On the eve of International Women’s Day, I hosted the third edition of “Blueberries + Cherries,” a series of small dinner parties in which I invite an equal number of Trump supporters and opposers to break bread together. I invited Jeff Giesea, the organizer of the DeploraBall, after meeting him on the Kojo Nnamdi show in January. He told Kojo that we needed to stop otherizing people, to look at each other as humans and not labels. I agreed and invited him while we were on the air. Jeff is a gay, Ivy-educated East Coast elite who does not fit the stereotype of Trump voter that I’d been reading about in books like Hillbilly Elegy and Gilded Rage. I invited Siobhan Gavagan after a mutual friend told me he’d seen her posts on Facebook supporting Trump. I hadn’t suspected she was a fan given most people who work in the arts are pretty liberal. Three college-aged Republican women rounded out the conservative side of the table. Meaghan Pearce, Megan Chapa, and Sarah Youngdahl were fellows in a program sponsored by a fantastic non-partisan organization called Running Start, which trains high school girls and college women to run for political office. They were smart, passionate, thoughtful, respectful, action-oriented leaders who listened and expressed themselves with incredible skill. I assumed the liberal women in the same fellowship program were equally impressive. If these young women represent the future of our country, I feel hopeful!
I had been frustrated after the previous two Trump dinners, when the men dominated the conversations, leaving little room for dialogue. I tried to fix the problem in the second dinner by implementing a no-politics embargo for the first 30 minutes of the gathering. I hoped the ban would provide an opportunity for guests to get to know one another before we delved into politics. After the allotted time, I made an impassioned speech about listening and understanding and asked everyone to literally break a loaf of bread together before we sat down at the dining table. I wanted us to listen to each other without judgment (or at least without pronouncing judgment out loud), and to attempt to understand each other. I had no delusions of changing anyone’s mind. I simply wanted to have a conversation in which we could share our opposing viewpoints and hear what the other side thought unfiltered by media. Nonetheless, the conversation veered toward persuasion, debate, and loud sighing. And the men continued to steer the conversation. (I have experienced mansplaining by liberal male friends, too!)
At the third gathering, after pouring everyone a round of drinks and making my impassioned speech again about understanding each other through respectful dialogue, I asked guests to pair off and Ask Big Questions, which are meant to spark conversations geared toward reflection rather than making statements. I used the civics edition of these questions, which focused on helping people talk about their political differences. This interlude also gave me a few minutes to finish cooking the pasta sauce.
Once at the dinner table, the conversation remained lively and respectful. Everyone spoke in turn and expressed their opinions without disdain or condescension, everyone asked questions and listened to the answers without interrupting. No one monopolized the conversation.
Though we discussed a range of topics, we spent a great deal of time on the role of masculinity in explaining why so many people voted for Trump. I recalled a middle-aged white man from the previous dinner had mentioned the notion of emasculation.
“You are expecting to do as well as your father and you can’t and aren’t. It’s emasculating,” he said.
I had read that many men who voted for Trump felt that way about their masculinity, but I hadn’t been able to relate to those feelings and hadn’t given the idea much thought at the time. I was not prepared to hear women talk about their support for Trump in similar terms. One Trump voter explained that the president was an alpha male, which meant people viewed him as decisive and uncompromising and therefore a good leader. Women found comfort and feelings of safety in this perception of Trump. They described Obama as a beta male, who was intellectual and conciliatory, which for them were the characteristics of a weak leader who was less capable of keeping them safe.
I’ve had an uneasy relationship with masculinity. My father exudes conventional masculinity. He builds houses, fixes cars, works with his hands, and carries a gun. He has always sought out women who he believed needed to be taken care of. (I knew four of his six wives and I can attest that none needed him as much as he needed them.) At the same time, my dad always told me I could do anything and be anything and that I would conquer the world. He taught me how to do things that men of his generation didn’t usually teach their daughters, like how to hitch a boat trailer to the car and back it up in the water, how to clean and filet fish, how to throw darts and a frisbee properly, how to use a mitre saw. I see a little bit of myself in Ivanka, a woman who reveres the father who boundlessly encouraged her while he belittled the women around him.
When asked about the infamous audio of Trump bragging that he could grab women by their genitalia and get away with it, one of the conservative women dismissed it as “locker room” talk, and said women who didn’t like it were being too sensitive. It reminded me of a Trump supporter I’d read about who said, “I like getting groped! I’m heterosexual. I’m a woman, and when a guy gropes me, I get groping on them!” I don’t know if my dinner guest would have agreed, but I still cannot get my head around the idea that any woman thinks this kind of “locker room talk” could be acceptable under any circumstances.
I continue to loathe Donald Trump and his cadre of enablers in the White House and Congress, and my disdain for that malevolent, self-absorbed liar will never waiver. But I liked the people around my dinner table. I liked them very much. They were not racist, sexist bigots nor were they awful, stupid people. With each dinner party, I am slowly beginning to understand the complicated psychology of why so many people voted for Trump, which goes far beyond issues like abortion or immigration or the loss of factory and coal mining jobs. My hope is that we can use this knowledge to elect leaders in the future who will work for all Americans.
In the meantime, we must learn how to talk to each other again with respect and trust by proactively seeking dialogue with those whose worldview differ from ours, and seeing each other as human beings and not as data points. Seeking out difficult conversations is uncomfortable at best. However, the current divisive situation is untenable in a democracy regardless of which party is in power. We must do this hard thing.
“It gives me hope to know that conversations like this can happen so authentically and civilly between strangers. We defied the national narrative about the ‘divided state of America,’” said Meaghan Pearce. I feel hopeful, too.