When I learned that 52% of white women had voted for Donald Trump back in 2016, my first thought was, ”What about those who are survivors of assaults, like the ones he bragged about in the ′Access Hollywood’ tape?” I’m the executive director of a rape and violence prevention program, so abuse is often my first thought. I couldn’t shake my curiosity, so I spent four years trying to understand women abuse survivors who voted for Trump.
I will always be grateful to the women who agreed to talk to me. It’s a brave act to tell another person about the abuse you’ve survived, even braver when that person is holding up a recorder and has different political views than you.
I spent hours on the phone and visited parts of the country I never thought I’d see. I went to a women’s gun convention in Texas. I subscribed to local newspapers in Pennsylvania and Ohio. I fact-checked and gut-checked, but I never found my way to any magical common ground that is supposed to unite us in spite of our political differences.
One of the first women I interviewed had survived sexual abuse that was perpetrated by the leader of her church. Her parents believed that all Christians were good people, so they didn’t take her seriously when she tried to get help. As an adult, she lived with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that results from severe and prolonged abuse. She was always afraid of being raped again. That’s why she chose Trump. He promised to close our borders, and secure borders made her feel safe. While she detested him personally, his harsh, clear rhetoric about keeping the “bad people” out made the world feel less out of control.
Her support of such punitive policies was hard to hear, especially because she was otherwise such a compassionate person. She worked as a mental health counselor, helping people who come to emergency rooms with psychiatric crises. The night we met, she had just tried to help an undocumented woman who needed care but refused to be admitted to the hospital for fear of being deported. She spoke of the woman with such compassion. I really believe how hard she tried to help. But she didn’t make any connection between her own beliefs and the traumatizing circumstances this woman faced.
She wasn’t the only survivor whose vote was motivated by safety. One woman told me that she believed Trump was the only person taking terrorism seriously. Another was drawn to his pro-police stance. She’d left an abusive husband in the 1960s and believed that the police were the ones keeping women safe.
Still another woman, who was stalked by her ex-husband, only felt safe after she learned how to shoot a gun. When she looks at Trump, she sees the most empowered version of herself. He “doesn’t back down.” He “tells it like it is without sparing people’s feelings.” When she was married, she compromised to keep the peace. Trump inspired her to reclaim her power.
I can imagine that feeling like you know who the “bad people” are and using walls and prisons to keep them away might be satisfying to a person who has spent her life feeling hurt and invisible. And when you don’t see racism as systemic, when you believe you’re not a racist as long as you’re nice to everyone regardless of the color of their skin, then it’s possible to forget that the people targeted by these policies have been hurt and invisible, too.
Some of the conversations were illuminating. They reminded me how limiting it can be to only talk to people who share your beliefs. One woman told me that living in a rural area made her distrust government interference. You have to be much more resourceful when you can’t just run to the grocery store or order takeout. It doesn’t make sense not to have a gun — if you call the police, they’ll get to you in half an hour if you’re lucky.
I met a domestic violence survivor who was proud of having kept her daughters housed and fed after she separated from her husband. But then the Obamacare individual insurance mandate left her with no choice but Medicaid, and she felt forced to accept what she considered to be charity. She looked at her dinner plate, not at me, when she told me how the people at the doctor’s office treated her.
I kept feeling the presence of abuse as an undercurrent in our political divisions. When people experience a traumatic event, their bodies often stay at war. Even if the abuse is long in the past, the brains and nervous systems of many survivors still experience everyday events as threats. It’s not safe in an abusive home to stop being vigilant, so people don’t. With many of us living in that state of high alert, political marketers enter our inboxes with alarmist rhetoric that equates our adversaries with all forms of evil.
A five-second internet search can tell you the voting patterns of married women, or millennial women, or women with college degrees. But the political beliefs of women who have had their safety disrupted by people they were supposed to be able to trust? Nothing. We know too little about how political marketing messages resonate with people whose past experiences have taught them that the world is a threatening place.
The more I searched, the more I realized the information I wanted didn’t exist. I interviewed neuroscientist Jonas Kaplan, who found that when people are exposed to statements that contradict their political beliefs, the activity in their brains is similar to what it would be if they were facing imminent physical danger. So the evolutionary mechanisms that once kept humans from being devoured by animals are now protecting us from opposing politics. Other studies show that looking at photographs of politicians we oppose activates the part of the brain that keeps us from eating rancid food, and that reading political statements activates the parts of the brain that process and regulate fear, whereas nonpolitical arguments activate the parts of the brain that govern reason and thought.
Yet, when I asked Kaplan how these fear responses are different for people with post-traumatic stress disorder or other lasting effects of trauma, he said this area hadn’t been studied.
When the Trump administration began locking migrant children in cages, my curiosity ground to a halt. It became almost unbearable to care about people whose minds I couldn’t change. One woman told me that former President Bill Clinton locked up children first, and that the media was unfairly creating hysteria because Trump was an outsider. I sat in a café and fact-checked her claim and felt better about myself because I believed something that was true. My satisfaction was short-lived, however, because I realized I would never be able to convince her otherwise.
It took me a year to be able to talk about now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. I had a three-hour conversation with a woman I’d interviewed several times before. We both committed to dissenting with empathy, and we both made real efforts to understand each other’s views.
Together, we asked the hard important questions, the ones that are too often glossed over when politicians try to do something about abuse. How should we fairly hold a teenager accountable for sexual assault? What about someone who was intoxicated, who may not be lying when he says he doesn’t remember? What is fair to expect of a teenager growing up in the ’80s, who didn’t learn about consent?
It would be immoral not to expect Kavanaugh to account for the trauma he’s been accused of. That night left the young woman who accused him of sexual assault forever changed. She lives with lasting trauma. Her stomach turned when he was appointed to be a federal judge, remembering what happened that night.
Stripped of our politics, we had a real, respectful conversation. But Brett Kavanaugh is on the Supreme Court and Merrick Garland is not, so you can’t strip the politics.
During the pandemic, I lost my ability to empathize for good. I reached out to women I’d interviewed a few times in March and April, but by May I was done. There was no closure, just abrupt ends to relationships that were precarious from the start. I know that empathic connections across political differences are supposed to be one of the most effective ways of changing people’s minds about political issues, but Trump stirred up something deep and intractable. I couldn’t make myself try anymore.
The experience left me less hopeful and more resolved — not to bridge differences and get along, but to more fully understand what people do when they need to feel safe. If we want more than superficial civility or apolitical human connection, then we have to reckon with trauma, with whom it causes us to fear and what that means when politicians promise safety.
Meg Stone is the executive director of IMPACT Boston, an organization that works to prevent abuse by giving people the skills to keep themselves and others safe. All her opinions about politicians are her own. Her writing has been published by The Washington Post, Ms., Alternet and others. Twitter: @megstoneimpact.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.