It starts innocently enough, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. Brenda, sitting next to me on in the inbound flight to L.A., strikes up a conversation. Noticing her accent, after some polite chit-chat I decide to tentatively broach the topic of the upcoming election.
"Oh, it's just so scary this time around," she gushes.
I relax -- this is ground I'm familiar with, the usual gateway into conversations about Trump. I quickly agree and we both laugh conspiratorially. It take me a minute to realise that she's actually talking about Hillary.
Brenda is an average-looking woman from a farm outside Atlanta; pleasant face, perhaps in her late 40s, no sign of fangs. I'm struck by her warmth as we chat; her earnest eye contact and her open concern for the state of America. Hillary, she tells me, wants to take away 'rights'. She wants to terminate babies at full term and increase taxes.
Brenda owns guns. "I never used to have a gun, you know," she tells 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 point to the widely reported statistics confirming crime has actually decreased in the States, dramatically so over the past decade. Brenda shakes her head: "I don't feel safe."
The beverages cart rattles down the aisle as talk turns to Hillary the woman. "I'm a Christian, you know," she offers by way of explanation. "Isn't Hillary religious too, I ask?" I pause to think, knowing I read this somewhere recently. "Methodist...?" Brenda rolls her eyes in response. No further elaboration is forthcoming.
On paper, the concerns Brenda lists are typical. They're the ones we read about and the ones we see Trump inarticulately bang on about to adoring crowds packed into football stadiums. They're easily rebutted by facts. But coming from an ordinary woman like Brenda, they feel different. Brenda strikes me as reasonably intelligent. But I don't get the feeling she's interested in facts. She's interested in feelings.
Conversation turns to Trump. I'm intrigued to hear what it is that she's attracted to. "There's just something about him," she says. "You know, he can fill stadiums -- people are lining the streets to see him."
I tell her that, although I can see Trump is charismatic to some and appeals to people because he is not an establishment politician, I'm not quite clear on the substance behind the slogans. I raise the infamous Wall as an example.
"Oh that," she chuckles indulgently. Is she concerned about the substance (or lack thereof) of Trump's policies? "People are tired of politics as usual," she tells me.
The policy question hangs between us, unanswered.
It's easy to dismiss Trump supporters as red-necked, fork-pick wielding bigots at worst; ignorant, angry white Americans at best. But there's something bigger going on here. "People are hurting," Brenda tells me as we fasten 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 major political parties.
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 recent dismissal of Trump supporters as a 'basket of deploreables.'
Brenda is still visibly stung as she recalls 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 is abundantly clear at a Trump/Pence rally I attend in Florida a few days later. Betty, a small perky woman in her late 60s proudly kicks off the rally on behalf of her local Republican branch by welcoming her 'fellow deploreables'. The crowd goes wild. They are united by their exclusion; they thrive off it.
As we taxi to our arrival gate Brenda leans over and passes me a scrap of paper with her email address on it. It occurs to me that she has no idea how abysmal I find Trump and the values he is peddling, despite declaring my diametrically opposite perch on the political spectrum to her early on in our conversation. But for Brenda, this isn't about politics, it's about connecting on a human level, just as the man who'll get her vote next Tuesday seems to do (for the large sway of disaffected, mainly white middle Americans he appeals to at least).
"Thanks for listening," she says as she grabs her bag from the overhead locker. It seems simple, yet I'm struck by how rarely I meaningfully engage in discussion with people from the other side of politics. While 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 and her Trump at our peril.
Katie Robertson is currently following Trump and Clinton on the U.S. Presidential campaign.Suggest a correction