Like most Americans, I have been put through the ringer through this election cycle. It’s affecting my mental health, forcing me to reevaluate relationships and testing my tolerance. I have been loud and vocal and firm in my detest for Donald Trump and anyone who would deign to support him. I have shared articles, arguments, pleas, and deep evaluations of policy to try to sway anyone on social media who may be on the fence.
I have dressed my 7-year-old in a Hillary Clinton T-shirt and my 3-year-old daughter scowls when she passes a TV screen with Trump’s face. And if I question whether I am taking things too far, I am constantly reminded just how serious this election is to myself as a Jewish woman and to anyone who values the environment, public health, LGBT rights, women’s equality, and basic moral decency.
I will not stay quiet, and I will jump on a soapbox any chance I get.
But what I did not expect to do was walk into the Trump campaign headquarters on South Street. Catty-corner to a Whole Foods in one of the most liberal areas of the country, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
And when I passed by one Saturday afternoon on my way to meet up with my family, I took a few steps past, paused, turned around, and walked right in with absolutely no idea what I was doing.
I opened the door into a room of about 25-30 people sitting around with a large tray of Subway sandwiches. The crowd was shockingly diverse – probably half the crowd were black or latinx. One man identified himself as Haitian. Apart from a few “Make America Great Again Hats,” they all looked like typical Center City Philadelphians.
(Imagine a needle screeching off a record – all eyes on me)
“Hi, Um, I was just wondering what is going through your minds right now.”
They stared, and then sort of gestured as if they were opening the floor for further elaboration.
“I mean, can I just ask … what do you all think about all of these allegations of assault? Do you think these women are all just making this up?”
A middle-aged blonde woman up front responded, “Well, let me ask you this. Why wouldn’t they have come forward during the primary?”
“As a victim of assault myself, I can attest to how difficult is for women to come forward. And particularly when they are accusing someone of great power and financial means. I think once these tapes came out they finally felt like people might actually believe them. I mean, do you think all Cosby’s victims are lying?”
Various levels of shrugs and mumbles.
The same woman continued, “Honestly, I think these issues are all just diverting from the real issues of the economy. And we need to elect someone who knows how to sign a paycheck and fix this broken economy.”
“OK,” I said, “We agree that the economy should be a focus. But Trump has bankrupted several businesses and shown a pattern of mistreating employees.”
“No. My sister works for the Trump organization and she said it was great.”
Alrighty then. “I believe that Clinton has the experience to improve this economy, and I don’t think going back to coal jobs is the answer.”
A white man in the center of the room responded, “Hey, Hillary is the one in bed with all the oil companies. The establishment is all tangled up with these corporations.”
“OK, agreed. We need to shake up the establishment, but this is not the right shaker. Look, I was a Bernie supporter.”
“Us too!” Several people in the room vehemently agreed, including a young couple in “Make America Great Again” hats.
“You were all Bernie supporters? Then how can you support Trump when his platform is the almost total opposite. Bernie supports Clinton because the Democratic party is the most progressive it’s ever been!”
Mumbles of disagreement.
“You may laugh me out the door for this, but my biggest issue is environmentalism. I’m concerned about climate change and our air and water quality.”
White guy in the center: “I’m an environmentalist too! That’s why I’m concerned about the effects of globalization and everything being made overseas!”
“But Trump has made ALL of his products overseas! Why would you trust him to change that?”
“Well, he HAD to! It was cost-prohibitive not to. He will change those laws and create tax laws to bring jobs back to America. And are you for the Trans Pacific Partnership?
“Well Hillary is”
“No, she is not.”
“She called it the gold standard.”
“And then she took a closer look and firmly changed her mind. She has evolved on some issues.”
“So why is it OK for her to say she’s evolved and not Trump?”
“He hasn’t evolved, he’s devolved.” (OK, I didn’t quite say that but it would have been a good comeback).
“OK, let me ask you this. How do you resolve all of the comments he has made about black people, Muslims, Jews, Mexicans, women?”
“Hillary has said worse things about minorities than anyone else. Have you read the Wikileaks? Hillary called Muslims “sandn$%^s!”
“No, and I highly doubt that.” (footnote – of course, that’s false.)
Another man from the back of the room, “My family came here from Haiti and Clinton has done terrible things in Haiti.”
Admittedly, I know almost nothing about this topic so I do not comment, but later look into this and find it to be mostly false.
The blonde woman up front looks at me, “You know, you seem to be agreeing with most of the things we are concerned about. So why do you hate Trump so much?”
“I agree with some of the concerns we have in this country. I do NOT agree with Trump’s ideas for fixing them.”
The group needs to leave me now as they plan for their canvassing for the rest of the day, and I will later see them canvassing on some of the most democratically lined streets of Philadelphia, with Clinton signs in every other window.
I thank them for their time and tell them I appreciated the respectful discussion, and that while they may not have changed my views or opinion of Trump, they have shown me there is a quiet minority of more thoughtful – wrong, but thoughtful – supporters. I told them I understood it must be frustrating to see the loud and truly deplorable alt-right sector dominating the news, and I experience the same frustration as an environmental activist when the media focuses on the loudest and most crazy-sounding protestors.
On my way out, a young Latina woman says she and her family are devout Republicans. I ask if Trump was her first choice in the primaries and she says yes. I am awestruck. Another young Latina woman stops me to tell me she loves my sweater. Everyone is extremely thankful for my diplomacy and tells me if they had walked into a Clinton campaign office they’d likely have been thrown out. I think if I walked into a Trump campaign office in many parts of the country, I’d have been thrown out as well.
So what did this accomplish? Probably not much. I think I’m a decent debater, but I’m no Lincoln, and I was not exactly armed with notes. I tried to take on about 30 avid Trump supporters with no preparation and probably didn’t say everything I could have. I didn’t have time to Google on the spot and find much of what they said debunked by legitimate (not liberal – legitimate) news sources. I guess I did OK, but I wouldn’t exactly win the polls with that performance.
But I am pretty sure they were pleased to see a Trump-hater who didn’t automatically lash out on his supporters. I was genuinely intrigued by these folks who in no way fit the mold. I’ve been in a pretty forgiving frame of mind since I met my “vowed adversary” last week and had a truly enjoyable chat. Just that morning of the trump meeting, I had read a truly eye-opening article about what’s happening in the minds of many rural Americans who think Trump will be their savior. I was feeling sympathy for the other side for the first time in this election. And, likely, a boost from the fact that Clinton is killing it in the polls.
Don’t get me wrong – I am still utterly terrified of Trump. I see Hitler, Mussolini, Satan in a bad toupee. I am scared that even if he loses his craziest supporters will rise up as a militia and take out a shopping mall. I will forever be at odds with anyone who casts their ballot for this orange apocalypse next month.
But I can be civil. Because for a moment, I was on the verge of completely losing my civility. I would walk past that same door and just inexplicably give the finger. I wanted to take my dog to poop there.
And when those Trump canvassers walked by the Queen Village block party later that day, all my friends stood up and walked inside. They had no desire to engage in conversation and thought I was nuts for trying to talk reason. In fact, I can’t think of one person I know who would have had any desire to walk into that Trump room with me. Maybe I’m the crazy one.
But from today’s Washington Post:
“Progressives regularly preach empathy and insist that the best way to solve a problem is to deal with its underlying causes. These principles apply as much to the struggles of our political opponents as they do to the problems faced by our allies. Defeating Trump is the first step. Giving an ear and a heart to the legitimate concerns of his supporters is the next.”