It was one of my first days in the United States (US) when I met Rob* smoking outside of a bar in the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia. Over my years of traveling, I found smoking to be a perfect means to get in touch with locals, so I asked him for a cigarette. As I know by now, this is not a very efficient approach in the US because they have stigmatized smoking so compellingly that the public smoker has become a rare breed.
Yet, Rob was somewhat old-fashioned. He was well in his 50s and a truck driver thinking about changing profession for the sake of his back. This was his last delivery for the day and he was just about to head home, but a long conversation ensued once he noticed my accent.
Before I could explain that German is spoken other countries as well, his mind went back to the time when he was working in Southern-Germany in the sales department of a US company. He lived in Munich for almost ten years and managed to speak some basic German.
After some small-talk that clarified my professional interest in politics, he apologized for “the whole mess with the elections. It’s not the greatest times you’ve chosen to come here.” Being used to, and amused by, such statements by American liberals, I responded admitting to finding the Trump phenomenon rather interesting from a sociological perspective, despite my obvious political objections to the entire thing.
Rob decided to ignore my political outing, and went on to list the vices of Hillary and the media campaign against Trump. I felt a bit awkward not having considered that Rob might be an actual Trump supporter.
In Europe, it seems to me, being appalled by his demagogic and aggressive style is common sense across a broad political spectrum. Arguably even among people who are less critical about right-wing populism in Europe. In other words, for me as a European leftist, a Trump supporter like Rob was an imaginary figure until that very moment.
The sociologist in me seized the opportunity and I suspended my political objections in order to understand Rob’s perspective. Thus, I disclosed my intentions and my delight to briefly escape the bubble of the left-liberal anti-Trump consensus, and he was more than eager to substantiate his political views.
Rob: “Look, Hillary is a liar and we are so fed up with these politicians getting away with this. You will not find anyone my age voting for her. All of my friends are for Trump! We are just tired of all the bullshit.”
Me: “Ok, I get that nobody likes Hillary. But how can you support Trump with his overt racism? You don’t really think that all Mexicans are rapists, do you?”
Rob: “He never said that. He’s not a racist. If you look at the context, he never said that all Mexicans are rapists. The media just takes isolated quotes and builds everything on that. That’s just not fair. Trump has been a public figure for decades. Nobody ever accused him of being a racist back then. Now suddenly people start doing that when he is running against Hillary.”
Me: “But even if you listen to his entire speeches, it is hard to overlook the statements that are simply racist, even in context.”
Rob: “No. I don’t condemn all immigrants. I even have some in my family. I don’t have any problems with them. I also spend a good deal of my life outside of the US. I think it’s great that foreigners come here. But they should do it legally. Like you. We only have problems with illegal immigrants. I mean, it’s the law. If you come to the US, you have to go through a procedure and we welcome you unless you are one of the bad guys. But now, the democrats openly say that immigrants don’t have to abide by the law. That they can stay whether they came legally or not. That’s insane!”
As a recent arrival to the US, I felt more like a tourist than in a position to challenge Rob’s political views, thus I let him speak.
Rob: “Sure Trump sometimes says things somewhat directly, but he is not a politician. And that’s exactly why he will get my vote. He knows how to run things! He made tons of profit.”
Me: “But didn’t his company file bankruptcy several times already?”
Rob: “Well, people say that, but bankruptcy can be a great tool for business! Sometimes it just makes sense. The point is that I trust Trump to employ the right people. He might not know every little detail about policy-making, but he has shown over the years that he knows how to employ the right people who know how to get things running.”
Me: “Ok, I’m starting to understand where your position comes from – Have you always been a Republican, Rob?”
Rob: “Haha! No, certainly not. I mean, I grew up with all the hippies around in the 60s and 70s. But we have a saying in the US that if you’re in your 20s, you’ll vote Democrat. Once you have kids and need to pay the bills, that changes.”
Me: “So what do you think about Bernie?”
Rob: “You young guys seem to like him, and I get it. But it’s just a dream. Somebody’s got to pay the bills. You know, everybody says we should look at Sweden as an example… I’ve been to Sweden. It’s a great country. But it’s not a utopia. And nobody ever says ‘look at Venezuela’… It doesn’t work there for sure!”
Me: “Hmm… Why do you think Trump suddenly gets so much support? How would you explain the phenomena?”
Rob: “It’s Obama’s fault. Me and my friends all agree that he has been the worst President this country has ever seen. He’s terrible.”
Me: “Ok, you need to explain that to me. Surely you can disagree with his political positions, and he is certainly not perfect, but where does that negativity towards him come from?”
Rob: “He divided the country. He just pushed his agenda through without the Republicans and the result is a disaster. I’m all for healthcare, but –”
Me: “– You are? –”
Rob: “– Yes! The system we have is terrible and I couldn’t agree more that we should change something. But something for the better! Obamacare didn’t resolve the old problems, it just created new ones.”
Me: “So, what was the problem with Obama’s approach?”
Rob: “Most of all, he did not care about the input from Republicans. If he had listened to them, given it a little more time, …. Well, I don’t know to be honest. But the point is that he completely shut the Republicans off. And that’s what makes him a bad President – we need to work together. I mean, I’m all for a black guy becoming President. But he was the wrong black guy …”
Rob: “You know, it’s not that I’m against Democratic positions as such. I really liked JFK for example. He was able to build bridges. Obama isn’t. He divided the country … And by the way, his party messed up all of the major cities in the US. If you think big-city crime like in Chicago and Baltimore – these places are all run by Democrats. And they had enough time to solve the issues. Now it’s time for someone new. I will give Trump the benefit of the doubt over someone like Hillary. What could he possibly do wrong that Hillary wouldn’t do worse?”
Our conversation went on for a while. We talked about the second amendment, foreign perceptions of the US, Hillary’s foreign policy style and what Trump would do differently, the media circus, and the Washington bubble – in which I’m arguably staying right now.
Rob had a good feeling for providing answers that sounded acceptable to my leftist ears, though none of them changed my own positions substantially. He certainly was an antidote to the harsh discourse Trump continues to put forward. And yet, ultimately he will still support a person who’s style and positions for many put into doubt the very possibility of a peaceful and democratic future.
When Rob left, he shook my hand, and amiably clapped me on the back while saying: “Don’t let Washington corrupt you!”. I assured him I would not let that happen. But after he left, it felt more like the ending of a Socratic dialogue: profound puzzlement and the realization that this encounter raised more questions than it could provide answers.
For one, how can we deal democratically with positions that we find not just politically undesirable, but also morally objectionable. The orthodox answer of rational deliberation seemed to be oddly displaced in this context.
Surely I was able to tease Rob to admit that specific arguments for Trump are not very convincing, but this did not sway his final decision. My impression was that even sustained efforts in that direction would ultimately fail. When I pushed Rob a bit more on gun control, the tone of the conversation immediately changed towards something not very productive. Rather than blaming this on Rob’s inability to deal with disagreement, I would suggest to reflect on our own disability to convey such arguments in a way that speaks to people outside of our social comfort zone.
As much as I personally gained his trust to have a civilized conversation, my political views and the way I expressed them were too much linked to the Other – the ‘liberal/media/political/etc. elite’ – that is arguably crucial for the identity of many right-wing populist supporters across Europe and the US.
It seems to be part of our current predicament that this deeply entrenched identity conflict not only polarizes our communities on the level of policy-preferences, but prevents us from having a meaningful and consequential conversation about politics at all.
And yet, if I had to veneer my confusion and come up with the obligatory – though potentially boring – moral of the story, it would be that we should talk much more with Trump supporters than about them if we are to understand and overcome right-wing populism politically.
– Patrice Wangen
PhD candidate at the European University Institute and currently a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, DC (2016-2017).
*Rob’s name has been changed and part of the background story has been fictionalized to protect his identity.