Rabecca was the one to bring up feminism.
Before that, we had mostly talked about the things I expected to talk about at a debate viewing party at Donald Trump’s New Hampshire headquarters. Namely, Donald Trump.
And we did a lot of that. Rabecca Shelton, a social worker with a warm, gentle voice that can make even basic conversation feel a little therapeutic, told me that she agreed with Trump on major policy issues and liked his no-filter style of campaigning. “I feel like the state of the country is a really filthy house. And people come in and say, ‘Don’t worry, Rabecca, the house looks great,’” she explained. “But you know it looks like crap. And then someone comes and says, ‘You know, this house is filthy, and you’ve got to get it cleaned up. Get off your butt.’”
Rabecca appreciated that kind of straight talk: “Trump strikes me as a breath of fresh air. I just appreciate his honesty and his desire to want to clean things up.”
And like most of the women I spoke to that night at the campaign's sparsely furnished setup—a few rooms in a generic office building that was equidistant from a 7-Eleven and a Subway sandwich shop, no Trump glitz to be found—she really liked that he wasn’t a politician. This tends to come up a lot, both in polls and profiles of the people behind the Trump bump. There is a general sense of disenchantment with politicians that makes the lack of polish coming from the reality television personality turned Republican frontrunner feel like an asset, not a liability.
It wasn’t until we were packing up to leave that Rabecca asked me if I was a feminist, almost as an afterthought. I told her that I was and asked her the same question.
"Absolutely!” she beamed. “My daughter and I are big supporters of women's rights.”
Rabecca registered my reaction. It was familiar enough. She knew that a lot of people found it strange that a self-described feminist would support a candidate who, just days before, had insinuated that Carly Fiorina was too unattractive to be president. And who, before that, had suggested that Fox News’ Megyn Kelly was on her period when she asked him tough questions at the first debate. And who, before that, had a whole lot of other awful things to say about women and our apparent likeness to buildings and certain inanimate objects.
“I am very much a feminist, a fiscal conservative, a social moderate, slightly liberal, which puts me in a very hard place,” she told me. Her friends thought she was crazy, she said, but Trump resonated with her beyond a single issue or comment.
Rabecca is a woman for Trump. And like most of the Women for Trump I met that night, she was intensely focused on the election, outspoken about the issues she cared about, and basically impossible to situate in any kind of a coherent partisan narrative.
“I feel like Trump speaks the truth,” Gabrielle Camara, an 18-year-old former Democrat who had driven with her boyfriend from across the border in Massachusetts, told me. “So many Americans are feeling frustrated, and he’s expressing that anger and that frustration. He’s connecting with people. I see something in him that I think America needs.”
Gabrielle, like Rabecca, had a complicated view of the issues she felt defined the campaign. She cared about fair immigration, she said, noting that members of her own family had been deported. She was also disappointed in President Obama for failing to make good on his promise to reform the system—though she was quick to add that Congress had gotten in the way. But she also supported Trump, the candidate who pledged to deport 11 million people and build a massive wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.
When I asked her about Planned Parenthood and the Republican-led effort to defund it, she noted that Trump had acknowledged that the national family planning provider offers valuable healthcare before he took the party line and called for an end to federal funds.
Rabecca’s daughter, Donna-Gayle Shelton, who, at 17, was getting ready to vote in her first election, said she liked Trump for what she saw as his no-bullshit demeanor. “He’s a scrappy bulldog,” she laughed. “I’d rather have that than someone slimy.”
Rabecca and Donna-Gayle had been totally open to all of my (many) questions over the course of the evening, so, as the debate was winding down and the the rest of the room broke off into side conversation, I asked what felt like the obvious thing we’d be talking around: How did they square their feminism with Trump’s gross comments about women?
“It bothers me a little bit,” Donna-Gayle said. “But there are bigger issues to be dealt with.
“I mean, yeah,” she continued, hesitating a moment, “if he could keep his opinions about women to himself it would help his campaign and maybe people would respect him more. It sucks that he doesn’t have a lot of respect for women. But he has respect for the country as a whole and I think that’s the bigger picture.”
“I think some of it is off-putting,” Rabecca added. “But I don’t take personal offense. I think Trump speaks in public the way most people speak in their homes when their doors are closed.”
Rabecca isn’t alone in calling Trump’s candor, even when it’s belligerent, a strength. While his numbers have dipped since his debate performance, he continues to poll well with Republican voters.
And the women I spoke to at the viewing party echoed a lot of what other Women for Trump (a subject of current media fascination) have expressed, too: the man says what he means and he means what he says. Like him or not, at least he's honest.
This strikes me as the product of the same kind of disillusionment with politics as usual that led Rabecca to prefer the non-politicians to the more manicured types in the Republican field. It also reminds me of this Onion headline:
I don’t think this is what Rabecca meant when she said that Trump speaks in public the way other people might speak in private, but they also aren’t unrelated sentiments.
Misogyny is an expected part of politics, but it is only occasionally, particularly in presidential campaigns, as front facing as Trump’s expressions of cartoonish contempt—and, at times, objectifying idolization—of women. (No other candidate, at least not yet, has vowed to “cherish women” if elected.)
Instead, we’re often confronted with slick wordsmithing about women’s health offered as cover for restrictions that shutter clinics or defunding schemes that could strip an estimated 630,000 people of their health care.
Or Ted Cruz’s “strong support” for paid leave policies, but stronger conviction that the government should do absolutely nothing to ensure that people who take time off to care for their children won't be punished with poverty.
But Trump, who is admittedly a bit of a wild card when it comes to Republican orthodoxies (his enthusiasm for a single payer system still haunts him, as does Hillary Clinton’s attendance at his most recent wedding), is still very much a known quantity when it comes to policies that hurt women. He walks most of the same lines on women’s health, rights, and livelihoods: defund Planned Parenthood, repeal the Affordable Care Act, enact punitive and inhumane immigration measures, reject efforts to raise the federal minimum wage.
As the post-debate commentary blared on CNN and people picked at what remained of the sandwich and cookie spread, Rabecca, Donna-Gayle, and I discussed our feminist evolutions—Rabecca said she’s changed a lot since her days as “an old school Gloria Steinem feminist”—they asked questions about my last job, and we talked about Donna-Gayle’s interest in equine studies as a possible college major.
At this point, it was almost midnight. And after a three-hour debate, we were all ready to go home. I asked if we could keep talking the next day. I wanted to know more about what, if any, tension they felt as feminists who supported Trump. Rabecca said she’d love to. She wrote down her number and her daughter’s number and told me to call or text in the morning.
“We are very, very pro-women,” she told me as we packed up our stuff. “We loved Carly being in the mix, and before Carly stepped in we were thinking about Hillary. But that was hard for us because she’s a woman—and we’re women first before we’re conservatives or moderates we’re women first. But we just couldn’t sign on to a lot of the policy and fiscal issues that are so predominant in the country.”
I started to make a mental list of follow ups on the way back to my hotel. How do you get from flirting with the Clinton campaign to Donald Trump? What are the fiscal issues that turned her off from the Democratic contenders, and what about the fiscal issues that will be exacerbated by Republican policies on tax cuts for the wealthiest? Were there issues that affect women’s lives that Trump was really good on that I just wasn’t getting?
I tried Rabecca the next day, but didn’t get a reply. I texted a few more times, and tried her again before this piece went up. It was clear that our conversation, which was fascinating and wide-ranging and totally not what I had anticipated, was also over.
It would be hard to predict if Rabecca and Donna-Gayle will stick with Trump, or if their feelings have changed at all now that Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina are coming up in the polls. After the debate, Rabecca said she thought Carson’s quiet style was a nice compliment to Trump’s boisterousness and that she'd like to see them on a shared ticket. Fiorina, she added, would be a smart pick for Secretary of State or another spot in the next administration. “I think a lot of things in the world have gone to crap with women taking a back seat,” she told me. “With more women in leadership, the world would be a better place.”