I Listened to a Trump Supporter
I talked at length with a Trump supporter I grew up around. I wanted to understand. I respected her growing up. I wanted to know why a person as kind and compassionate as I remember her is voting for someone like Donald Trump.
She was a family friend, a good person. In rural Ohio, everything was tight. Money, jobs. If you really needed quick cash, she’d put you to work doing landscaping. She’d pay fairly and reliably for the area.
She’s voting for Donald Trump. I disagree with her choice, but I understand why she rejects Clinton so fiercely, and why she’s been swept up in Donald Trump’s particular brand of right-wing populism. I feel that on the left, it’s increasingly easy to ignore these people, to disregard them, to write them off as racists, bigots, or uneducated. I think that’s a loss for everyone involved, and that sometimes listening can help you to at least understand why a person is making the choices they make, so you can work on the root causes. For her, the root cause isn’t racism. In fact, I remember her as one of the only people in the area who proudly hired black workers, in a place where that was a huge issue. She fought over that choice.
But that’s enough background. Let me relay a bit of what she told me.
She’s a person who built her business from the ground up. She wasn’t rich, but was very comfortable for the area. She had a nice house, a nice car, and was stable. She achieved the American dream of not having to struggle. Things changed during the housing crisis. A landscaping business requires customers who need landscaping, and people who don’t own homes just don’t need landscaping. In some of these neighborhoods, one in five people lost their homes. That almost immediately turns a successful landscaping business into a struggling one.
Then there was a domino effect. She couldn’t pay for her lawn-care equipment leases and loans. That hurt her work efficiency. Then, she lost her car. But that didn’t stop the payments. Then, she lost her house. She slowly had to let go all of her employees, until it was just her, hand-mowing lawns for cash the way you might expect a high school student in the summertime.
She told me that every week, it seemed there was another default letter, another foreclosure, another bank demanding more blood from her dry veins. To her, that pile of default notices and demands for payment looked suspiciously similar to Hillary Clinton’s top donor list.
To her, that pile of default notices and demands for payment looked suspiciously similar to Hillary Clinton’s top donor list.
She lost everything she worked so hard for. Obama swore he was going to help. The Wall Street bailout did seem to help Wall Street. But it did absolutely nothing for her. She turns on the news and sees how the Dow Jones is doing better than ever. But that didn’t bring her house and livelihood back. Liberals insist that Obama’s made her life better. But, now she’s driving a car that falls apart randomly while having to pay those same banks for a car she doesn’t own and never will. It’s difficult to convince someone whose life is objectively worse that their life is better. And it’s disengenuous to try. You can break down the specifics, sure. But when someone’s hungry, and you’re busy silencing their complaints by telling them how well world hunger is improving, you’re just going to upset them.
This is not a person who is stupid or racist. She knows Bush caused the economy collapse with his irresponsible tax policies and wars. But she saw liberals as fighting for the banks’ recovery, to hell with her needs. She sees in Hillary someone who celebrates that approach. Who measures US success by the success of multinational mega corporations — corporations who undercut and destroy local businesses. This is a person who grew up in a town with a friendly neighborhood general store, a locally-owned hardware store, farmers’ markets, florists, and auto shops. All of these businesses closed when Walmart moved into town. All their owners now work at that Walmart for a fraction of their previous wages, no benefits, and no hope for something better, something of their own. And now, she sees a free trade supporting former Walmart executive about to come in to office, and it feels like salt in her community’s wounds.
This is a wounded person. Insulting her or continuing to hurt her isn’t going to help. She’s swept up in Trump’s message because she feels someone’s finally listening. Right-wing populism is an awful thing. But desperate people with their backs against the wall will grasp on to whatever they feel will bring a change. Neoliberal capitalism is not sustainable for these people.
This is a wounded person. Insulting her or continuing to hurt her isn’t going to help. She’s swept up in Trump’s message because she feels someone’s finally listening.
Over the past few years, she tried getting back in her business. But a corporation moved in and is operating far cheaper, using undocumented immigrant labor. I should note: She specifically said she doesn’t hold it against the migrant workers. As she said, “They’ve got to take whatever jobs they can get. Just like we do. It’s not their fault. They didn’t choose to make prices so low that legal businesses couldn’t compete.” She was literally a “job creator”. And she wasbeing priced out by the very people Donald Trump insists are pricing her out. That hurts everyone, and it adds an air of authenticity to what he says.
I asked her if she supports Trump’s Mexico wall. She told me, “It doesn’t matter if I do. Hillary wants a wall, too. That wall’s gonna happen.” She wasn’t simply making this up. She’s heard this from many sources, Clinton being one of them. So to her, the idea of a border wall is a non-issue. I pressed her on the issue, and she said she thinks, “It’s a waste of money. If someone wants to cross the border, they’re gonna cross the border.”
I asked about Trump not paying taxes. She said she wouldn’t pay taxes either, if the government custom-tailored tax laws to let her. I asked about Trump wanting to deport Muslims. She said she doesn’t believe he will. That he’s just talking tough.
I asked what, if she hates Clinton so, she thinks about Trump’s campaign contributions to her. What’d she say? “That’s smart business.” She said if she could afford to bribe politicians to save her more money, she would too. But only because you must to stay competitive. She said it’s an awful system, but you can’t blame people for playing the game the way the rules were written. The people to blame, she said, are the people who wrote the rules. And those people are Clintons (and Bushes, and Obamas).
I asked about Trump’s support of the Iraq War. She said she doesn’t care, that at least he’s willing to call it out now.
I asked her about Trump’s racism. Her answer? “Do you know what the Clintons have done to the blacks?” I asked her to elaborate. She brought up the now famous “superpredators” comment, and mass incarceration. She couldn’t provide many details, but to her, the Clintons meant imprisoning black teens for minor drug offenses. She told me of one black teen she briefly employed, who ended up in prison for a couple of joints. She shook her head in disgust; this clearly hurt her.
This is a person who earned a beautiful house and moderately strong income. A very hard worker. Now, she has no prospects or hope. This is a person tired of being called stupid because she opposes policies like NAFTA. TPP rightly frightens her. I think she’s misguided in her perceptions of what Trump means. But to her, a vote for HRC is a vote for Bill Clinton, Bush, and Obama. And the way things have gone have been disastrous for her, and her community. So anything different looks like it’s worth a try.
I asked her who she thought Hillary Clinton was talking about with her “basket of deplorables” remark. She said, “Me.” I asked why. She shrugged. “I don’t know. Because I don’t live in California or New York and I didn’t go to a fancy college.”
To her, Trump isn’t some perfect savior. She called him, “Kind of an ass.” But, she said, things cannot continue the way they’re going.
To her, support for HRC is support for JP Morgan Chase, who had her forcibly evicted from her home. Or Citigroup, who impounded her car.
A few times, she seemed ashamed of things Trump’s said or done. I’d ask her to unpack her feelings. She said he sometimes upsets her, but “If you wait and wait for a flawless candidate, you’ll never find one.” She said she’d be much prouder to vote for Trump if he’d tone down his rhetoric.
I talked to her a bit about Bernie Sanders, to see what she thought of him. She told me, “He seemed like a nice enough guy. But I didn’t pay him much mind because there was no way he was gonna beat Clinton.” I talked with her about his platform, his policy proposals. She lit up. She told me, “It’s a real shame he didn’t make it.” She told me that if she knew him, his record, and his proposals, she’d have voted for him. I said that since the primary concluded, Hillary’s shifted some to adopt policies similar to his, and I asked if that changed her mind. She told me, “It doesn’t matter what she says. It matters what she’s done.”
No amount of insulting her from an ivory tower is going to change her mind. No amount of guffawing about her lack of education, her self-deception, her racism, or her internalized misogyny is going to change her mind. The only thing she’ll listen to is a promise of real change to the system that’s hurt her. If the Democratic Party can’t offer her a viable alternative, we’re going to see another neck-and-neck election in 2020, and in 2024, and in 2028.
These people need a populist answer. They need someone willing to listen to their very real concerns, and offer solutions that don’t look like Band-Aids on bullet wounds. If they had that on the left, we wouldn’t even be discussing Ohio as a “swing state”.
Right now, this is the discourse we’re seeing about Trump supporters. This only emboldens those attitudes. To people like her, this feels like the left is laughing at her for her unwillingness to get in line and support the things that have left her broke and broken.