Just What Was Said
In the days since the election, and because of the election, two things have happened. Some people have stopped talking to each other. And others have started.
People rarely develop deeper understanding when they stop communicating. That’s why I decided to invite a lot more conversations with people, no matter how they voted, and listen to understand rather than to argue.
When I was at a business event last night, I knew that the social talk would inevitably turn to how people were feeling in the wake of the election.
Sure enough, while many were elated, others were deeply disappointed and disturbed by the outcome. I was heartened by widespread agreement that Americans now needed to give the president-elect a chance to govern, no matter what else. I heard far more thoughtful opinions than outright alarm. I heard expressions of patience and faith in the political system, albeit tempered with tones of uncertainty.
This event appeared to be the perfect opportunity to make good on my pledge I wanted to get people on all sides thinking more about each other without sparking more friction. But where to begin? How?
Here’s how I figured that out: two days after the election, I went to Canada. (No, not for good. I’d booked the trip months before, to go and see my sister in a community theatre production.)
While I was there, my friends and family had many questions for me, and a lot of concern about the election. I was curious to know their thoughts, too. After many rounds of informal post-election quizzing, I was excited: I’d found a solid all-purpose post-election conversation-starter question, one that would give even the most disappointed person pause for thought.
What is the one thing you can know for certain about every single person who voted for Donald Trump — and ONLY about people who voted for Donald Trump?
When I started asking my question, I’d give anyone three chances to answer. I heard a fascinating broad brush of generalizations. “They wanted change,” was the kindest, or maybe the mildest, answer. “They’re racist.” “They’re deluded.” “They want jobs back that aren’t ever coming back.” “They feel threatened by gay people.”
All of them? Every single one? Are SURE? Nope. Naw. Uh-uh. That’s not it. Nosiree. Last chance? Okay. Here’s the answer I gave them:
The only thing you can know for sure and certain about every person who voted for Donald Trump is that—wait for it—they voted for Donald Trump.*
Virtually no one chose that answer. But everyone who took my quiz agreed that it was true. More than a few looked a bit uncomfortable to realize that they’d made some pretty big assumptions about millions of people they’d never met (or had actively avoided bothering to talk to).
I then plunged into my new quest, and began conversations with people who told me they had voted for Donald Trump.
All three were female. Two were women of color. One was Muslim. Educated women, owners of what America calls “small” businesses with multiple employees. I asked them why they voted the way they did.
The top reason the first woman cited was the emails. Her company managed information technology and security. “I have to abide by complex rules related to information security and proper handling of classified information, thousands of rules, every day, to keep our country secure. I absolutely could not support a candidate who did not take those laws and rules seriously.’
The second woman was elated by the election results, and proud that Trump had a female campaign chief who had guided that campaign to success. “I’m not worried. I think God is taking care of us all.” What did she think of the women who had come forward with allegations of sexual assault by the president-elect? “I think they were all lying.” Trump’s sexist remarks? “Oh, he wasn’t serious.” This white woman felt that there was simply too much attention placed on incidents related to policing and racism, and that “people just need to get over it and move on.” Then I watched her face transform into an expression of utter distaste as she said about Hillary, “She’s so crooked!”
Two women both said with confidence that they felt a Trump presidency will be good for business. In their view, many people had not felt confident about the direction of the post-recession economy. Now, they felt that the economy was set to bloom under the new President. They gave no specific reason why.
Neither the Muslim woman nor the woman of color expressed any concerns about the president-elect with respect to sexism, racism, or misogyny.
All three women were urban, not rural, dwellers; none mentioned any sense of having not been listened to for eight years.
The black woman and the white woman both felt that Obama had not done enough for African-American communities, especially those in dire circumstances in cities.
But here’s the thing: Not one of them said she agreed with everything the president-elect said or promised. All of them had concerns about whether the things they’d hoped for might actually come to pass as the Trump Administration shows what it’s made of.
Those concerns open the door to more conversation. The good news is, we’ve got four years to re-learn how to talk to each other. And how to listen.
At the end of the night, I took a deep breath. I’d done it: fostered genuine conversation, listened deeply and thoughtfully, learned a lot about my fellow humans, and quite possibly given them new things to think about. And maybe even made some new friends. I can do this. And I’ll keep doing it. I hope you do the same.
* Strictly speaking, I acknowledge to readers familiar with logical fallacies that this is in fact a tautology (the definition of a thing in terms of simply being itself).