I’d just come from the No One Is Above the Law rally. With 90 minutes to kill before my next meeting, I swung into a restaurant for dinner. There was one seat at the bar and I took it.
“Where’ve you been?” the fiftyish woman with long blond hair sitting beside me asked. She and her companions, a dark-haired woman and a man, all turned their attention to me with big smiles.
“I was just down the street at a rally,” I said. Their faces registered blank. So I hesitantly said the name of the rally. Still blank. “It’s to… protect… the Mueller..” smiles turned to scowls “investigation.” Suddenly, the scowls turned to glares. Faces blazed red. Veins throbbed. I’m pretty sure fangs showed. Uh oh, Trump Republicans.
The women berated Democrats and barraged me with accusations and questions, never pausing for an answer. Why are Democrats so hateful? When are you gonna get over losing the election?
The women berated Democrats and barraged me with accusations and questions, never pausing for an answer. Why are Democrats so hateful? When are you gonna get over losing the election? Stop disrespecting the president. What’s he done wrong? He doesn’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done.
Stress messes with the digestive system, so I considered leaving, but I was intrigued. I’ve never encountered a Trump Republican face-to-face. Truth be told, they scare me some—the menacing chanting and gestures I see from his rallies and the white males with guns threatening people who disagree with his rhetoric. But since the restaurant was an upscale public place near my next stop, and the verbal assailants were women, I decided to risk it and stay.
“This country’s too divided,” the blond woman said. “There’s too much hate. People in different political parties can’t talk to each other. I believe in love and peace and I want everybody to just get along. We’re all Americans.”
“But we don’t all think alike,” I told her. “And that’s the beauty of this country. We don’t have to. But I agree, there’s too much vitriol.”
That brought on a tirade about diversity, immigration, and welfare. Democrats just want to give everything away and there’s no accountability. When she reached a stopping point, she asked me a question.
“You really don’t want an answer,” I said.
“Yes, yes, I do. Tell me.” When I started talking, she quickly interrupted and talked over me, telling me I was wrong without even hearing me out. So I stopped talking and tried to get the bartender to take my order.
“You didn’t answer my question” she said, with an accusatory tone.
“I’m actually happy to have a discussion with someone who doesn’t think like I do,” I told her, “but you really don’t want to hear what I think and I’m not going to argue and sling mud like the pundits.”
She sat quietly for a bit then repeated her desire for everybody to get along and lamented the hostility and divide. I wondered how many drinks they’d already downed.
Eventually, she talked about her upbringing, Catholic, the daughter of a police officer in Boston, and her current life in California. “I really believe life begins at conception,” she said. I let it pass. Then she moved on to gun control and healthcare. I said little, mostly listened.
Her daughter is starting high school and she and her husband disagree about where she should attend and her prospects for college. “She’s got great grades and plays basketball, but she won’t get into UC-Berkeley,” she said. “They’ll take minorities before her.”
“That’s not the way it works,” I countered. “By state law, there’s no racial quota system for admission to public higher ed.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I’ve worked in higher ed for 25 years.”
“Well, she won’t be able to get on the basketball team.”
OK, I know how this rhetorical game is played, so I ended it by saying I don’t know anything about sports.
We talked about the pressure being put on kids; how narrow the road to success is and how competitive; the suicide rate going up and at younger ages. Then we moved on to the world for women. Suddenly, the dark-haired woman who’d been talking to the man but having difficulty resisting the political conversation going on beside her practically jumped into the blond-haired woman’s lap to get closer to me, spitting venom.
The blond woman defended me. “She’s a nice person and she’s being polite.”
“Polite?!?! She just called our president a misogynist!” the dark-haired woman yelled.
Somehow, that led to women’s protests and pink pussy hats—which they find disgusting. They kept going on about it, so I finally told them I wouldn’t wear one of those hats either even though someone offered to make one for me. That admission stopped them long enough that we all laughed. “But the hat’s not the point,” I said. “It’s just a symbol. The point is how women are treated.” But they stayed with the hat. So I returned to my burger, then got a phone call that I decided to take right there at the bar, huddling in to draw a boundary.
When I finished the call, intending to concentrate on eating my dinner, I heard “gun control, that’s a bipartisan issue. Everybody thinks we need to ban assault weapons. Republicans and Democrats do.”
OK, she’s trying, I thought. And there is a large majority of Americans who want restraints on weapons, so I agreed.
“But this problem has been going on a long time and Democrats didn’t fix it.”
“Who’s stopping it now?” I asked.
My question went unanswered while we shared our backgrounds related to guns—hers a law enforcement father who wanted guns off the street, mine a rural upbringing where hunting is part of the culture and people eat what they kill.
Eventually, her defensive talking points started to give way.
She returned to immigration. “We need something better,” she said. “People come here without papers and they just get exploited. They should get minimum wage too.”
“That’s another long-term issue,” I say. “We need comprehensive reform that’s realistic and fair all around.”
“I’d be the first to help somebody, if I knew they were trying to help themselves,” she said. “Republicans are like that.” An alcohol-politics mix leaves little room for complexity or subtlety, and I didn’t want to risk stirring up a conversation that seemed to be settling, so I accepted her statement as a glimmer of a good heart.
When I ordered a second margarita, the trio switched their drinks and ordered margaritas too. Then, they toasted, and included me. In my confusion over this unexpected act, I inadvertently set my glass down before taking a drink and the dark-haired woman flared again. “You’re disrespecting us! You set the glass down!”
I looked at the glass quizzically, then looked at her. “Chalk it up to ignorance, not ill will,” I said. “I didn’t know it meant anything.” She looked at me incredulously, paused, then softened, “Well, I only learned that about a year ago.” Then she returned to talking to the man.
The blond woman returned to talking about abortion. “Prostitutes and drug addicts get pregnant and then they get government money. Or the government pays for their abortion.”
“The majority of women who get abortions already have a child and they’re trying to control their family size and manage financially,” I told her.
“So you’re saying prostitutes and junkies don’t get abortions?”
“No. I’m saying that perception isn’t what’s happening most often.“
“Is that really true?”
“Yes, you can check the statistics.”
She asked me where and I told her to go to an objective source, like the CDC.
“So that’s really true?”
“Yes, it’s true.”
“OK,” she said,” as if she was willing to believe me.
“Thank you,” I said, relieved, and feeling that some barrier had been crossed.
After a long pause, she said, “I think women should have the choice. I’d never say someone shouldn’t get an abortion if she thinks that’s what she needs to do. I just don’t think government should pay for it.”
I began to wonder. Where can we have these kinds of discussions? There are so many serious, complex issues, like immigration reform, healthcare, gun control and climate change that need resolution. Fundamental aspects of our system, like corruption and voting rights, need remedies. And difficult questions must be raised and answered, like what government should and shouldn’t pay for, what should be in public or private hands, and how do we share power.
The differences in worldview beneath these controversies might be unbridgeable, I know. But how do we turn down the heat, but not the resolve? This exchange at the bar reminds me that everyone wants to be respected and to be heard. But speaking in abstractions heightens emotion, and dulls understanding. Attach that rhetoric to a political party label and you can’t step out of the cage, even if you hear something you agree with from the “other” side. If we can get to the humanness, the day-to-day experience and concerns, we increase our chances of building a bridge.
“I’ve got to make a phone call and go to a meeting,” I say to the blond-haired woman. “So I need to leave.”
“Where are you going,” she asked, reaching to shake my hand.
I smiled at the irony, but without rancor or fear. “I’m going to a Democratic Party meeting.”
“Oh, well tell ‘em you met a reasonable Republican, ok?”
Christina Leimer, Ph.D.
Author, Researcher, Journalist