Opinions

Four years ago, I set out in an RV to understand Trump’s appeal. Here’s what I found.

(Kailey Whitman for The Washington Post)

When my time in Congress ended on Jan. 3, 2017, I borrowed an RV nicknamed “Lucille” and set out on a journey meant to last a few weeks. It turned into four months, 12,000 miles and 45 states. As a Black woman in an RV, traveling alone, I was a novelty. As a Democrat, I felt like a separate species.

From the Deep South to the Plains, I learned a lot about the country and a lot more about our people. Mostly, I learned to listen, which was useful. Because I was determined to figure it out — this Trump thing.

When I set out, I thought the election of Donald Trump was an aberration. I attributed it to things I could understand: disaffection with the two political parties; economic uncertainty; misplaced resentment, so easily exploited, of the “other.” I didn’t think it would hold. I was wrong, but more about that in a minute.

RVing was a sort of homecoming. Growing up in a military family, moving from one duty station to the other, seasoned me for the open road. Mom and Dad would pack their brood of six into a station wagon with tents, coolers and a grill, once heading from Andrews Air Force Base near Camp Springs, Md., to Beale Air Force Base near Marysville, Calif. We would stop along the way at state and national parks, explore every historical marker, play geography games, sing “This Land Is Your Land.”

As a child, the country somehow felt both vast and safe — and mine. Never scary. I learned later that my parents were, in fact, afraid sometimes. Of being stopped by police. Of staying in small-town motels. Of stopping at gas stations and diners.

In 2017, I just wanted to get back out into that vastness. I wasn’t afraid, though perhaps I should have been. I was too mesmerized by the sights and sounds of America. One neighbor at a park in northwest Louisiana advised me to get a gun. The closest I came was a bat and a National Rifle Association bag for my camera equipment.

In Palm Beach, Florida, with friend Geri Mannion, picking up Lucille I.
On the Gees Bend Ferry, crossing the Alabama River.
In Maryland's Greenbelt Park, testing Lucille II.
TOP: In Palm Beach, Florida, with friend Geri Mannion, picking up Lucille I. BOTTOM LEFT: On the Gees Bend Ferry, crossing the Alabama River. BOTTOM RIGHT: In Maryland's Greenbelt Park, testing Lucille II.

Which brings me back to the Trump thing. On Inauguration Eve 2017, I set up at Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola, Fla. But I didn’t quite have the hang of backing up Lucille yet — an essential skill. Out of nowhere, two older White men appeared to direct me into my spot, and they gave me helpful advice: “Set a chair at the back of the drive and use that as your rearview focus in your side mirrors.” My guides, a retired union electrician from southern Illinois and a small-business owner from rural Alabama, and I became friends for a couple of days.

On Inauguration Day, I heard televisions inside and out broadcasting the festivities. There was an air of celebration in the campground when I took my morning stroll before the swearing-in. It was one that I did not feel as I watched the “American carnage” speech in my own “home.”

That evening, my neighbors and I shared a beer around a glowing firepit. We talked about our travels, as well as the events of the day. They were excited about the new president, and they wanted to talk politics. It was clear they believed Trump was the answer to their concerns about immigration, job loss to China and a range of other grievances.

We went back and forth, in the way that friends do — friendly, teasing, laughing. At one point the electrician began sharing a story about an experience with his union — more new members and fewer jobs. But then he slipped as he described the new union members, the “colored” ones. I didn’t bat an eye in the momentary awkwardness, while he quickly corrected himself.

But there it was — the heart of the Trump thing.

Race.

Even as we shared pictures of our children and grandchildren (one with a Black grandchild, the other with a Latino grandchild) and talked about their dreams, they did not seem to perceive the irony. We all complained about health-care costs, me with my multiple sclerosis and them with high blood pressure, cancer remission and a wife with Parkinson’s disease. Still, there was no recognition of our shared interests.

That was 2017. My adventures in RV Lucille continue. Recently, I found myself on the road again, cruising through the mountains of southwestern Virginia. I passed Trump-Pence and “Make America Great Again” signs alongside Confederate flags. I saw Biden-Harris signs posted on the sides of port-a-potties. And then there was the Trump Store, housed in an old church and bedecked with 20-foot Trump posters. I felt the pull of our deep political division all over again.

No one should have been surprised by what came to pass in Washington on Jan. 6. Thinking back to my RV “friends,” I suspect Trump answered some of their prayers, especially the one about protecting America’s Whiteness.

Four years later, and another Inauguration Day is upon us, but it’s still the same divided nation, perhaps even more dug in. Joe Biden won, but Trump’s grip on the Republican Party only seems stronger for it. His election in 2016 wasn’t an aberration at all — more like a festering wound, infected with racism. The new president has a lot of work ahead of him.

Watch Opinions videos:

Read more:

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Cori Bush: This is the America that Black people know

Art Cullen: How to quash the resentments that cleave us

Hillary Clinton: Trump should be impeached. But that alone won’t remove white supremacy from America.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: 2021’s call to Reconstruction

Jennifer Rubin: You want healing? Here are some ideas.

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