An encounter with Venessa Owsley, during my stay at State College, Pennsylvania, USA, in 2016-2017.
Venessa was born and raised in Midwestern United States. She campaigned passionately for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential elections. In her interview, she offers us a sharp perspective and an offbeat insight, far removed from the usual assumptions and cliches, on life in America under Trump leadership.
You were born and grew up in a ‘red state’ ( ‘a state whose residents predominantly vote for the Republican Party’*, cf. Wikipedia) in the so called ‘rust belt’. Could you tell us about life over there?
Yes, I am from Ohio, which is an upper Midwestern state in the rust belt area of the country, and while it is technically a swing state that has gone blue (a state whose residents predominantly vote for the Democratic party) for most of my life, Ohio did go Red in the 2016 presidential election. The area I was raised in was generally very Conservative though. Life can be pretty confusing in the rust belt.
My family was not well off by U.S. standards, and this only worsened under the Bush presidency. I was a child during the Great Recession, but I remember friends and family members being laid-off from their jobs and thanks to the housing market crashing, many Americans lost their homes. There was so much outrage. My siblings and I received SNAP benefits and we were offered free lunches at school – I saw more and more of my classmates getting free lunches as well.
To give a decent cross-section of Midwestern values, I suppose it’s probably important to mention religion. Most families around me were Christian and mine was no different. We were a mostly Baptist neighborhood and I could be wrong, but I think that was common for my area. We worshiped loosely and rarely went to church, but my family still holds fast to a handful of teachings. It’s a quiet place where people are surrounded by cornfields and racists. We had chickens in our neighborhood and I was related to all of my neighbors. It’s a very close-knit community.
How does it feel to be a democrat activist in a Red State?
I would argue that I don’t deserve the title of an activist because I have not earned it, but being a Democrat surrounded by Republicans is lonely. Most of my family members voted for and continue to support Trump. It can be difficult to stay vocal. I love my family and my home but I cannot justify the heinous beliefs that accompany support for a man like Trump. I will say that it makes me more responsible. I don’t have the luxury of making mistakes when I’m always speaking to political opponents so I always try to focus on accuracy.“…being a Democrat surrounded by Republicans is lonely. Most of my family members voted for and continue to support Trump.”
Could you tell us why, according to you, so many people voted for Trump, especially in the ‘rust belt’?
Of course, but I would like to point out that Trump lost the popular vote which means most U.S. citizens did not vote for Trump. I think the disenfranchised white working poor wanted to be represented. Democrats did not reach out to them as a voter base and they didn’t trust establishment Republicans from the Bush era. They wanted change so they voted for a celebrity.
As a child, Democrats always seemed out of touch to me. I had always pictured Liberals to be rich and well educated. Neither of those qualities makes you popular in a neighborhood like Belmont. My grandfather received a fourth grade education and can hardly read. He still made a life for himself. He took pride in his struggle. Democrats were never seen as having struggled. They were seen as a bossy intruder, trying to regulate things that they did not understand.
This is all paranoia of course, but when you’ve only been exposed to the same ideas your entire life anything different is terrifying.
Might we say people voted against their interests?
Yes. Trump does not care about the poor, he only cares about his ego. Clinton had actual policies that she wanted to implement in order to improve social mobility, but Trump just wanted to be “king of America” and give his friends a tax break. (I almost said he wanted to give himself a tax break, but Trump doesn’t pay taxes.)“Trump just wanted to be ‘king of America’ and give his friends a tax break.”
In this election people truly did vote against their own interests, and thanks to the gerrymandering of urban districts by the Republican Party, those that voted against their interests also got to speak for the rest of my country.
What’s worse is waiting to see which of his policies are actually put in place.
My niece is very ill and I worry about what will happen to her if the Affordable Care Act is repealed. Her mother, my sister, is a Trump supporter. She is a great mother and she loves her children. She is smart and ambitious. I don’t understand why she voted for Trump.
Would it be true to say that ‘rage’, pride’ and ‘racism’ are the three key words to understand the Trump vote?
Yes. Trump supporters were angered by the Bush administration that caused them to take such a huge economic hit. They were angered by Obama’s election because Obama was well educated, black, and a Democrat. He ran on a platform for hope and change, but this was not the change that Trump supporters wanted.
How do you explain the rise of Islamophobia in the US?
Islamophobia has always been an issue in the States. I do think Trump has emboldened his supporters to vocalize their phobia more vehemently, but that hatred has always been there. Trump feeds his base’s fear of Muslims, then promises to ban Muslim men and women from entering the United States. Trump benefits from Islamophobia.
You campaigned for Clinton. Wouldn’t Sanders have been a better choice?
Bernie Sanders did not have nearly the same experience that Secretary Clinton did. His platform was two-dimensional at best and he did not demonstrate an ability to compromise. This isn’t to say that he didn’t serve a purpose. He introduced so many young adults to the political arena, but he did not effectively use his influence to back Secretary Clinton once he lost. Senator Sanders fancies himself a revolutionary and revolutionaries do not cultivate the stability that my country needed and still needs.
I am grateful that Sanders pushed our party forward, but he would not have made a good leader.
Do you believe in the American dream? Does such a dream exist? What would the real American dream be?
The American Dream has never been accessible to all Americans so it doesn’t seem right to call it American. Even in times of national prosperity minority groups still had too many obstacles to overcome for social mobility to be feasible. Income inequality is spreading and it doesn’t seem to be slowing either. Realistically, if you work hard you can pay your bills but you won’t be able to save for the future. The American Dream is finding an apartment with a washer/dryer hookup.“The American Dream is finding an apartment with a washer/dryer hookup.”
What is the single book that everyone should read? What are the books that have changed your life?
I read The Color Purple by Alice Walker at a crucial point in my life. This book told a story from a perspective that I’d never really heard before. Life of Pi by Yann Martel also had a huge influence on me.
Lastly, I would suggest Grant Morrison’s Animal Man. My fiance told me to read this series for over a year and I’m so glad I did.
What scares you the most in life?
I’m terrified of becoming stagnant. If I’m not growing as a person then I’m not actually living.
What is your idea of happiness and misery?
This is a tough question.
I don’t know if I can answer this yet, but if I had to I would say happiness is connecting with another person and truly understanding them. I’m not sure I’ve achieved this yet. I think misery is refusing change because the world won’t stop for anyone and it’s easy to be left behind.
What will be your last word?
I would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak about these issues. I would also like to say that despite its flaws, I love my country.