but with a heightened awareness of the implications his election would have in people’s lives. And what if I’d tried to engage my more moderate friends, those who were on the fence? Maybe I wouldn’t have assumed all of the polls were right, and wouldn’t have been so shocked by Trump’s victory. It’s hard to know. But what I do know is that by trying to shut down Jess’s opinions this past summer, neither of us changed our minds nor understood each other any better. We were each just trying to prove that we were right, that our opinions were superior, and ultimately, it did nothing.