After the election, I invited three Trump voters to my home for dinner. I wanted to understand why they voted for a man who seemed so obviously abhorrent. I’d interacted with a few Trump supporters over social media during the campaign season. However, I don’t think even the best DC spin doctors could have found a way to characterize those exchanges as thoughtful or constructive. To gain deeper insight, I devoured analysis and opinions from experts and pundits on why they thought so many people voted for Trump. I read Hillbilly Elegy, Gilded Rage, and Strangers In Their Own Land searching for clues from across the country. I felt like I was getting filtered information, though, and I wanted to find out for myself what was really driving those votes. I wanted to meet the Trump voter face-to-face.
Living in DC where only 4% voted for Trump, I knew I would have to search beyond my usual networks to find his supporters. I posted this invitation on Facebook on November 16:
“I’ve hosted scores of small dinners over the years with people who represented a diversity of skin colors, sexual orientation, and economics. Sometimes there were misunderstandings and disagreements, but mostly we agreed on political ideology. Maybe it’s time to invite this new layer of diversity to dinner.… I don’t support or respect Trump. But I want to respect the Trump voter by learning more from him or her by talking face to face and not on social media. If you voted for Trump, please let me know if you are interested in talking over dinner at my house. I’m a pretty decent cook!”
I was inspired by artist Elia Alba, who has been organizing a project called The Supper Club, in which she makes dinner for artists of color to discuss difficult questions about the intersection of visual culture and race. I have also been a longtime fan of artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, who practices relational art. He creates installations that bring people together for a social experience, like inviting visitors to drink tea in a replica of his home. Treating what I imagined would be an uncomfortable dining experience as an art project made the experience more palatable.
No Trump voters accepted my offer, though many liberal friends asked if they could attend. None of the pro-Trump people who had previously commented on my political posts contacted me either. Though Facebook lets you befriend thousands of people, not one of them felt friendly enough to take the bait. I had to rely on friends of friends. One liberal friend introduced me to a former co-worker who’d voted for Trump. She felt reticent at first, perhaps fearful that I was setting a trap for her, but she wanted to learn about other viewpoints. After I reassured her of my sincere intention to understand, she agreed and brought two additional conservatives to the table, one who hadn’t been able to stomach Trump and had voted for Johnson, and another who was a a true believer.
I had no expectations, only curiosity.
The conversation turned to politics from the first moments. We talked about personal details only as they related to politics. When we discussed immigration, one Trump voter told the story of her Syrian grandmother who had immigrated to America years ago. Another Trump voter cited a New York Times article that he said proved Hillary Clinton had used her position as Secretary of State to enrich the Clinton Foundation. I wanted to open my laptop and fact check on the spot. I resisted the impulse. This was a dinner party and a learning experience. I didn’t need to be right and I wasn’t trying to persuade them. I simply wanted to understand. I think I muttered, “C’mon you don’t really believe that” only twice during the two hours we spent together.
Afterward, a friend who writes for DCist saw a picture of the dinner party I’d posted on Facebook and wrote a short piece about the meal. A Trump voter read that article and contacted me through Twitter and asked if he could join the next dinner. After meeting him first in a public place to make sure he wouldn’t murder me and my friends in my home, I invited him, and then started digging deep into my networks in search of two more Trump voters. I wasn’t about to invite family members who’d voted for Trump, or the one close friend I knew had voted for him, too. I was afraid of doing irreparable harm to those relationships.
I remembered a woman I’d worked with over 15 years ago and had not seen since. She’d made some comments on my Facebook page last year that led me to believe she’d voted for Trump. She asked if she could bring her boyfriend after disclosing that his political views made her seem liberal and, in fact, were so extreme that she’d unfriended him on Facebook. She promised he would behave. I also invited three liberal friends to balance out the evening.
I planned a menu of blue and red foods. I set out red salsa with blue corn chips, along with blue cheese and red grapes to start. For the first course, I served a blue cheese sauce over red tomato linguine. For the main course, I served roast beef (red meat!) with roasted Brussels sprouts. I’d wanted to serve blue potatoes but hadn’t been able to find them that day. And for dessert, my pièce de résistance, I served a blueberry and cherry crisp. Preparations included reading On Dialogue by David Bohm to strengthen my conversational skills, and writing down a list of questions I wanted to ask. Finally, I emailed everyone in advance and told them that I would enforce a strict prohibition on political discussion for the first half hour. We would first get to know each other.
My former co-worker brought a bottle of Trump wine. I laughed politely at her joke and placed the bottle of Viognier in the refrigerator, unable to bring myself to drink it. I feared the artificial tannins might trigger an allergic reaction.
After 30 minutes, I asked everyone to place their hands on a baguette and promise to engage in respectful discourse, and then we broke the bread and dipped the pieces into an eggplant dip (purple!). Maybe in the old days, bread was harder and actually broke, because that night we tore the bread apart with some difficulty. Some people got large pieces, while others ended up with small morsels, so we redistributed the pieces to make sure everyone got enough. I restrained myself from stating the obvious analogy.
Then we sat down at the table and engaged in a lively, respectful discussion that ranged across a wide spectrum of topics. When the subjects veered into settled issues like Benghazi or into fake news topics, I wished I’d had that baguette to bludgeon my guests and steer the conversation elsewhere before the mood turned sour. When everyone was talking at the same time about Muslim registry and debating whether it would lead to internment, my liberal friend sitting across the table shot me the “it’s time to wrap it up before I lose my cool” eye roll. I tapped my glass with a fork and thanked everyone for coming and encouraged them to host their own dinners with people whose views differed from their own. Overall, the conversation had been eminently polite. But it was also eminently clear where everyone stood on the issues.
Someone had suggested we go around the table and say what we hoped would happen in the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency. I made two demands: Trump should rebuke Putin and Russian interference in our democratic process, and he should release his tax returns. I knew neither would ever happen and I regretted not offering something more constructive. The next day, I emailed everyone with a new wish for the first 100 days: I’d like to see President Trump follow through on his campaign promise to improve our country’s failing infrastructure.
I believe that the dinner party is an opportunity to speak to each other as human beings and not as avatars. Breaking bread builds relationships that can bridge the vast ideological gap that exists in our country if we are to make improvements that lift up all Americans. We need to cultivate and nurture those relationships in order to find ways to work together to heal the divide that threatens the now tenuous fabric of our democracy. Polarization serves politicians, not what’s best for American people.
There is a basic human instinct to connect with one another. I made no secret of my political leanings when I invited the Trump voters to my home and they were still willing to join me. One Trump voting guest said, “I believe we can all learn from thoughtful and intelligent people that grew up in different communities and have different experiences then our own.” I still abhor Donald Trump, but I don’t abhor all the people who voted for him. I won’t be inviting any of the extreme ones to my house for dinner, however, I intend to host more dinners that bring ideologically opposed people together to figure out how we can co-exist and even find common ground. I hope Americans across the nation will do the same.