Civil engagement with Trump supporters
Like millions of Americans, I was devastated when Hillary Clinton lost the presidential race despite winning the popular vote by 2.8 million. But as days went by and reckless words from President Trump’s uncensored mind began rattling the world, I longed to engage with one or two Trump supporters to see if there was any common ground from which to look at our country as Americans and not as partisans.
The fact that I was a Muslim-American complicated the matter, given the bigoted rhetoric from the White House. Still, I kept hoping.
The opportunity came during a gathering of a group of amateur photographers in the foothills of San Jose, California where I live. While discussing finer points of the decisive moment, my curiosity was piqued by a fellow American whom I will call John. John is white, in his mid-sixties and retired. He made his money in real estate and now spends much of his time playing golf and pursuing his passion for photography. He is also a vigorous Trump supporter.
Although nervous to discuss politics, I told myself that the worst that could happen would be for John to ask me to get lost. I could live with that.
Here is a summary of our conversation.
“Do you think Trump’s policies of deporting immigrants, banning Muslims, and calling media the enemy of the people are good for our country?”
“Well,” he said, looking at me curiously, “Trump is just keeping his word. I admire him for that, don’t you? How many politicians do you know who keep their promises? And what’s wrong with deporting illegals? Isn’t it wrong for them take up jobs meant for the legals?”
Statistics prove otherwise, I told him. Besides, many immigrants do menial jobs that make life easier for Americans like him. “Look at who are serving us here! Hispanics.”
“I am sure they are legal. I have no problem with them,” John replied.
“Do you know any illegals?” I asked.
“I personally don’t know any,” allowed John, “but trust me, they are around.”
It went back and forth like this. John did not budge and neither did I. I raised the Muslim ban issue, reminding him that no one from the banned Islamic countries had committed terrorist acts in America. John was unimpressed.
“We can never be too safe,” he said. “It is right to err on the side of caution.”
“Even if it goes against our values?”
“I don’t think it does. In any case, the president is responsible for keeping us safe by any means necessary.” As he said this, I became aware that John was looking at me with more interest. Next instant, I knew why.
“Are you a Muslim?”
Here it comes, I thought, the moment of truth! For a fleeting second, I recalled what Patrick Stein, one of the conspirators said about the Muslims he was planning to massacre in Garden City, Kansas, in July 2016, fortunately foiled by the FBI: “The only good Muslim is a dead Muslim.”
“Yes,” I replied.
A pause. Then: “Well, you seem like a decent fella!” said John with a smile.
I cringed inside but outwardly I matched his grin. “Thank you,” I said with relief. I told John that most Americans who hold negative views of Muslims have never met a Muslim in their life. “You are the first Muslim I had a conversation with,” agreed John.
While I cannot say with certainty that we parted as friends, I am also certain that John and I did not part as enemies.
What my brief encounter with a Trump supporter taught me was that we should use civility not as a weapon to win arguments but because it is the right thing to do, a tough test for summoning the better angels of our nature.
This in no way diminishes the urgency to save our country from Trump’s un-American policies, the gerrymandering, the willful policy of suppressing voter rights and registration, banning immigrants on the basis of religion, depriving women of their reproductive options, treating media as the enemy of the people (about which Republican senator John McCain said, “That’s how dictators get started”), rising anti-Semitism and hate crimes and such. We must sustain the 21st-century version of the movement launched by abolitionist Harriet Tubman, suffragist Susan Anthony and freedom rider John Lewis.
But our fight to win our country back from a would-be dictator will stand a greater chance of success if we use civility for its own sake and as its own reward while interacting with our fellow Americans who voted Trump to power.
Hasan Zillur Rahim is a professor of mathematics at San Jose City College and the Outreach Director of the Evergreen Islamic Center (www.eicsanjose.org) in San Jose.