I invited Trump voters to my house for dinner one week after the 2016 election and continued hosting these trans-political meals every couple months for the next two years. I wanted to engage in difficult conversations face-to-face and ask my own questions, to dig beyond the filtered distillations offered by journalists, pundits, and thought leaders. At each meal, I experimented with ways to improve the conversations. Art emerged as one of the most effective tools for framing and facilitating dialogue. Those small, home-cooked meals in my home have evolved into a national project called Looking For America, in which I’ll be curating art shows with local artists and organizing dinners with guests from across the political discourse to engage in civil discourse in cities across America in partnership with New American Economy, which advocates for better immigration policy, and American University’s School of Public Affair, which teaches civil discourse as a foundation of democracy.
The Trump campaign had baffled me. Why did the GOP nominee enjoy unwavering support after every moment when I thought he was sunk, attacking the Gold Star family, insulting a war hero, mocking a disabled man? Why did the loyalty of Trump’s base seemed to strengthen as the election neared? I read plenty of books and articles about the people who said they would vote for him, like Hillbilly Elegy, Strangers in Their Own Land, and Gilded Rage. I even watched Fox News for as much as I could stand it and subscribed to right leaning publications. I thought I had a pretty good understanding of why people supported Trump.
My research worried me about our country’s deepening divide fueled by rage, misinformation, and frustration with a broken system of government. I even wondered how his supporters would react when their candidate lost and I began exploring ways to heal the rift after the election. The people who supported Trump had been growing angry long before he announced his candidacy and they wouldn’t be going away quietly once we elected his opponent. My first attempt at reconciliation was to co-curate an art show called US + THEM = U.S.: Finding Common Ground in a Divided Nation, which we’d begun planning months before the election and which would open one week before the inauguration.
I believed the polls predicting Trump’s defeat and stocked my refrigerator with champagne for an election night watch party, champagne that remained unopened for months after. Finding common ground in a divided nation took on new meaning after over 62 million Americans cast their ballots for Trump, and even more so as the president’s unrelenting provocations long after the election continued to stoke fear and distrust, widening the chasm between Americans rather than bringing people together. Breaking bread together seemed like a good start to closing that gap.
The small dinners cooked by me in my home culminated nearly two years later in October 2018 with a catered dinner for 50 people from across the political spectrum to discuss one of the more divisive topics leading up to the 2018 midterms: immigration. This large dinner took place in the Heurich House Museum, built by Christian Heurich, a German immigrant in the 19th-century who said, “I am a good American,” when he was asked to give a loyalty pledge to the U.S. government at the beginning of World War One as anti-German sentiment peaked. A century later, the question of what it meant to be an American continued to haunt our politics and our discourse and became the discussion topic for dinner in Mr. Heurich’s home.
Heurich’s words were also the inspiration for an art exhibit I’d curated in the museum called A [Good] American. Before taking their seats at the dinner table, guests were invited to view artworks created by seven local artists reflecting on what it meant to be a good American. Art brought together curious people who would not normally have met and became the starting point for dialogue. Using art to frame and facilitate a difficult conversation while sharing a meal became the basis for Looking For America.
We’ll be testing this concept in communities across the country. In each place, local artists will create works in response to this question: “What does it mean to be American in your community?” Volunteers from each city will undergo light training in civil discourse led by AU’s School of Public Affairs. The volunteers will then facilitate conversation at a dinner for 50 people from across the political spectrum. Dinner guests will also be invited to participate in the Tenement Museum’s online exhibit Your Story, Our Story, which “highlights stories of immigration, migration, and cultural identity, past and present, through objects and traditions.” We plan to create a toolkit and model for effective civil discourse based on what we learn from participants across the country.
When we speak face-to-face, we see each other as humans and not as avatars or data points. Curiosity about one another leads to more empathy and stronger relationships. When we build relationships with the people we once considered our enemies, we heal the wounds that have been inflicted on our democracy.