“What a (expletive) you are!” Greg Hart wrote in an email.
He didn’t attach his name or any other context, yet I instantly knew which of my columns he was responding to — the one criticizing former President Donald Trump. I replied as I did to dozens of other readers, comprising a predictable 50/50 split of responses reflecting our sharply polarized country.
“Thanks for reaching out with feedback to this column,” I wrote, in part. “Such a reader response was expected, especially these days.”
Hart wrote back, “Thanks for the reply Jerry. Extremely surprised you responded to my harsh comment. I’d love to have lunch sometime and have a discussion, as I’m always open to people’s opinions.”
People are also reading…
Another reader, 65-year-old Jeff Grogan, left me a voicemail, managing to control his contempt for my column with a measured tone: “I disagree 100% with everything you wrote about President Trump and I’d like to talk to you about it, as civilized adults. I doubt that you’ll call me back but here’s my number.”
I called Grogan the next day and invited him to the lunch with Hart to share their opinions. I also invited Jeremy Spurrier, a conservative voter from Portage I first met at a Trump campaign office in 2016.
I met with them at Shoe’s Pizzeria in Valparaiso. (I reached out to two female readers who also criticized my column on Trump. They didn’t return my calls.)
My first question to them was simple. Why did they think I was a fan of President Joe Biden simply because I criticized Trump? Nowhere in that column did I mention I have allegiance or fondness for Biden. Nor did I mention anything about Biden’s policies. My critique was strictly about Trump.
The three men didn’t have an immediate answer. This, I told them, is part of our problem as a nation: our binary, absolutist, and partisan-politics way of thinking.
The world isn’t strictly black and white, and we shouldn’t interpret it through a paint-by-number, “us versus them” mentality. Our evolving nation is more complex than Republicans versus Democrats, liberals versus conservatives, leftists versus rightists. Presumptions are our mutual enemy.
“Why do you think I’m pro-Biden if I’m anti-Trump?” I asked them.
“Your profession,” Hart replied with a laugh.
Fair enough, I said. I’m aware of a liberal slant in mainstream media.
But, I told them, I’m not a fan of Biden, who I believe is too old for his position, too tenured as a politician, and too cringeworthy when he speaks publicly. Still, I voted for him in 2020 because I would have voted for pretty much anyone other than Trump, similar to how millions of voters chose Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Unfortunately, our choices for president often come down to the lesser of two perceived evils, or at least the lesser of our ideal candidate.
“As a small business owner, I see what’s happened to our economy under Biden. It’s now affecting me,” Hart said, showing me on his phone the sharp spike of inflation.
I wrongly presumed that all three Trump voters would predict he would win in 2024 if he runs again. Hart and Spurrier aren’t sure if Trump would win, though Hart will vote for him if he gets nominated. Spurrier thinks Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has a better shot at becoming our next president.
“I don’t think Trump should run because I don’t think he will win. And he knows it,” Spurrier said. “I think he will be embarrassed.”
“I disagree,” Grogan countered.
I agree with Grogan. I would be shocked if Trump doesn’t announce his candidacy. His ego is his most loyal voter.
“Trump has an ego but he doesn’t owe his allegiance to anyone,” Grogan said. “I was satisfied with him in office. He made this country the best it could be, like a fine-tuned sewing machine.”
Grogan, of Hebron, is convinced Trump will return our nation to its former glory, rescuing us from Biden’s policies. Grogan watches mostly Fox News and Newsmax, which air “only facts,” he said.
“I watch them religiously,” Grogan said, pulling out a notepad of talking points. “Look at this. Biden has already ruined our country in just 17 months.”
“He’s right,” Hart added. “Plus, is Biden lucid enough to make important decisions?”
Spurrier noted, “His administration has made decisions that have led to these negative outcomes. However, I would rather have a successful Democratic president than have our country go to hell.”
Grogan describes himself as a longtime Democrat, but quickly noted, “I’m ashamed of being one because of the situation in our country under the current administration.”
Hart, a lifelong Republican, calls himself a “constitutional conservative” who likely speaks for thousands of Times readers and millions of Americans.
“I’m obviously a right-of-center individual and staunchly against the current administration and their continued destruction of our great republic,” he said. “I’m a supporter of Trump (less his stupid tweets and comments) and his America-first program which absolutely helped large employers, middle America, and small businesses like mine.”
Our hour-long discussion was insightful, unpredictable and, most importantly, civil. I shared a sampling of it on my Facebook page, prompting more than 200 comments from both sides, another microcosm of our divided country.
As singer John Hoosier Mellencamp once quipped, “Ain’t that America.”
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Contact Jerry at Jerry.Davich@nwi.com or at 219-853-2563. Find him on Facebook at @JerDavich. Opinions are those of the writer.