On the first day of October, the Washington Post carried a portrait of a Trump supporter named Melanie Austin. A middle-aged woman living in a coal town in western Pennsylvania, Austin has a strong hunch, based on some evidence at her disposal, that President Obama is gay, Michelle Obama transgender, and their children had been kidnapped.
But we also learned that Austin has anxiety that is, by her own admission, “through the roof”—she keeps anti-anxiety pills in a vial on her key chain. We learned that earlier this year she was arrested and hospitalized for weeks after saying online, where she’s a frequent ranter, that Obama ought to be hanged. Reporter Stephanie McCrummen told us Austin lives in a “parallel world of beliefs that the Trump campaign had not so much created as harnessed and swept into the presidential election.”
Is Austin a representative Trump supporter? We’re invited to believe that she is. She’s definitely representative of how those of us who can’t abide Trump like to imagine Trump supporters—as a white, hysterical freak show—and of how the media like to portray them. The portrayal might be sympathetic—as in this video from the Guardian titled “Why the poorest county in West Virginia has faith in Trump.” It might even plead for “empathy” with Trump supporters, as in this essay from media futurist Jeff Jarvis. Jarvis blames the Trump candidacy on the failure of the media to “inform the worldview of the petri dish that bred Trump: the angry, underemployed, conservative, white man.”
Sorry, these commentators seem to be saying. You’re not simply Americans with opinions we don’t share. You’re a petri dish.
All this may be true. But it’s uncurious. And it’s kind of lazy. It admits only one uncertainty: after the election maybe Trump’s supporters will go away; but maybe they won’t.
I heard from a young woman in Boston who thinks Trump supporters might be more varied and interesting than how they’re being depicted. In fact, she knows they are, because when she wrote me she’d just had a date with one of them—a guy she’d met online. She sent me a long letter describing the day, but we’ll skip to the point, several hours in, when, though she has her suspicions, she’s still not certain of his politics.
He tells her about his neighbors:
“I love Brazilians!” he exclaimed. “They’re just so open and friendly and—you know what? Immigrants in general. It’s just wonderful living in a place where there are people from all over. I love it.”
My heart gave a leap, as we stood up to walk again. “Really?” I chirped. “So . . . does this mean that you’re not a Trump supporter?”
His face fell. “No—I support Trump. Sure I do. What, you–you’re not some kind of left-winger, are you?”
It had never occurred to me that anyone could doubt I was leftish. I’m a cyclist and a Buddhist; I love France; I don’t eat meat, watch TV, or think that the U.S. is the greatest country in the world. “What do you think, after spending an afternoon with me?” I bristled.
He looked at the ground, said, “I don’t know . . . ” and I saw gears of alarm and self-restraint grinding against each other. . . . Then the news hit me, and I started unraveling into unhelpful giggles. “WOW, you’re really a Trump supporter?? You’re the first I’ve met! The very first!!” He looked pained. “Oh my goodness,” I barreled on, “What will my friends say when I tell them?!?” He stopped and turned to face me on the pine-lined path we were strolling. “I hope you’ll tell them I’m a nice guy.”
Which he was. As nice as they come. I reeled myself in, and we walked in silence. I wanted to know everything about him and Trump, but I also couldn’t recall ever enjoying a first date so much, and didn’t trust myself to pursue a Trumpcentric line of questioning without ruining it.
We talked about other things. Later, after dark, as we were cruising among towns in his car, the election cropped up in conversation. He parked and turned to me with a braced-for-bad-news face. “Listen, just tell me this: do you know who you’re voting for?”
“I sure do,” I retorted. “And it’s definitely not Trump. I’m voting Clinton.”
““OK, but are you voting for her because you’re excited about her?”
With a rush of relief he squeezed both my hands in his.
“And?” I asked. “Are you excited about Trump?”
“No. I think his campaign’s been disgusting,” he said. “He’s based the whole thing on political incorrectness. But Clinton’s a criminal, and I think she should be in prison.”
For Benghazi, he said. And she told me, “I could barely respond to this. None of the news I consume seems to take seriously the idea that Clinton was personally—let alone criminally—responsible for that siege. I could only conclude that he and I were getting different information.”
Which undoubtedly they were, our nation being famously divided by separate facts, separate realities. And separate stereotypes.
It doesn’t have to be that way. I hope they have a second date.
Read the friend’s e-mail to Mike Miner in its entirety: