The angry white man next door: Hearing out a Trump voter

I had noticed the house every day as I drove home. In my mostly Democratic suburb of New York City, it was hard to miss, with its Trump lawn signs, its Trump flag, the Trump bumper sticker on the pickup in the driveway and, for a while before Halloween, the noose hanging from a tree out front.

But this time, a few days after Election Day, I didn’t just drive past. As a journalist, I knew my next months and years would be spent exploring these Divided States of America — the communities, neighborhoods and families who share a nation but not a worldview. How do you heal a country whose citizens can’t find a way to hear each other?

I decided to start by meeting my neighbor.

Gigi Fresiello seemed as surprised to see me on her front stoop as I was to be there. When I explained my mission — writing about split neighborhoods, starting with my own — she called up to her husband, Chris, who, she said, “is the political one.” He was less surprised that I’d stopped by. “I’m happy to talk politics with anyone all day,” he said.

He was taken aback, however, when I told him my visit was motivated in part by a discussion I’d had with another neighbor about the youngsters on the block who were afraid to stand at the bus stop, which is in front of the Fresiellos’ house.

“That makes me sad,” he said. “It also makes me question the kids’ parents and what they are telling their children. Why would they be afraid of me? I’m the one who’s outnumbered here.” Politically, he is. Our town voted 65 percent for Clinton and 32 percent for Trump. But in other ways he is representative of the neighborhood — a white (67 percent), Catholic (46 percent) man (49 percent) of Italian descent (16 percent).

Trump supporter Chris Fresiello at his New York home on November 17, 2016. (David Scott Holloway for Yahoo News)
Trump supporter Chris Fresiello at his New York home on Nov. 17. (Photo: David Scott Holloway for Yahoo News)

Perhaps it was the noose, I suggested. “I didn’t put an effigy of Hillary in it,” he said, laughing, though he also adds he’d considered that. “That noose has been part of my Halloween decorations for 20 years,” he said — part of a graveyard scene, with headstones and a ghost. “This is the first time anyone complained.”

The noose drew a visit from the local police, who said they’d received a concerned call that a child might accidentally stick a head into the decor, with ghoulish consequences. “I pointed out to the officer that it was 7 feet 2 inches off the ground, and what child could reach that high?” he said. “But I raised it another few inches just to be neighborly.”

Chris and I sat in the sparsely furnished living room, on the couch next to the five rifles in the glass-fronted cabinet — the first time I had ever seen guns in a neighbor’s home. There were signs everywhere of a recent move. Chris and Gigi Fresiello — along with their 11-year-old son, 6-year-old daughter, Chris’ mother and a guinea pig named Nibbles — have lived in this house for only three months. They landed in the four-bedroom, $4,000-a-month rental after selling what Chris calls his “dream compound — an acre with a house and a cottage” at a huge loss this past summer, and he says it stings to be renting when he used to own.

“When I first moved in, I was bitter, decided, ‘I’m not going to introduce myself to anybody because I’m not going to be here long,’” he said. “But everyone was welcoming.”

In a way, it was a return home. Gigi grew up a few blocks away, and Chris a few miles south, in the Bronx. After they married, they traveled the country as Chris, who chose “to use my hands instead of going to college,” worked his way up to manager of a car repair business. Then, in 2000, Gigi’s mother died suddenly, and Gigi, who was close to her mother, having lost her father in Vietnam when she was 3, wanted to move back to her old neighborhood.

“My goal was to stay by her side until she went a full day without crying,” Chris said of his wife. So he quit his job, bought a house a stone’s throw from where he rents now and began to build a thriving business as a home renovation contractor.

In 2007, they found the kind of home Chris, who is now 50 years old, had always wanted, that “dream compound.” By 2008 they had moved in, but had not yet sold their first house, when the bottom fell out of the housing market and Chris’ renovation business all but evaporated.

Eventually, they found a buyer for the first house at a huge loss, but the business never really recovered. They spent the next eight years, which, as it happens, were the whole of the Obama administration, trying to get back on their financial feet.

“I went from the guy who smoked $50 cigars in his hot tub, to the guy who was doing everything he could just to stay afloat,” Chris said. Taxes alone on his new home were $20,000 a year. The lien against it was more than $1 million. He sold everything he could – his Lionel train collection, his vintage guitar collection, his restored cars.

His lawyers said he should declare bankruptcy, but he felt it was “like wearing a scarlet letter” and refused. Trying to save the house became his first priority, so he let other things lapse, and when his family health insurance reached $3,900 a month in 2012, from the $900 it had been three years earlier, “I had to do something I swore I would never do,” he says, and he dropped his coverage.

He put his children on New York state’s low-income program, a “handout” that “I used as a safety net — some people don’t, but I actually did.” He and his wife, in turn, refused to apply for Medicaid and just “sucked it up. And if we had to see a doctor, we paid cash.” And when he didn’t have the cash? Ultrasound to break up his kidney stones would have cost $8,000, he said, “so I pissed blood for weeks instead.”

Same when he broke his arm and ankle in a motorcycle accident. “I splinted and wrapped it and had a friend who is a vet X-ray it,” he said. “I took it easy, and it healed. I got through it with no government help.”

Eventually, he did become insured again — under an Obamacare policy. Eventually, he also declared bankruptcy. Realizing he had fallen into a serious depression, he found a therapist. With new energy, he started doing whatever jobs he could find — changing brakes in his driveway, delivering flowers for $10 and tips, networking in towns north of his own that might not have been hit as hard by the recession to rebuild his home improvement business. “I told myself, ‘At least I have something to fall back on. You have a lot of college-educated idiots who would just die,’” he said.

Trump supporter Chris Fresiello with his wife GiGi and kids at their New York home on November 17, 2016. (Photo: David Scott Holloway for Yahoo News)
Fresiello with his wife, Gigi, and kids at their New York home. (Photo: David Scott Holloway for Yahoo News)

In June of 2015, he saw Donald Trump come down the golden escalator at Trump Tower and “I knew right away he would win,” Chris said. The real estate mogul was not Chris’ first choice. He preferred Ted Cruz, whom he saw as sharing his “real conservative values.” But over the months, he became a true believer.

The appeal, he said, was that Trump stands for “law and order,” and “I am a rule follower. You’ve got to follow the rules — they are there for a reason.”

Rules came up a lot during the more than two hours we spent talking. “When I go to a parking lot, I don’t drive through the parking spots. When people do that, it drives me crazy,” he said at one point.

“That’s why I’m a strict constitutional constructionist, because the rules are the rules,” he said at another. “The rules say the states should decide. If you have a state that’s generally conservative, why should the federal government come in? If a state wants to be backwoods about something, that should be their right.”

I was struck, not for the first time during our conversation, by the contortion of the logic, but I had decided when I rang the bell that I was there to listen more than talk. I spent much of my time during this visit rethinking that approach — in this new world, every decision feels political, and I know that there’s an argument that any silence is agreement — but I kept returning to the baseline belief that I’d come to hear, not preach.

And so I listened as this man who believes in rules went on to explain that the government should make far fewer of them. Abortion, he said, should be “nobody’s business but the woman’s. It’s her body.” Following the same logic, he feels he should be allowed to ride his motorcycle without a helmet “because it messes my hair.” And should a head injury leave him uninsured and vegetative because of that choice? “Pull the plug,” he said.

It is because he thinks there are too many rules that he is not bothered by the fact that Donald Trump so often flouts them.

“He’s a businessman, that’s how you do business,” he said when asked about the president-elect’s fraud settlement, his refusal to pay some contractors (even though he actually knows at least one contractor who was personally stiffed by Trump) and his use of loopholes to avoid paying income tax. (Trump does pay property taxes and payroll taxes, Chris said, and “that’s a lot of tax.”)

His forgiveness applies to rules that are unwritten too — like saying things that in earlier years would have driven a candidate from a presidential race.

Suggesting that Mexican immigrants are rapists? “That’s just him mouthing off, talking like a real person, not a politician.” Lewd comments on an “Access Hollywood” tape? “That’s cringeworthy, but I’ve spoken like that too. It’s because of the whole penis thing, that’s what makes guys pigs. It messes everything up, we can’t concentrate.”

As he said all this, I kept thinking how unsettling it was to actually like this man. He was funny. He clearly would do anything for his family. He loved this neighborhood as much as I did. He was thoughtful. (Even if I didn’t agree with many of his thoughts, I credit him for giving them so much thought.) I truly believed that if I called him for help in a crisis, he would be there. But at the same time, he was seeing humor where I saw misogyny, seeing refreshing straight talk where I saw alarming racism.

Neighbor to neighbor, I shared my deepest concern about a Trump presidency. What about those who seem emboldened by these kinds of comments? I asked. What of the uptick we’ve already seen in racist, sexist, homophobic and Islamophobic incidents since election night? How do we fix this?

“The ugliness is a good thing,” he answered. “If I’m going to work on a basement, the first thing you do is expose what’s down there, the mold, the spiders. You need to see it before you can clear it out.”

Okaaay, I think. But then you stomp on them, right?

The ugliness has been there all along, he continued, and it is better that we see it. “I’d rather have a guy fly a swastika right outside his house so I know that’s how he thinks rather than him thinking that way but hiding it,” he said. “I want to know who the jerk is who’s flying that thing.”

My stomach lurched, and for a moment I thought I might retch up the lovely cup of Keurig coffee Chris’ mother had brought me. But again I didn’t push back. I didn’t tell him that my relatives had fled that swastika, and what he saw as some sort of “let the jerks be jerks,” I saw as normalizing hate and encouraging others to do the same.

Why didn’t I tell him that? I reminded myself, again, that it was because I was there to listen. But at the same time, I realized that wasn’t my only reason. There are but two other times in my life that I have been hesitant to let someone know I was Jewish — once during a visit to the Soviet Union under communism and once in deep West Texas while riding in a speeding pickup truck whose driver was ranting about how some cheater had “Jew’d” him. This was the third, and it made me shudder for my country. But why argue swastikas while sitting next to a neighbor’s gun cabinet?

Eventually we said goodbye and I headed home. The part of our talk that I spent the most time thinking about was those spiders — wanting the metaphor to be correct, trying to believe that this is the start of a housecleaning, not the dismantling of a house.

Then I read his Twitter account.

The Fresiello home in New York on November 17, 2016. (Photo: David Scott Holloway for Yahoo News)
The Fresiello home. (Photo: David Scott Holloway for Yahoo News)

It was a roil of anger — calling for punching anti-Trump protesters; endorsing the killing of Muslims in the U.S. and the nuking of Muslim countries abroad; suggesting Hillary Clinton should hang herself; joking that Obama might be shot. He accused Clinton of a career spent killing unborn babies — after having told me in detail that he believed abortion was not the government’s business. He advocated “pitchforks and torches,” having assured me that my fear of violence was baseless.

“That smug c*** has been sitting on that tape just waiting to release it to the media … she’s way behind and desperate,” he wrote after the “Access Hollywood” audio was released.

“Finally someone is speaking to this f***ing witch the way she deserves to be spoken to,” he wrote after the first presidential debate.

“.9% of the US Population is Muslim 63 percent of those are immigrants. Would it really be a big loss if we just got rid of them all?” he asked after the Brussels attacks.

And the day after I’d stopped by, he’d written, “These sensitive frustrated liberals blathering over a Trump win are like spoiled naughty children being scolded for the first time ever,” meaning maybe we hadn’t been sharing in quite as friendly a way as I had thought.

A few days later, I headed back to talk some more. I brought a camera crew because Chris had agreed we could make a video to run with this article. I also brought some printouts from his Twitter feed and warned him in advance I might be reading them aloud in case he wanted his children to leave the room first.

“Chris,” I blurted, cameras rolling. “You ARE the spider.”

And the problem with his analogy, I suggested, was that instead of cleaning them out, this election has fed them and encouraged them to multiply.

He agreed the tweets were awful. “A pressure valve” for his anger is how he described them. If I thought those were bad, he said, I should have seen the ones he deleted. He thanked me for not reading the worst of the actual words, using letters instead, because “my children don’t know words like that.”

But he didn’t really mean most of it, he said. Or I was being too sensitive.

When he wrote, “Hey maybe when Obama goes to Dallas today he can hop into a convertible and drive by Dealey Plaza … Just sayin’,” it was a joke, he said. That’s what the “just sayin’” was there to imply.

And when he wrote, “Your turn to eat s*** you liberal a**holes,” that was just “my worst self” poking through, he said.

But what happens to a nation whose leader brings out those worst selves, I asked, adding, “I can only imagine the reaction in the comments when this video runs.”

Again, Chris looked genuinely surprised.

If there was going to be anger, he said, it would be directed at him, no? For his support of Trump. After all, he’s the one afraid of losing business because of his political beliefs. He’s the one the neighbors called the cops about.

Another example, I said, of how you and I have watched the same election and seen completely different things. I told him a little of how I’d been called things online this year that I had to look up in Urban Dictionary because I wasn’t entirely clear what sexual act I was being told to perform. I told him of the time my son called to warn me not to read the comments on my own story because they were so threatening.

We agree to meet again after this article runs and read the comments aloud — without his kids around. I’m hoping it will be the first of many conversations. We seem to have a lot more talking to do.