I have several friends who voted for Donald Trump. After Trump won the election I did the only productive thing I could think of: I invited one of them over for dinner.
Does that sound crazy? We live in particularly divided times. The online dialogue about the US election has been divisive at every level, with Nazi comparisons and vicious trolling flying around like confetti. My friend and I sparred online in our discussions of events, though thankfully we were more polite to one another than some people are. We have never compared each other to Hitler, which in the current climate makes our discussions oddly courteous.
But this is part of the problem, isn’t it? Online discussions are a terrible phenomenon. Email and Facebook are terrible means of communicating as they strip out the personal aspects of a discussion and reduce it to mere ideas. Offence is easily taken. We infer the worst intentions from comments, get defensive, and arguments ensue. So dinner it was, sitting and eating together, discussing things face to face. And here is what I learned.
- Not all Trump voters actually like Trump. My friend – a white, middle-aged, Christian man from a southern swing state – does not. He finds him crude and offensive. So why did he vote for him? Because he dislikes Clinton more than he dislikes Trump. It really is, for him, the lesser of two evils. The thought of electing a politician widely thought to be corrupt, duplicitous and incompetent was enough to make him switch to Trump. Interestingly, he would not have voted Trump if Sanders had been the alternative.
- A lot of American people feel left out, sidelined by what they see as a sweeping, liberal agenda that perpetuates intolerance in the name of tolerance. The social and political mainstream automatically condemns anyone taking an alternative point of view on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, unisex bathrooms, or immigration. Whether Donald Trump is likely to take a different stance on these issues is not important: what matters is that he is outside the establishment, refuses to subscribe to the liberal narrative, and enables their anger to be heard.
- Oddly (to me, at least) Trump is not seen by everyone as an aggressive candidate. My friend perceives him to be less interventionist and therefore less likely to embroil the USA in the mucky scuffles of recent years: Iraq, Libya, Syria, and so on. Trump as less warlike than Clinton? It sounds baffling, but that is how some people perceive him.
What mattered more than all of this was the simple act of meeting and talking in person. This enabled me to see my friend as a human, not as an abstract collection of ideas and motives. I saw him smile when I joked. I saw the pain on his face when he discussed abortion. The simple act of sitting together made me soften what I said to him (and he to me, I think).
I still disagree with him and I am profoundly shocked and worried by Trump’s victory. But in an increasingly divided world, and one that is separated and made more remote by the technologies that were intended to improve communication, I found it a helpful and uplifting experience. Politics cannot be boiled down to black and white issues, to anonymous and intangible ideas and policies. People, actual flesh and blood human beings, are involved at every level. Whether or not we agree – in fact, especially if we don’t agree – we have to listen to one another, lest our divisions grow even more stark.