Understanding Trump voters

What can we learn from two weeks spent chatting with right-wing voters in America during the last Presidential campaign?

By Katie Robertson
Wednesday, February 1, 2017

​There's a carnival-like buzz in the air as I walk along the crowded, dusty perimeter of the Florida Showgrounds. Stalls line the walkway as folks tout their goods on mega-phones and people buy caps and shirts by the armful. Pick-up trucks sporting freedom loving bumper-stickers swerve into the car park as people hurry towards the entrance. They're eager not to miss their chance to see the man they believe will Make America Great Again.

I notice an African-American woman selling Trump paraphernalia and wander over. She's draped in an American flag halter neck and denim cut-offs; she has the look of a woman whose seen a few things in her time. We get chatting and when I feel the conversation has warmed up I can't help myself.

"What's it like supporting Trump as a woman?" I ask, referring to the Trump tapes.

"Oh. that's nothing new, just locker room banter," she laughs. "I've worked around men who talk like that all my life."

I decide to probe further.

"Sure," I venture, "but does that make it okay?"

"Oh honey, let me tell you a secret. All men are bastards!" she cackles, slapping me on the shoulder conspiratorially as she turns to a customer. Her response is similar to that of a younger white woman I spoke to at a Pence rally a couple of days earlier.

"I've grown up with brothers," she offers by way of explanation as to why Trump's 'boy humour' doesn't bother her. Sexism runs so deep that Trump's demeaning comments somehow bring these women closer to him; he's 'one of the boys' like their brothers and colleagues.

Conflicting reactions to these comments about women between Hillary and Trump supporters were but one marker of a country deeply divided during my time on the US Presidential campaign trail.

Beyond the bubble

Woman holding sign which reads "Sign here: petition to prosecute Hillary Terminate her clearance Immediately! Sign here"

The chance to actually meet and probe the people that proudly announced to me they intended to vote Trump was perhaps the most interesting part of the two-week trip. Often we spend so long trapped in the bubble of our own political leanings, it is utterly baffling to comprehend that people might be attracted to such a terrifying and dangerous candidate.

One such Trump supporter was Brenda, a woman I met on my flight to LA.

It started innocently enough, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. Brenda, a middle-aged white woman sitting next to me on in the inbound flight to L.A., struck up a conversation. Noticing her accent, after some polite chit-chat I decided to tentatively broach the topic of the then upcoming election.

"Oh, it's just so scary this time around," she gushed.

I relaxed — this was ground I'm familiar with, the usual gateway into conversations about Trump. I quickly agreed and we both laughed conspiratorially. It took me a minute to realise that she was actually talking about Hillary.

As we continued chatting, Brenda informed me she was from a farm outside Atlanta. I was struck by her warmth as we chatted — her earnest eye contact and her open concern for the state of America. Hillary, she told me, wanted to take away 'rights'. She wanted to terminate babies at full term and increase taxes.

Brenda owns guns. "I never used to have a gun, you know," she told me over the dinner service. "I used to live in L.A. and it never occurred to me. But then I started to hear things... crime started going up, and I realised criminals have guns so I need one too."

I gently pointed to the widely reported statistics confirming crime has actually decreased in the States, dramatically so over the past decade. Brenda shook her head: "I don't feel safe."

On paper, the concerns Brenda listed are typical. They're the ones we read about, and the ones we saw Trump inarticulately bang on about to adoring crowds packed into football stadiums during his campaign. They're easily rebutted by facts. But coming from an ordinary woman like Brenda, they feel different.

Brenda struck me as reasonably intelligent. But I didn't get the feeling she's interested in facts. She's interested in feelings.

It's easy to dismiss Trump supporters as red-necked, pitch-fork wielding bigots at worst; ignorant, angry white Americans at best. But there's something bigger going on here. "People are hurting," Brenda told me as we fastened our seat-belts for landing.

This, at least, I can't argue with. We can see this elsewhere, in the support for the Leave campaign of Brexit, and in the recent, terrifying resurgence of One Nation in Australia. People are struggling with unemployment and poverty; they feel frustrated and unrepresented by the old political parties and they want someone to blame.

Handle with care

Trump, Farage and Hanson are excelling by harnessing this dissatisfaction for their right-wing agendas. Meanwhile, those within the bounds of established political machines deflect their fear of these new candidates with ridicule, such as Hillary's now infamous dismissal of Trump supporters as a 'basket of deplorables'.

Brenda was still visibly stinging as she recalled these comments to me. Dismissal such as this only feeds the flame of the victim complex Trump and his counterparts seek to further fuel.

This was abundantly clear at a Trump/Pence rally I attended in Florida a few days later. Betty, a small perky woman in her late 60s proudly kicked off the rally on behalf of her local Republican branch by welcoming her 'fellow deplorables'. The crowd went wild. They were united by their exclusion; they thrived on it.

Woman in pink t-shirt with "adorable deplorable" slogan smiling at camera

As we taxied to our arrival gate, Brenda leaned over and passed me a scrap of paper with her email address on it. It occured to me that she had no idea how abysmal I find Trump and the values he peddles, despite declaring my diametrically opposite perch on the political spectrum to her early on in our conversation. But for Brenda, this wasn't about politics, it was about connecting on a human level, just as the man who got her vote seemed to do (for the large swathe of disaffected, mainly white middle Americans he appeals to at least).

"Thanks for listening," she said as she grabbed her bag from the overhead locker. It seems simple, yet I was struck by how rarely I meaningfully engage in discussion with people from the other side of politics. While the old political parties and leaders bash heads for the sake of partisan point scoring, Trump and his cronies are all too willing to tap into the insecurities of many average Americans who feel ignored.

We dismiss and fail to engage with people like Brenda at our peril. People in Australia, as we saw at the last election, are also deeply dissatisfied and disengaged with politics as usual. The Greens are in a unique political position to address this disconnect. As a party, we provide a unique and fresh alternative to politics as usual. We must not give up on having these important and hard conversations. Continue to work on climate change deniers and those who would seek to close our borders to persons of certain ethnic backgrounds and faiths. And above all, we must continue to fight against the rising tide of dangerous values that Trump and Hanson represent.

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Resist the Far Right

Katie Robertson spent two weeks on the USA Presidential Campaign Trail as the Australian Greens' representative to the Young Political Leaders' Program, hosted by the US State Department. She was then Senior Policy and Parliamentary Advisor to Senator Hanson-Young. She is currently the co-convenor of the Victorian Greens Womens' Network and on Twitter @katie_e_rob