While running for governor, our campaign traveled more than 100,000 miles in 11 months. That’s four times around the world without leaving the state of Wisconsin. Along the way, I met more Trump voters than I can count.
I knew some were Trump voters because they told me so, some because of a baseball cap they wore or a bumper sticker displayed on their vehicles. Some were satisfied with his presidency so far, some clearly admired him greatly, some had their doubts and some even showed signs of buyer’s remorse, others had specific misgivings but remained generally supportive. No two were exactly alike. Each story was unique.
In two different places on two different days, two men approached me at campaign events. I have no idea what prompted them to attend, but both offered a handshake and each introduced himself not by name but rather by saying “I’m a deplorable.”
Heck of a way to start a conversation. Maybe they were trying to pick a fight. Maybe they were testing me or trying to throw me off guard. Maybe it was just their way of identifying themselves as Trump supporters. They did a good job of concealing their motives. What they couldn’t hide so well is that they were hurting.
It was no mystery what and who they were referring to when they identified themselves the way they did. I didn’t take the bait. I didn’t bring up the president. I asked them where they were from and what kind of work they did. In their answers were threads found in my own family’s tapestry. We got to talking. I think we all were surprised how many similarities there were in our life experiences.
Both men stayed to hear me speak to the small groups attending the events. One listened quietly. The other was visibly agitated and couldn’t help interrupting me several times to challenge things I said. Afterwards, both men approached me again. The one who stood in the back listening made it clear he didn’t agree with many of the things I said but told me he still was impressed with what he heard and was glad he came. The other man said he thought he would be put down or berated at such an event and was surprised he wasn’t.
I’m virtually certain neither of these two men ended up voting for me. But that’s beside the point. I’m better off for having met them. I learned from both encounters. I found nothing deplorable about either of them. What I did find is that they both have reasons to be frustrated and afraid and angry. Both are hurting. Both are frantically searching for a way to make the pain go away.
When we parted company, I couldn’t help but feel exasperation about this moment we are living through and the toxic political environment we’ve created, where we all are convinced “our side” is right and good and the “other side” is wrong and evil. But I also was more convinced than ever that the solution to the extremism that has taken hold of our country is what Martin Luther King Jr. called “radical empathy.”
The way to fight radicalism that breeds hate and violence is with a different kind of radicalism. As Dr. King said: “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view…for from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”