Donald Trump’s approval rating, hovering around 40 percent, is a historic low for a president at this point in office. But as news reports have discovered, most Trump voters remain Trump supporters.
And so it is in Rocky Point, a hamlet of 14,000 people on the North Shore of Suffolk County where majorities swing between Democrats and Republicans in presidential elections, often picking winners — from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Barack Obama (twice) to Donald Trump.
The divisiveness of national politics is playing out in Rocky Point as well, in the conversations that take place and the conversations that are avoided.
“We try not to talk about it, we try to keep it civil,” said Trump supporter Dave Braun, 53, a manager at a hospital whose wife and daughter are his “polar opposites politically . . . We try to talk about sports.”
At work, Braun said, he’ll walk into the employee lounge as CNN plays on the television, then, a few hours later, find the channel tuned to Fox. “At work people fight over politics. I stay out of it. I keep my beliefs to myself.”
A Hillary Clinton voter who said she hates “to even say the T-word” asked that her name not be published because so many of her contacts on Facebook, many in law enforcement, are Trump supporters. “They’d hate me,” she said, pulling up her pants leg to reveal a sock emblazoned with the image of a smiling Barack Obama.
And Vivian Johnson, a 62-year-old retired nurse practitioner who voted for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, said she, too, avoids political conversations. “I don’t really talk to people a lot. It’s scary.” On Twitter, she said, she finds Trump and Clinton supporters “equally venomous. I’ve been called a Russian bot, a Putin stooge, a useful idiot, and a misogynist!”
In random interviews last week in supermarket parking lots and local stores, not much of a shift was evident in the year since Trump’s inauguration: Those who voted for Clinton were fervent in their dislike of the sitting president, and those who voted for him were still with him. Some were enthusiastic, some were giving him the benefit of the doubt and some were both.
“I think he’s doing a good job and think all the nonsense and outside interference is affecting his ability to lead this country,” said Anthony Jackson, 53, a carpenter who works for Suffolk County.
They don’t think much will come out of the investigation into his campaign’s links to Russia, they think he’s getting a raw deal in the media, they like the strong economy and rising stock market and want to see how changes in the tax law affect them personally before rendering judgment. Sure, they’d prefer he tamp down his tweets, but right now, they want him to get a chance to lead, even if they don’t agree with every aspect of his agenda.
His supporters include many middle-aged white men, as the statistics show, but also those who might not fit anyone’s stereotype: A couple who have spent years on disability payments who like his stance on immigration. Several Democratic primary supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders who turned to Trump in the general election. An elderly widow who doesn’t want cuts in entitlement programs because she relies on food stamps along with her Medicare.
At the local 7-Eleven, a 25-year-old, who gave his name as Anthony T., said he was a Republican who leaned right, and added that while it was too early to decide if he’d vote for Trump again, he liked that “he is putting Americans first.” Two other millennials, studying at Stony Brook University, criticized Trump as a “racist” and “sexual harasser,” but said many friends who grew up with them in Rocky Point were his supporters.
“Yeah, everyone loves Trump,” said Liz Holter, 23, who is studying occupational therapy while holding down a job as a waitress. “I don’t get it with them.”
“I think Long Island is a lot more red than we thought it was,” said her friend, Rikki F., also 23, who asked not to be identified by last name.
Keith Bonesteel fits the more common notion of a Trump supporter: He is white and 49 and works as the facilities director of an assisted-living community. He considers himself a moderate: “I’m just a normal guy who works hard and I’d like for us to get along,” he said. “I think we should all be moderates.” He thinks a good economy is “huge,” wants to “fix immigration: let’s help the Dreamers but let’s secure the border,” and says he watches all the news channels, from Fox to MSNBC.
But he sees the attacks on Trump as teetering into unreasonable hatred “which makes me like him more, which scares me . . . Enough is enough,” he said. “I know he’s a little bit brash, but if he doesn’t do a great job, we’ll vote him out. I wasn’t a Barack Obama fan, but I didn’t go berserk.”
And there’s Eddie Pullman, 42, owner of a tile contracting business who voted twice for Obama, liked Bernie Sanders and voted for Trump. “It’s conflicting,” he conceded. “It was the lesser of two evils . . . I just thought he was more for business and the economy, getting the middle class up and running.”
On policy, he would prefer a bipartisan effort to improve the Affordable Care Act, believes the economy was improving even before Trump took office, doesn’t think “anyone in their right mind” wants to see the Environmental Protection Agency gutted, thinks Trump is “going backward” in his support of coal, doesn’t believe undocumented immigrants who have been here productively for decades should get deported. But he doesn’t regret his vote for Trump and is content to give him a chance.
“It’s a year,” Pullman said. “He doesn’t have the presidential grace we’re accustomed to, but speeches don’t make a great president. I don’t think Trump is the monster they want to make him out to be.”
Looking forward, he said, he doesn’t think much will come of the Russia investigation, and wants to see movement on an infrastructure policy. He is supportive of Trump’s posture on limiting refugees and immigration. “Do you want America first, or do you want to take in a lot of people you can’t afford?” he said.
Democrats, too, complain about the divisive rhetoric and acrimony of the political scene, but they see much of the tone emerging from the White House first. Lyna Cardone, 58, is a nurse’s aide who voted for Clinton and now worries about the weakening of the Affordable Care Act and about the loss of deductibility for state and local taxes above $10,000 under the new tax law. Mostly, she’s unhappy with the tone of Trump’s presidency.
“I’m not happy with the way he is,” she said. “I was hopeful he would change when he won and not behave like a divisive president, but there’s no change. That’s who he is.”
Much like Cardone, Clinton voter Grace Schmidt, 51, a stay-at-home mom, said she was disappointed that Trump hadn’t tried to bring the country together. “People who didn’t vote for him should hear something from him that is encouraging . . . instead of a lot of ego and dissension and coming across as having a lack of understanding for each and every one of us, instead of just his voters.”
Jean Keegan, 55, is a technical writer who voted for Clinton and believes Trump is “a terrible president” motivated by spite to overturn anything associated with Obama. She said she doesn’t have many in-person political discussions or go online “where there is so much chance of conflict. I don’t want to fight all the time.”
She believes that Trump’s core support remains firm although his voters may, when challenged, say they are “concerned about this or that. But when you say, ‘Do you support him,’ they’ll say, ‘Hell yeah, he’s the president.’ People don’t want to have been wrong so they say ‘I voted for him, I’m fine with that.’”
Not all despair of having a fruitful discussion. Democrat Charlie Bevington, 65, a school district administrator who is president of the Rocky Point Association and a member of the Long Island executive committee of the Sierra Club, an environmental group, said, “We have a smart public.” Divergent opinions come up at the monthly association meetings, he said, and “These opinions are nuanced. You can have a staunch Republican who is in favor of an immigration policy consistent with mine.”