By Peter Hessler (China 1996-98)
The day after Donald Trump’s victory, Susan Watson and Gail Jossi celebrated with glasses of red wine at the True Grit Café, in Ridgway, Colorado. Watson, the chair of the Ouray County Republican Central Committee, is a self-described “child of the sixties,” a retired travel agent, and a former supporter of the Democratic Party. Forty years ago, she voted for Jimmy Carter. Jossi also had a previous incarnation as a Democrat. In 1960, she volunteered for John F. Kennedy’s Presidential campaign. “I walked for Kennedy,” she said. “And then I walked for Goldwater.” These days, she’s a retired rancher, and until recently she was a prominent official of the Republican Party in Ouray County. “This is the first time in forty years that I haven’t been a precinct captain,” she said. “I’m fed up with the Republican Party.”
Initially, neither of the women had backed Trump. “I just didn’t care for him,” Jossi said. “I loved Dr. Carson.”
“I was a Scott Walker,” Watson said. “I thought a ticket with Walker and Fiorina would have been great.” Of Trump, she said, “He grew on me. He seemed to be getting more in tune with the people. The more these thousands and thousands of people showed up, the more he realized that this is real. This is not reality TV.”
Jossi didn’t begin to support Trump until September. “I couldn’t listen to his speeches,” she said. “His repetition. He’s not a politician. My mother and my husband have been big Trump supporters from the beginning, but I wasn’t.” Over time, though, the candidate’s rawness appealed to her, because she believed that he could shake up Washington. “After they’ve been in office, they become too slick,” she said. “I liked that unscripted aspect.”
Ouray is a rural county in southwestern Colorado, a state whose politics have become increasingly complex. On election maps, Colorado looks simple—a four-cornered flyover, perfectly squared off. But the state is composed of many elements: a long history of ranching and mining; a sudden influx of young, outdoors-oriented residents; a total population that is more than a fifth Hispanic. On Tuesday, Coloradans favored Hillary Clinton by a narrow majority, and they endorsed an amendment that will raise the minimum wage by more than forty per cent. They also chose to reject an amendment, promoted by Democratic legislators, that would have removed a provision in the state constitution that allows for slavery and the involuntary servitude of prisoners. If this seems contradictory—raising the minimum wage while protecting the possibility of slavery—it should be noted that the vote was even closer than Clinton versus Trump. In an exceedingly tight race, slavery won 50.6 per cent of the popular vote.
“The slavery thing was ridiculous,” Watson said.
“If it changes the constitution, then I vote no,” Jossi said.
“This is something that they do to get people to go out and vote,” Watson said. “That’s what they did with marijuana.”
“I voted for medical,” Jossi said. “Not recreational.”
“Not recreational,” Watson agreed.
“This is probably how they keep getting in.”
Full disclosure: recreational. But during this election, while standing in a voting booth in the Ouray County Courthouse, at an elevation of seven thousand seven hundred and ninety-two feet, I experienced a sensation of vertigo that may have been shared by 50.6 per cent of my fellow-Coloradans. On a ballot full of odd and confusing measures, I couldn’t untangle the language of Amendment T: “Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado constitution concerning the removal of the exception to the prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude when used as punishment for persons duly convicted of a crime?” Does yes mean yes, or does yes mean no? The election of 2016 disturbs me in many ways, and one of them is that I honestly cannot remember whether I voted for or against slavery.
This election has given me a renewed appreciation for chaos, confusion, and the limitlessly internal world of the individual. Most analysis will shuffle voters into neat demographic groups, each of them with four corners, perfectly squared off. But there’s something static about these categories—female, rural, white—whereas a conversation with people like Watson and Jossi reveals just how much a person’s ideas can change during the course of decades or even weeks. For an unstable electorate, Trump was the perfect candidate, because he was also a moving target. It was possible for supporters to fixate on any specific message or characteristic while ignoring everything else. At rallies, when people chanted, “Build a wall!” and “Lock her up!,” these statements impressed me as real, tangible courses of action, endorsed by a faceless mob. But when I spoke with individual supporters the dynamic changed: the person had a face, while the proposed action seemed vague and symbolic.
“I think that was a metaphor,” Jossi said, when I asked about the border wall.
“It’s a metaphor for immigration laws being enforced,” Watson said.
Neither of the women, like most other Trump supporters I met, had any interest in the construction of an actual wall.
I asked them about Clinton’s e-mail scandal. “I think she’ll be pardoned,” Watson said.
“I’m done with hearing about it,” Jossi said with a shrug. “I just want her gone.”
Trump’s descriptions and treatment of women didn’t seem to bother them. “I’m a strong enough woman,” Watson said. I often heard similar comments from female Trump supporters—in their eyes, it was a show of strength to ignore the candidate’s crudeness and transgressions, because only the weak would react with outrage.
It was hard to imagine a President entering office with less accountability. For supporters, this was central to his appeal—he owed nothing to the establishment. But he also owed nothing to the people who had voted for him. Supporters cherry-picked specific statements or qualities that appealed to them, but they didn’t attempt an assessment of the whole, because, given Trump’s lack of discipline, this was impossible. Does yes mean yes, or does yes mean no?
“Was Donald the right guy?” Watson asked. “I don’t know. But he was the alpha male on the stage with all the other candidates. He was not afraid to say the things that we were thinking.” She laughed and said, “I fought for the Equal Rights Amendment in the seventies. You have to evolve as a human being.”
Peter Hessler (China 196-98) joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2000. From 2000 until 2007, he was the magazine’s correspondent in China. His Letter from China articles included features on the basketball player Yao Ming, a Shenzhen factory worker, and a rural family in the grip of a medical crisis. His first book, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, won the Kiriyama Prize and was short-listed for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. His second book, “Oracle Bones,” was a finalist for the National Book Award. He won an American Society of Magazine Editors award for his piece “China’s Instant Cities,” about the entrepreneurial frenzy behind China’s dramatic economic growth, published in National Geographic. He completed his trilogy of China books with “Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip.” In 2011, Hessler was named a MacArthur Fellow. After leaving China, Hessler moved to southwestern Colorado, where his stories included a feature about the local uranium industry and a profile of a small-town druggist. His collection of essays, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West, was published by Harper in 2013. In the fall of 2011, Hessler moved to Cairo, Egypt, where he has covered the ongoing revolution.