An hour before her dinner guests were set to arrive, Philippa Hughes was surprisingly prepared. “The entire menu tonight is red and blue themed,” the 48-year-old art curator said giddily as she laid out a platter of blue corn chips, red grapes and blue cheese. Her colorful apartment in the U Street neighborhood of Washington, D.C. was filled with the smell of roast beef; a pot of linguine simmered on the stovetop.
It was the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration in late January, and Hughes was about to welcome some Trump-supporting strangers into her home, to better understand their perspective and share her own concerns. “After the election, it became clear that I didn’t understand a lot of people in this country,” Hughes, a staunch Democrat, told me as she waited for her guests to arrive. “How could someone vote for a man I find so abhorrent? And what the hell is in store [over the] next four years with this man as our President?”
Like so many liberals, Hughes had watched Trump’s rise in 2016 with a sense of bewilderment and frustration. As she searched for answers in his victory, Hughes realized her confusion stemmed in part from the fact that she had never held a meaningful face-to-face interaction with a Trump supporter.
Though Hughes does not live far from the White House, no one in her inner circle supported the man who was about to be sworn in as the nation’s 45th president. In fact, Hughes and her friends were planning to attend the Women’s March the day after the inauguration.
But on this evening, Hughes was hosting a dinner with six people on opposite sides of the country’s political divide: three Trump voters who supported his agenda, and three Clinton supporters who feared the worst from a Donald Trump presidency.
Hughes’s guest list was eclectic, and included some people Hughes had known for years. She had worked with one of the Trump backers, Tracy Kirby, some 15 years ago. During the election, they reconnected on Facebook, commenting on each other’s political posts. The other Trump supporters on the list were Clark Plaisance, a co-worker of Kirby’s, and Philip Luelsdorff, 51, a native Washingtonian who owns a home remodeling business that “makes ugly things beautiful,” as he described it. Luelsdorff, like Plaisance, was a complete stranger to Hughes. He had read about her upcoming dinner experiment on a local blog and reached out to her on Twitter to ask if he could attend.
The guest list also included Teka Thomas, 41, an attorney and friend of Hughes who is African-American and thinks of himself as a political news junkie; Jade Wood, a psychotherapist who moved to D.C five years ago from California; and Craig, a 38-year-old openly gay investment banker who asked that his last name not be used. Craig told me he would consider voting for a centrist Republican candidate, but couldn’t bring himself to vote for Trump in 2016.
The political divides in the group were clear, and reflected the nation as a whole. According to a Pew Research poll released earlier this year, 86 percent of Americans believe the country is more divided than it has been in the past, the highest figure since the question was first asked in 2004. (Just 24 percent of respondents said they expect the country to be less divided in five years).
But Hughes said she wanted to avoid the partisanship she witnessed daily on social media and television. Instead, she saw the evening — the second in what she hoped would become a series of dinners with guests from both sides of the aisle — as a homespun experiment in civility, a mini-focus group convened to wrestle with some key questions facing Americans in the era of Trump: Is the country dangerously divided? Are there any areas of agreement? And perhaps most importantly, where does the nation go from here?
In interviews before the dinner, several of the guests seemed confident the rancor and division from the campaign had started to recede, and would melt away once six reasonable, friendly adults got together to talk politics around Hughes’ dinner table. Hughes also seemed optimistic. As she put it, “You can’t be rude to someone who just cooked for you.”
That assumption was about to be put to the test.
Tracy Kirby and Clark Plaisance — two of the three Trump supporters — were the first to arrive. The co-workers had driven up from from Richmond, Virginia, about two hours south of the capital. Kirby said she was motivated by a desire to “help fix the divide,” and make a case to Hughes’ liberal guests that Clinton supporters should give Trump a chance in his first months in office. Kirby also brought an unapologetic and humorously self-aware attitude. “Yes,” she told me, unprompted, in an interview days before the dinner, “I am a white, educated woman who voted for Donald Trump.”
Clark Plaisance was Tracy’s reluctant date for the night. A staunch conservative from deep-red Louisiana, Plaisance was hesitant to tag along, thinking that both of them would be attacked for their views at a gathering in left-leaning Washington, D.C. The liberals Hughes had invited would probably assume he was “a dumb redneck or a dumb cajun that has nothing to do but believe in white supremacy and white power,” he told me ahead of the dinner. “And that is so far from the truth.”
Yet as he introduced himself to Hughes, Plaisance had none of the trepidation he displayed to me over the phone. He quickly gifted his host a bottle of Viognier from the Trump Winery, and they both chuckled. Hughes set it down unopened. The rest of the guests arrived soon after.
Hughes kicked off the dinner by holding up a baguette and asking everyone to “break bread together.” The icebreaker and shameless wordplay did its part: her guests responded with nervous laughter. The social experiment, and meal, was underway. Jobs and the economy were the initial topics of discussion over the first course of red tomato linguine and blue cheese sauce. The men in the room dominated this opening round of the debate.
“The premise of this dinner is to create some kind of understanding between people who would not normally meet each other,” said Philippa Hughes, the dinner’s host. Video by Rhana Natour/PBS NewsHour.
“You are expecting to do as well as your father and you can’t and aren’t. It’s emasculating,” said Philip Luelsdorff, the Trump supporter who had heard about the dinner on Twitter. His concerns about economic mobility echoed the fears of the millions of mostly white men like Luelsdorff who voted for Trump. And the economic trend lines, born out by study after study, back up Luelsdorff’s view: the median wage for male workers in the U.S. was higher in 1969 than it is today, according to the Economic Policy Institute; in the last six decades, the share of men working full-time has dropped from 83 to 66 percent.
In making his case, though, Luelsdorff did not provide much in the way of statistics. An impassioned but unwieldy conversationalist, Luelsdorff used his plainspoken and intense style to present his deeply-held view that the American male’s strong work ethic had been tragically squandered. “You are looking at grown men saying, ‘We want to work, but our job has moved to bum f*** Egypt,’” he said.
Craig, the self-described “Wall Street Democrat,” saw things differently. A liberal investment banker, he blamed the country’s loss of manufacturing jobs in recent decades on automation, not on the forces of globalization that Trump blasted on the campaign trail. Going forward, the battle for those jobs would be fought with robots, not by Trump trying to wrangle them back from factories in Mexico. His fellow Clinton supporters at the table quickly took up his side.
“Moving a factory abroad is simply a business calculation and not a public resource issue,” Teka Thomas, the lawyer and Democrat, said. Predictably, the liberal camp argued for things like government-sponsored job training programs and minimum wage increases.
Luelsdorff agreed in part, but made clear he did not think measures like those could provide immediate relief to anyone seeking a job. As the dispute played out, Jade Wood, a psychotherapist and Hughes’ third Clinton-supporting guest, listened intently, her eyes darting between the men squaring off around the table. Later on, after the dinner, Wood confided to me that she felt this portion of the dinner had devolved into a long “mansplaining” session. But now, as Luelsdorff, Craig and Thomas went back and forth, Hughes had no qualms about piping in.
“I don’t think anyone here is worried where our next paycheck is coming from,” she said. The comment reflected a popular 2016 election theory on the left: that many Trump voters were not actually working class and had been driven by other factors besides economic anxiety. After all, according to exit polls, Clinton won the majority of the vote among Americans earning under $50,000 a year. But Tracy Kirby, the Trump voter from Richmond and a divorced single mother, objected. “I have a huge mortgage payment I didn’t expect to have,” Kirby said. “I worry all the time about losing my job. I have a child to take care of.”
The exchange was telling, and underscored why so many Democrats remain baffled at Trump’s continued appeal and resilient polling numbers within his own party. His narrative of economic stagnation and class slippage struck a nerve with millions of Americans, regardless of whether their own grievances had been real or imagined.
The debate over what was real and what was not — over facts versus “fake news” — spun even further out of control when the conversation turned to a clash over national security and immigration near the end of the dinner.
The Trump supporters argued that people were coming into the country unvetted, and backed his plans to crack down on illegal immigration. “Obama flew in 80,000 people in two months,” Luelsdorff said. “No way they were vetted!” “What 80,000 people in 2 months?” Craig, the liberal investment banker, responded, clearly exasperated. The men shook their heads, indignant and frustrated — unable to agree on the facts, let alone which policy measures were best for the country. And that was before Wood brought up Trump’s campaign proposal to ban Muslim travelers from entering the country.
Wood objected to the proposal. At the time of the dinner, Trump was still one week away from signing his first executive order on immigration, which temporarily banned travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations and was blocked by the courts. Earlier this week, Trump signed a new travel ban, which still included six of those seven countries but focused on those seeking new visas. It’s slated to take effect later this month.
Clark Plaisance, the Louisiana-born Trump supporter, brought a utilitarian view to the idea of a Muslim registry: it was unsavory but palatable if it helped strengthen national security.
“I am kind of ok with that,” he said.“I would rather everybody in this room be safe and feel comfortable because.”
Plaisance drew a parallel to the Japanese internment camps during World War Two, a controversial policy that did not go over well with his liberal dinner mates. An argument quickly erupted over whether they were “concentration camps” or “internment camps,” a conversation that threatened to derail the foreign policy debate.
Hughes attempted to steer the conversation back on track. She said she didn’t fear that ISIS was active in the Washington, D.C. area. To her, ISIS existed in a world far, far away— a foreign policy item in countries like Syria and Iraq. But Kirby said she thought ISIS was a more immediate threat, capable of launching a domestic attack, including possibly in her own community. “There are ISIS sleeper cells in America,” she said, setting off yet another round of arguments.
“How do you know that?” Craig, one of the Democrats, asked. “How do you know there aren’t?” Kirby shot back.
With that, the dinner party wound to an end. Several of the participants told me later that they took some comfort in the experiment; debating the issues in person turned out to be more rewarding than fighting with trolls on Facebook. But as the guests left, they seemed just as frustrated as when they had arrived.
On the way out, I rode the elevator down to the street with Tracy Kirby and Clark Plaisance. Tracy was annoyed the Democrats at the dinner had attacked her facts and feelings on some of the issues she held dear. Teka Thomas, the liberal attorney, told me afterwards he was disturbed by some things the conservative guests had said.
“It’s getting clear that conservative media is very effective at framing the worldview of many people,” Thomas said. “You are not entitled to choose what are facts.” He added, “we found common language but not common ground.”
Much has happened since that snowy night in January: executive orders, a legal battle over immigration, a deepening controversy over Russia’s role in the U.S. election. Hughes seems undeterred. She is hosting her next bipartisan dinner party this evening, in an effort to keep the project afloat. But it took longer to plan than the January gathering. This time around, nearly seven weeks into Trump’s presidency, Hughes found it harder to get liberal and conservatives to even consider the idea of coming together for a home-cooked meal. She had hoped for six participants (three from each side of the aisle), but only got five hard RSVPs. Tonight, amidst the political drama swirling just a mile and a half away at the White House, her table will have one empty seat.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Jane Wood’s last name. It is Wood, not Woods.