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What I Learned from Texting in Divided America

For the last three months, I’ve been texting with voters in the swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Arizona in the hopes of getting Joe Biden elected president. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve texted for hours most days. I haven’t been texting Democrats or Republicans specifically, but rather with people across the political spectrum, looking for opportunities to connect with undecided or persuadable voters. I probably sent nearly 100,000 texts all told, and engaged with thousands of voters.

The hours of texting into purple and red America were stressful and triggering. Most importantly, perhaps, they challenged many of my assumptions about Trump supporters, while also confirming others.

Some days, texting made me feel optimistic about America’s future. I was able to engage folks I normally wouldn’t connect with, and find some common ground. But many days it was just the opposite. I was horrified by the mistruths I heard over and over again and stunned by the power of the disinformation and propaganda machines of the right. Also disconcerting was how impressive many Trump voters were at articulating concrete and specific reasons why they supported him, reasons that I could disagree with but couldn’t dismiss as illegitimate. Far from ignorant, many of his supporters knew exactly what they were supporting and why.

As I write this, the election has yet to be decided. Before too much time passes and the memories fade, I want to share some observations from inhabiting contested America. Time will tell whether these impressions concord or not with exit polling and the eventual election post-mortem.

On the Trump voter

Trump voters are not monolithic. I encountered QAnon followers, angry white nationalists, white grievance voters, gun owners, small business owners, people who vote their pocketbooks, pacifists, traditional conservatives, individualists, former Democrats, abortion opponents, as well as Latinos and African Americans.

Trump voters have agency. They know what they want and they use Trump to get it. For some, it’s jobs, a strong economy, lower taxes, or the right to bear arms or curtail abortions. For others, it’s a more conservative judiciary branch. Or it’s standing up to China and NATO. Or it’s sealing America off from foreigners and restricting immigration. Or it’s the Middle East. Or it’s rejecting “woke” culture. Or it’s “draining the swamp” and shaking things up. And, for some, it’s all of the above.

Trump voters distrust politicians. They prefer a no-nonsense outsider who delivers on promises made. They are willing to tolerate lots of norm breaking and outlandish or even repugnant behavior if they feel Trump is delivering the goods for them. Trump has amplified distrust of government, and that will take time to repair.

Trump voters prize individualism and their freedoms. They generally want government out of their lives. They care a lot about the economy and jobs. They don’t want to be told how and for whom to sacrifice or change their behaviors.

Relatedly, Trump voters value economic freedom and reject the obsession with the pandemic. Many Trump voters benefited from the strong pre-pandemic economy. They credited Trump for that while giving him a pass on the virus, which they viewed as beyond his control, and trusted him to restore economic growth once the pandemic receded. Their focus on the economy and individual freedom also explained their resistance to mask wearing and more aggressive public health measures.

On polarization, propaganda and cognitive dissonance.

There is so much anger and fear. The vitriol, expletives and sheer rage that were directed at me, a simple texter whom many believed was a bot, was shocking and upsetting. Some of that could reflect an exhausting election season, particularly for voters in swing states who are being targeted constantly.

But, it’s also a symptom of the polarization and existential threat members of each American tribe feel at the possibility of their opponents triumphing. Supporters of both the Biden and Trump tribes were highly motivated in 2020 and that was borne out by record turnout for both parties. On the Biden side stood defenders of democracy and repudiators of fascism. On the Trump side stood defenders of capitalism and freedom against the purported socialism and collectivism of the progressive left. To my surprise (since Biden was the most moderate of the Democrats who vied for the presidency), fear mongering about socialism was cited often by Trump supporters as a reason for their support. The Democrats, likely because they were thinking inside rather than outside the tribe and the box, didn’t do enough to repudiate those attacks, attacks that were potent both with traditional conservative Trump supporters but also with immigrants and refugees who fled socialist or communist regimes.

Message discipline and amplification work. Trump and the right wing media have done an excellent job of communicating his agenda to his base and reinforcing his accomplishments and his message. Trump supporters who engaged with me had an impressive knowledge of Trump’s policy priorities and specific achievements, as well as a wrap-around narrative to contextualize those policies. I have not seen this equivalent on the left.

Propaganda and viral dissemination of untruths are real and frightening. The degree to which Trump supporters parrot rumors and conspiracy theories about Biden’s pedophilia and cognitive impairment was truly astonishing.

Bravado is more seductive than caution. Many Trump supporters revel in Trump’s swagger and bombast. Trump voters respond to his authoritarian persona: they crave a decisive leader who is their protector and America’s champion, especially when dealing with so much uncertainty and change.

Trump’s outsider status insulates him against the cynicism many Trump supporters have for career politicians. As an example, Trump voters rail about how the Biden family profits financially from politics while dismissing much more egregious evidence of self-dealing and corruption by Trump and his family. Many former Democrats who support Trump decry the paralysis and gridlock in DC and contrast it with Trump’s achievements in a short period of time.

This is what makes me sad.

America’s partisan tribal boundaries are very tightly drawn and views are for the most part rigidly set. Anger and fear are palpable. Threat activation is off the charts. Each side believes it is engaged in an existential, high stakes battle for America, a battle they have personalized. All of this makes it hard to step off the cliff, engage with the dreaded “other” and listen deeply to understand where these views are coming from. Having said that, I am reacting to the responses that I received while texting. It’s possible that many voters are tired of the fighting and seeking a more civil and less contentious political environment but those individuals may have chosen not to engage with me.

This is what gives me hope.

The work to begin healing our divides starts with non-judgmental listening. In the last few days, as the election results trickle in, I’ve found myself sharing a more nuanced depiction of the Trump voter with my fellow progressives, rather than vilifying them. More than seventy three million Americans voted for him, after all. My experience texting has made me yearn to figure out a path forward that brings us together and away from the brink of civil strife.

So what’s next?

Even though I work on bridge building and anti-polarization work in my professional life, that’s been at more of a conceptual and analytical level. I am not a seasoned practitioner of those healing arts. And, based on my experience, I can tell you now that this work is not for the faint of heart. It’s intimidating to leave the comfort of your tribe to enter potentially hostile territory, even behind the safety and anonymity of a digital interface.

I’ve written recently about the power of deep canvassing and the important role it plays in beginning this rebuilding. I want to thank People’s Action for its cutting edge work to bring deep canvassing work to scale and for welcoming me, and so many others, as volunteers.

This experience has changed me. Rather than harden my views, it has softened them. Rather than leading me to harbor contempt for members of the other tribe, it has made clear to me how urgent the repair work is that lies ahead of us. We need to tear down labels and walls, dispense with loaded jargon and code, and connect human to human about our fears and our hopes.

If I can muster the courage, I want to graduate to making deep canvassing calls (not just texting) and maybe even having those conversations in real life when the pandemic recedes.

I can hold these wishes for healing at the same time as I fight urgently to defeat Donald Trump, fight authoritarianism, injustice and oppression, and strengthen our pluralistic democracy. They are not mutually exclusive.

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