My road trip with a Republican: 2 strangers spend 14 hours in a car to talk through America's political divide

To combat the hate I saw on the 2016 campaign trail, I went looking for common ground. Dave signed on for the ride

Published August 15, 2017 7:00PM (EDT)


Excerpted from "The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage," copyright © 2017 by Jared Yates Sexton. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.

As my reporting [on the 2016 presidential campaigns] gained momentum, so too did the harassment. Suddenly I was receiving dozens of messages a day, some laudatory but most of them hateful. When I felt the most anxiety, I’d sit in front of my computer and watch the abuse roll in on the screen. It felt like every Republican in the country had decided to come after me. At first I tried to respond to every single negative message and attempt to communicate, but soon there was no possible way of keeping up.

That barrage, and its unrelenting nature, forced me to confront how I viewed the political state of America. It would have been so much easier had I just decided conservatives weren’t going to respect me and call it a day. But I wanted to have empathy for them, I wanted to see if there was some way we could bridge the gap between us.

Late one night, still buzzing from a particularly unpleasant conversation with a Republican on social media, I sent out a call to see if anyone knew a conservative who’d be willing to take a road trip with me. I was planning on traveling to Ohio to see Hillary Clinton speak with Elizabeth Warren, and I thought the hours on the road might present a chance to get to know a complete stranger with whom I disagreed completely.

The first time I ever laid eyes on “Dave,” he was stepping out of his car and stretching in the driveway. Instantaneously, I violated my own rules not to succumb to preconceived notions. From my car, across the street, he looked exactly like I expected: a young, white square wearing a pair of khakis with a polo shirt the National Guard couldn’t untuck.

After we introduced ourselves, he sat in my passenger seat, listening while I explained the purpose of this trip. We were about to drive to Cincinnati, Ohio, for a Hillary Clinton rally. Seven hours there, seven hours back. Two strangers who’d never so much as spoken before. A liberal and a man who was seconds away from filling out a survey reporting himself as “very conservative.”

“You can do anything in the car,” I told him. “Switch the AC on, switch it off. Look through the glove box. Flip through the radio if you want.”

“And you want me to fill this out?” he asked.

“This” was a six-question survey I’d hastily thrown together that morning as I was trying my damnedest to get out of the house on time. On it, Dave was asked to rate his level of conservatism, choose words that described conservatives, liberals, President Barack Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton, and answer how likely he was to vote for the Democratic nominee.

Without hesitation, he circled Very Unlikely.
“Do you want to know why we’re doing this?” I asked him.
 He shrugged. “Sure.”
 I told him it was an experiment. That in the past two weeks, due to my political writing, I’d received a healthy dose of criticism and harassment, not to mention death threats, and now I wanted to see if complete strangers, on opposite sides of the political spectrum, could transcend these polarized times and find common ground.

“Okay,” he said, less than impressed.

I put the car in drive, pressed record on the digital recorder, and tried to get Dave up to speed.

* * *

The pleasantries were over as we’d met our first disagreement.
 We’d been getting along just fine when he had to go and ruin all that good will by saying, “I don’t like peanut butter.” 
I’d gone out of my way to bring a pair of peanut-butter sandwiches for the road. A tactic, I’ll admit, I’d planned on using to create a shared experience that would undoubtedly serve as a transition to discovering common ground.

But Dave was picky. Notably so. He didn’t like peanut butter or Mexican food or anything spicy. That included chili and certain brands of fried chicken.

I was distraught.

On top of Dave’s disappointing gastro preferences, I could now paint a decent portrait. In his twenties, he was the kind of guy who showed up to your college lecture in a full suit and tie, not to mention a briefcase you always wanted to break into. Even at his young age he was already heavily involved in local GOP politics, and when he talked it was with the measure and confidence of a much older politician. In all things, his religion guided him, a fact he underlined when he told me he wasn’t worried about Donald Trump because of his faith in God and the divine influence on fate. Dave was what you’d expect if you tried to clone Ronald Reagan but went a little heavy on the America.

The next hiccup, however, wasn’t food-based. We were talking about federal-versus-local influence, one of his favorite topics, when Dave told me he didn’t feel like the federal government should have enforced desegregation.

I had a brief but interesting conversation one night with Brett Chamberlain, the founder of Trump Love Letters, a project where progressives angered by the Republican nominee were writing respectful, empathetic notes to his supporters in order to broach the communication bubble that divides them. Brett introduced me to a concept I’d always been aware of but never had the vocabulary for.

Attribution bias explains, at least in part, how long-held divisions in politics continue to propagate. It states that rival groups, whether Democrats and Republicans, or Israelis and Palestinians, or so on and so forth, attribute the actions of their adversaries to hate while justifying their own as coming from a place of love. Obviously, this is the basis for the rationalizing at the heart of all partisan conflicts, but it happens so naturally that even those aware of its existence are oftentimes unable to recognize or change the pattern.

I think this explains rather nicely why the hair stood on the back of my neck when Dave told me about his doubt regarding desegregation. Immediately, I was petrified that I’d just doomed myself to hours alone in a car with an unrepentant racist. I’d told myself, before picking Dave up, that I wasn’t looking to argue issues. I was hoping to listen and find common ground. But I wasn’t going to just sit there and listen to outright intolerance.

“I think ending racism is about winning hearts and minds,” he said, and I nearly drove off the road. “I wish the racists had to show who they were instead of being driven underground.”

And though I could not have disagreed with him more regarding the federal government’s intervention, I came to believe, god help me, that he honestly believed what he was saying. In the past, I might have been suspicious that it was a rhetorical trick, a quick pivot to hide hatred and bigotry, but Dave was completely convinced that, while racism is wrong, the federal government had no constitutional authority to legislate on people’s minds and hearts.

He could not have been more wrong and he could not have believed this more.

And the only reason I know this is because Dave was nothing if not completely honest. Sitting in the dining room of a Cracker Barrel, he told me he once got into an argument with a girl in his college dorm because she called herself a Buddhist but didn’t, in his opinion, live up to the tenets of her faith.

“I bet she didn’t like that,” I said.
 He answered, “Most people don’t like being told they’re wrong.” Other confessions he made over chicken-fried steak: He’s not much into art and thought there should only be artists if there was a market demand; he watched ISIS beheading videos in case one day he needed to speak in an official capacity to families who’d lost loved ones to terrorism; he attended the CPAC conference and loved how Sean Hannity, Fox News bloviater extraordinaire, played matchmaker with audience members during commercial breaks, going so far as to offer to pay for first dates and, if there was a proposal in studio, the wedding of two people who didn’t know each other.

Oh. And Dave didn’t like reading because “there’s so much else” he could be doing.

In his classes, he told me, he was sick of spending so much time on dead philosophers. “Please don’t lecture on Kant again,” he said and rolled his eyes. “He’s dead.”

When I suggested he probably needed to know Kant as he’s considered one of the cornerstones of modern thought, he told me he wished his professors could just hand him a slip of paper containing an easily digestible summary of philosophy. I told him about Bertrand Russell’s "A History of Western Philosophy," a nine-hundred-page weapon I kept handy for light reading, so I could start with Socrates and work my way up to existentialism.

Perplexed, he said, “I like things being in a box.”

As the nice Cracker Barrel waitress brought me a fresh Coke, I told Dave that, if liberals had our way, we’d happily smash that box into a million little pieces.

* * *

According to a report published in Scientific American in 2012, there are undeniable differences in the makeup of conservatives and liberals, including a study that showed conservatives’ eyes lingered on disturbing images—see: ISIS beheadings—15 percent longer than liberals, and that proved conservatives are way more likely to value loyalty.

One study that appeared in The Journal of Political Psychology in 2008 caused some waves by positing that these hardwired differences include personalities, interaction strategies, and even the makeup of people’s living spaces. According to that research, conservatives were more likely to be “neat” and “organized.”

Perhaps one of the most interesting, if not politically relevant, moments in our odyssey to Ohio came when Dave talked at length about the steps he took to simplify his life. Much like his desire for a piece of paper condensing the grand tradition of human thought, Dave had streamlined the decisions he considered wastes of his time, including his wardrobe. Having gone to college and bought four separate differently colored sets of towels—the rationale being that he could use one colored set before throwing them all in the washer and moving on to the next—he transferred the idea to his shirts. Currently, he explained, tugging on his polo, he was onto reds.

“Tomorrow,” he said, “it’ll be red again.”

I couldn’t help but break my own rules. Dave’s system sounded unnecessarily repressive and inexplicably dull.

Again, he shrugged, and I started thinking about the conversations we’d been having about religion and its place in politics. Just like the Constitution, Dave saw the tenets of Christianity, in his case Southern Baptist, as guideposts for not just personal life but life in the public sphere. If he has dedicated himself to Christ in faith, how could he not dedicate himself to Christ in politics?

I asked him if there are any parallels to his religious dedication and his pledge to support Donald Trump in November, a pledge, I could tell, that troubled him.

“When it comes to campaigning for Trump,” he said, “I’ll knock on the door and read the card. I don’t want my name tied to it.”

Dave found Trump offensive and brash, the two traits holding equal concern. He didn’t care for Trump’s language or how he incessantly bragged about his money, his polls, his support. He wasn’t excited about a Trump presidency and actively supported multiple candidates before the field winnowed down.

I told Dave, pledge or not, if I were him, I’d probably have to vote my conscience in the end. That if I ever have children, and they brought home from school a book turned to this page in history, I’d want to tell them I voted against the man.

What would Dave say?

“I’d tell them I took a pledge,” he answered, “and that, in the end, I was good on my word.”

Outside Lexington, Kentucky, the sun was slipping behind the trees and the faraway mountains. Drifting through the awe-inspiring forests was a soupy, sleepy fog that gave the impression we were driving on air.

“Beautiful,” I said. “Illogical,” Dave said.

By Jared Yates Sexton

Jared Yates Sexton is the author of "American Rule: How A Nation Conquered the World but Failed Its People," to be published in September by Dutton Books. Currently is an associate professor of writing at Georgia Southern University.

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