Illustrations: Reina Takahashi

What 4 Years of Dining With Trump Supporters Taught Me About Polarization

Our conversations could be frustrating, but they also gave me hope. Was I a fool to think we were getting somewhere?

Three days after the 2016 election, I posted an invitation on Facebook. I was looking for Donald Trump voters who wanted to come over for dinner at my house, which is just a short walk from the White House in Washington, D.C. I wanted to understand why over 62 million people voted for someone who I thought was wholly unqualified for the job and entirely lacked the moral character befitting the office. I wanted to ask my own questions without the filter of media or political punditry.

No one accepted my dinner invitation at first. Even though only 4% of D.C. residents voted for Trump, and I ran in liberal circles, I was still surprised when no one responded. I thought at least one of the many conservative folks who’d argued with me on my social media channels during the 2016 campaign might have said yes. Eventually, I found three Trump voters through a liberal friend who’d seen my Facebook invitation and connected me to a woman she used to work with who she thought might have voted for Trump. And because everyone hangs out with people like themselves, this woman connected me with two more Trump voters. At first, they were reluctant to accept my invitation until I assured them there would be no name-calling or attempts to persuade them from their position — only sincere curiosity and a home-cooked meal.

The first dinner took place on a Sunday evening four weeks after the election. I planned a meal of comfort foods featuring one of my longtime specialties, Chicken Marbella. We argued about politics from the moment they arrived, and the topics ranged from Hillary Clinton’s uranium deal when she was secretary of state to universal health care to immigration. I resisted the urge to pull out my phone and fact-check, and I managed to sigh, “You don’t really believe that, do you?” only a couple of times. When we discussed the displacement of millions of Syrian refugees, one guest shared that her grandmother had been a “legal” Syrian immigrant many years ago. The evening ended with a group selfie promising we’d keep in touch. One person invited me to attend the South Carolina Inaugural Ball as his guest.

Over the next two years, I continued to host dinners with my political opposites. I playfully dubbed them “Blueberries & Cherries” after the dessert crisp that ended each meal with a purple goo, a symbolic desire to find common ground between red and blue. With each new dinner, I added rules and experimented with techniques to improve the discourse. I forbade talking about politics for the first 30 minutes. At one dinner, I forced everyone to tear apart a baguette — literally breaking bread — while promising to engage in respectful discourse. (Later, when the conversation turned toward Benghazi, I wished I’d had that baguette to bludgeon someone with.) Another time, I asked people to introduce themselves to each other with a story about when they felt like they were their best selves. Wine was crucial to the process. One guest even brought two bottles, a white and a red, from the Trump winery in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Throughout these evenings, I never hid my political leanings. I asked everyone who came to be as honest with me as I would be with them. I liked almost everyone who ate dinner at my table and have maintained friendships with several of them. Before the pandemic, I met one woman many times, for lunches and happy hours. One of our most tense conversations took place around the time of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. I’d been arrested twice for protesting his elevation; she was a staunch supporter of Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court and expressed fear over how her teenage son would navigate the #MeToo world. She wondered if his opportunities for success were diminished by the movement, and the protests against Kavanaugh reinforced her fear.

The intimate meals around my dinner table became the basis for Looking for America, dinners in communities around the country with folks from across the political spectrum engaging in respectful, principled conversations sparked by art and storytelling. Once everyone took their seats, I outlined a set of rules for the evening and asked everyone to agree: Assume good intentions. Be willing to admit when you’re wrong. Listen without thinking about how you will respond. Listen with the compassion with which you wish to be heard. I reminded everyone that people who disagree with us are not our enemies.

The first course began with each person sharing a story about an object they’d been asked to bring that illustrated their connection to their community. These stories humanized the teller, and they revealed more about why people believed what they believed than any set of facts could ever do. A Turkish woman in Anchorage brought a tomato and told the story of how much she missed the fresh fruits and vegetables of her birthplace and how she’d acclimated to the self-reliance that Alaska’s harsh climate required. A man in Texas brought his open-carry license and spoke of freedoms and liberties that he felt the Constitution guaranteed to protect himself from government overreach.

It wasn’t until the second course that I gave permission to speak about politics. I began this segment of the evening by asking what it means to be American. This question revealed the way Americans across the country prioritized different values and ideals. Many believed a border wall would protect us from foreign criminal elements that threatened their security while others believed immigrants added great value to our economy and should be welcomed. While I am an atheist who believes deeply in the separation of church and state, my political opposites were guided by their faith in forming political views. While I believe that it is our government’s responsibility to protect our society’s most vulnerable members by providing basic needs such as health care, my political opposites believe that it is each community’s responsibility to take care of their own. I heard about incredible acts of generosity as people shared stories, like the community that helped rebuild a neighbor’s home after a catastrophic fire and the family that adopted five children while also tithing 10% of their income to the church.

Throughout these evenings, I never hid my political leanings. I asked everyone who came to be as honest with me as I would be with them.

After engaging with hundreds of Americans across the political spectrum, I began to understand why so many people voted for Trump in 2016 and why his support in 2020 increased by more than 10 million votes. One of the most important things I learned was that these voters took Trump seriously but not literally because he appeared to stand up for their pain, grievance, and disaffection. They didn’t read much into his tweets nor the hyperbole of his rally speeches. They didn’t become enraged with dismissive scorn, like I did, at every one of his utterances.

Over and over, Trump supporters told me they wished he would tweet less but that he stood up for their ideals, even if he didn’t always live up to those same ideals himself. He said what he wanted and never suffered any consequences. He poked his finger in the eye of liberals who thought they were “deplorables” and told them they were special. Trump was a strong man capable of protecting them. Over the course of these conversations across the political divide, I came to believe that we all fundamentally wanted the same things: respect, jobs that paid us a fair wage, a home, and a sense of safety and security.

I started to question everything on January 6. The attack on the Capitol challenged the faith in the humanity of Trump voters that I had acquired in the last four years of conversations. I struggled to understand why in the aftermath of the attack, 45% of Republicans supported their actions and continued to support a man who incited a violent, deadly riot with lies and divisive language and then refused to acknowledge his role in the mob’s attack on democracy and decency.

Not everyone appreciated my efforts with the dinners. My progressive friends called me complicit and an enabler of racists and idiots. I understood their concerns, but I worried about the consequences of retreating into our comfortable cocoons. In How Democracies Die, political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt wrote, “If one thing is clear from studying breakdowns throughout history, it’s that extreme polarization can kill democracy.” In 21st-century America, too many of us live in communities that reinforce our worldviews at the expense of all other perspectives. We’ve stopped accepting the possibility that any other points of view could have anything to offer us and regard compromise and negotiation as a betrayal of our tribe. For the sake of our country, we need to find a way to see each other’s humanity, flaws and all, even if we disagree.

We didn’t just retreat into these cocoons on our own accord. Changes in the political and media landscape created these cocoons and then exploited our divisions to acquire even more profit and power. In the social media sphere, Facebook research revealed that two-thirds of people who joined an extremist Facebook Group did so because the platform’s recommendation system suggested it to them. Facebook kept people engaged with the app by manipulating a basic human yearning to belong. The longer Facebook could keep people engaged, the more profit they would earn. These Facebook groups radicalized many people beyond the possibility of meaningful dialogue. News media pursued profit, too, by presenting biased news that gave us articles and stories confirming our outrage, which gave us the dopamine hits that we became addicted to.

The reasons for our polarization are numerous, complex, and intertwined and go far beyond media. Systemic issues dating back to the realignment of the political parties during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The human psychology of adherence to a group identity makes us hate someone we don’t know simply because they are labeled differently from us. Racial inequality, an alarming wealth gap that grows larger, the sorting of liberals into urban centers and conservatives in rural areas. These and a myriad of other problems have been slowly dividing us for decades.

Americans had mostly stopped talking to each other long before the 2016 election, but the Trump era exacerbated the divide to a dangerous level. Kellyanne Conway ushered in the era of “alternative facts” when she defended Trump’s claim that the size of his inauguration crowd exceeded that of Obama’s inauguration despite clear evidence to the contrary. This lie at the very beginning of Trump’s administration was intended to appease the president’s outsized ego and narcissism. But it paved the way for a series of increasingly brazen and consequential lies that undermined the very existence of truth. The president would recoil with “Fake news!” when presented with information he didn’t like. And his supporters followed his lead. Battling disinformation became more and more difficult, and in the final months of his administration, it culminated with the big lie: that Trump had won reelection in a landslide.

Despite all this, I kept thinking about the Trump supporters I had gotten to know over the last four years. I did not think all of them were deplorable.

I considered members of my own family, refugees from Vietnam who voted for Trump twice. (My first cousin was appointed to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement last year.) These family members rejected refugees when many of them had once needed help themselves. They deeply feared the threat of communism and saw Trump as a strong leader who would fend off the socialist flank of the Democratic Party. This fear arose from having lost everything to communists twice: Once after the Viet Cong defeated the French colonialists in 1954 and forced our family to flee for their lives to newly partitioned South Vietnam and again when they fled for their lives 20 years later in 1975, when the communists defeated the American military. I did not think my family was deplorable.

I thought about my friends and acquaintances. A surfer with whom I’ve traveled the world — and who once said yes without hesitation when I asked if another friend could stay in his guest room when her brother was dying of cancer — voted for Trump because he liked the president’s pro-business policies. The Bolivian woman who has been cleaning my house for over a decade and has become like family to me told me the pastor at her Spanish-speaking Catholic church instructed his parishioners, recent immigrants, to vote for Trump because he would stop the murder of babies. I did not think these people were deplorable.

But it’s a recent friend, Alexander, who has challenged my thinking the most. Alex is an evangelical Christian from Tennessee who has participated in several cross-political conversations with me in person and on Zoom. He eagerly cultivates friendships with people unlike himself and believes we can have spirited debate and still genuinely hear each other out. In 2016, Alex decided to write in Marco Rubio at the top of his ballot and voted for Republicans down-ballot. Like me, he believed Trump lacked the moral character and statesmanship required of the office of the president of the United States of America.

In 2020, Alex voted for Trump. After four years, he’d continued to have qualms about Trump’s character, felt the president had eroded our democracy, and believed he had misused the power of the office. But Trump had accomplished enough to advance conservative policies to earn Alex’s vote. In his view, Trump had upheld the sanctity of life, protected the freedoms of speech and religious liberty, appointed solidly conservative judges, made progress toward peace in the Middle East, and returned power from a bureaucratic government back to the people. Alex cited Joe Biden’s unequivocal support for abortion as indicative of a major character flaw. If he can’t be trusted to protect innocent human life, how can he be trusted with any moral decisions for America? To Alex, Biden might be the more likable man, but his policies showed that his moral compass was just as skewed as Trump’s.

This was a common thread: Many conservatives told me Trump’s support for traditional Republican policies superseded their aversion to his character. They all wished for a better candidate to vote for, but in our binary electoral system, Trump became their only option. I understood the binary choice — I’d been frustrated with my choice of candidates, too. But I could not fathom how policy wins could explain away such a starkly abhorrent character as Trump.

On January 6, I boarded a plane from Georgia back home to Washington, D.C. I felt joyful knowing Rafael Warnock had won his Senate runoff and was optimistic about Jon Ossoff’s chances in his race. I’d spent the previous day volunteering for a voter protection team organized by Georgia’s Democratic Party. I helped count the number of voting machines and poll workers, reviewed handicap accessibility and signage, and completed the task list I’d been given to ensure a smooth and easy voting process. We’d closed the polls that night of the election without incident. I felt proud of having taken part in the democratic process.

By the time I landed at Reagan National airport, everything had changed. A mob of violent Trump supporters were storming the U.S. Capitol building, egged on by the words of the president, who was peddling the lie of election fraud. In horror, I watched the footage of angry men and women desecrating the people’s house and threatening the lives of elected officials in an attempt to stop the pro forma Congressional certification of President-elect Biden. It wasn’t just our democracy’s most sacred chambers they’d ransacked, but democracy itself.

This violent undermining of our democracy and unflinching support for the man who incited it left me wondering: What kind of a sucker had I been?

In the days that followed, I listened as the same people who voted for and supported Trump called for unity on Twitter and in subsequent news reports. It was jarring. I’d spent the last four years actively trying to foster understanding and unity across the aisle. When my candidate lost in 2016, I began hosting dinners for Americans across the country in an attempt to find common ground. When their candidate lost in 2020, Trump supporters ransacked the hallowed halls of democracy. As an American with an Asian face, the symbols of white supremacy they displayed while roaming the streets of my city carrying more Trump flags than American flags frightened me the most as I cowered inside my apartment.

I have walked around Capitol Hill hundreds of times in the 20 years I have lived in Washington, D.C., and have never lost my sense of awe and reverence for what our nation’s capital represents — the freedoms that I enjoy as a United States citizen and the idealism of a democracy founded on liberty, equality, and free and fair elections that binds every person in this nation. Now, Trump’s supporters had not only assaulted my home but everything I had worked for these last four years.

This violent undermining of our democracy and unflinching support for the man who incited it left me wondering: What kind of a sucker had I been? Was I a fool to have felt compassion for the very same people who now chose insurrection over democracy?

I’m not yet virtuous enough to find compassion for the rioters who stormed the Capitol and wreaked havoc in my hometown. They are criminals and should be appropriately punished for their crimes of destroying monuments, seditious conspiracy against the U.S. government, felonious possession of weapons, and so on. Those who aided and abetted them should also suffer appropriate consequences. But none of this will solve the underlying problems that led us to this moment.

Alex agreed. When I finally felt calm enough to call him a week after the riots, he told me January 6 was a sad day for America. He said those who worshipped Trump had attacked democracy when they attacked the Capitol and the electoral proceedings happening within. And it was clear to him that Trump had incited the riot. I was relieved by his response, and we talked for a long time about how the country might heal from this terrible day.

I believe the solutions to polarization are rooted in humanizing, relationship-building conversations across our political divides in concert with systemic changes — like ranked-choice voting and campaign finance reform. I have witnessed firsthand Americans eager to break bread with each other and heal the divide. I have seen that when we push through the discomfort of talking to people who we think are so different from us, we actually find that we have more in common than we have been led to believe.

Finding even a sliver of commonality and humanity opens up space to wrestle with our differences respectfully, toward finding solutions. A space where hard truths can be uttered and explored, where discomfort and tension can thrive in order to reveal deeper truths. Face-to-face conversations provide an opportunity to ask questions and discover that people are more than their political positions and more than two-dimensional caricatures. When we do this, we can create a country in which we all feel like we belong despite our differences and where we can celebrate our differences rather than feel threatened by them. I have not been a fool to believe this.

Creating space for conversations to transform society. Exploring what it means to be American. Recovering lawyer, public speaker, art fanatic philippahughes.com

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