On Jan. 20, 2017, I watched from the national mall as Donald Trump took the oath of office. That weekend, I marched through the streets of Washington surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people. I saw more red “Make America Great Again” hats and pink pussyhats than you’ll probably see in your lifetime. I bought exorbitantly priced inauguration tickets in a 6 a.m. hotel-lobby transaction from a mysterious man called George. But the most memorable experience of my trip to report on inauguration weekend in Washington took place before my train even pulled into D.C.
The train from New Haven was late, and the burly, white-bearded man standing beside me on the platform was impatient. The goddamn trains, he said, were always late. I agreed that Amtrak often ran behind schedule. No, he corrected me with a chuckle, Connecticut often runs behind schedule. He said he was traveling to D.C. for the inauguration. As was I, I told him. To cover it for the Yale Daily News actually. He was cordial and loquacious and expounded on the liberal bias of The New York Times and CNN, both of which he classified as “fake news.” I listened until the train whistle sounded.
When we hit Penn Station, I sat down across from the man and asked if he would agree to an interview.
We talked until the train arrived in D.C. He had ice-blue eyes and a gravelly voice like the macho guys in truck commercials. A self-described redneck and proud member of the National Rifle Association, he worked as an engineer in Connecticut, where he has lived his entire life. He loved shooting clay pigeons but hadn’t been able to fire a rifle since “messing up” his hand. On his finger he wore a Claddagh ring and on his wrist a blue 9/11 memorial bracelet, which he said he would wear until he died. He voted for Trump on Election Day and had high hopes for the next four years.
Just outside of Trenton, I asked him what he thought of Trump’s Twitter presence. He said he wished Trump would “slow down.” Still, he liked Twitter as a company and was considering purchasing Twitter stock.
I told him that I owned Facebook stock.
He said he heard that Mark Zuckerberg was considering running for president in 2020, and I asked whom he would vote for if Zuckerberg ran against Trump. He paused.
“To be honest — and I don’t like being this way — I don’t know how comfortable I would be having a Jewish president with what goes on in Israel,” he said. “I don’t want another world war.”
He looked at me gravely, and I looked back at him, thinking that he must have considered that that I might be Jewish. But I don’t think he had. I don’t think the possibility ever occurred to him. I didn’t say anything. The train thundered on.
It is unsettling to have a three-and-a-half-hour conversation with someone who hates you in principle. And the man did hate me in principle — he talked at length about his distaste for liberals, journalists and Jews. (Being a straight, white male, experiencing bigotry on such a personal level is not a common occurrence for me; you don’t tend to encounter too many unabashed anti-Semites milling about cross campus.)
And yet he spoke to me like a friend.
The man’s nephew who attended Williams, he told me, had “gone over to the socialist side” and would never be an American again. The man said he believes the nation’s ideological rift is so deeply entrenched that “maybe it’s time we got a divided country.”
“The liberals have got to have California and the Northeast, and let the regular people have the South,” he suggested. “Whatever. I mean California — I’d like to go to the San Andreas fault, jackhammer it all off and float it over to Japan, put some chains on it and hook it up to them.”
That, for him, was the great American division: liberals on the coasts and regular people elsewhere.
Later, he reminisced about the days when Connecticut, and New Haven specifically, were thriving hubs of business and manufacturing. “The fucking liberals got it all out of here,” he muttered bitterly.
Mainstream journalists fared no better in his estimation; he called Wolf Blitzer and his associates “socialist whores” who spend their time “altering, tainting [and] editing” news to “mislead” the public.
“I mean, you’ve got to get a kick out of it how even if you were to be filming and recording me, you could cut and segment and edit it all out and twist to no end what I’m saying,” he said. “Don’t they do that — not you — don’t they do that?”
It was the only time he seemed to realize that he was talking not just to me but about me. In his eyes, I wasn’t a liberal or a Jew or one of the Yale students who he said needed to “grow a set of balls.” Even as I was interviewing him, I don’t think he really thought of me as a journalist, or at least not as one of the “socialist whores” like Wolf Blitzer — that other liberal, Jewish journalist.
Sitting before him in the flesh, I was just the kid he met at the train station. He spoke to me as if to an ally about the enemy. Except that I was the enemy, too. He couldn’t — or didn’t — apply his ideology to the human face in front of him.
It was only later that I realized the phenomenon was reciprocal. He had his notion of a liberal Jewish journalist and I had mine of a Trump supporter.
Of course, I would like to think mine less bigoted than his. He was, in some ways, exactly what I expected. He believed Barack Obama was a Muslim. He said true Americans shouldn’t frequent Stop and Shop “because the foreigners own that.” And he saw the Affordable Care Act as just another example of how “our fucking government fucking takes from me all the fucking time.”
His entire worldview was saturated with nostalgia for a bygone America, for the “days of the factories and the workers and the work-for-your-40-years-and-collect-your-pension [lifestyle].” That, he said, was America. And that America may be irrecoverable.
“I don’t think it’s ever coming back,” he said. “Did you ever watch “Leave It to Beaver”? “Lost in Space”? Just watch an episode or two of those just to see how polite and cordial and respectful people were back then when I was a kid growing up. Even the Flintstones. It’s just amazing.”
Not everyone, though, enjoyed that politeness and cordiality and respect. He knew that. But he perceived no contradiction.
When I asked what he thought of stop-and-frisk tactics, he reminisced about a past era.
“Once upon a time in the quiet little town where I live, if you were black driving some foreign car with the tinted windows and the music playing, your ass should have been pulled over,” he said. “Because I want to know what the hell you’re doing.”
When he expressed sentiments like this, it was hard to be a reporter, to play the neutral inquirer. And yet for all the appalling opinions he expressed, I found myself unable to wholly dislike him. It wasn’t that he defied my expectations. It wasn’t that I could relate to him. It was the details: His recollection of the awe he felt watching a space shuttle launch; his longing to see the Sagrada Familia; his wish that he “could earn a good solid living with health care and retirement cutting grass.”
Humanity is not conditional on politics; humanity is in the details. It is hard to hate someone whom you imagine to be as complex as you are.
Ladies and gentlemen, can I have your attention please. Our final stop, Washington, D.C., will be next in just a few minutes. Please take this time to look around your seat and the overhead luggage rack for all personal items. Please be mindful there is a gap between the train and the station platform. Once again ladies and gentlemen, Washington, D.C., our final stop, in just a few minutes.
It was past midnight, and I’d talked to the man for more than three-and-a-half hours. The other two people at our table had long since deserted.
We got up to gather our luggage. Both of us stood in the aisle watching the station slide by in the window.
Ladies and gentlemen now arriving, now arriving at our last stop, Washington, D.C. Please watch your step and please enjoy your night. Once again ladies and gentlemen, this is our last stop, Washington, D.C.
As the train slowed, he turned to me.
“You got me thinking a lot tonight,” he said. “I mean it.”
I wasn’t sure what to say, so I smiled. We shook hands. I noticed the slight deformity of his right hand and remembered what he told me about having to give up riflery and switch to pistol shooting. The train stopped.