I was in a hotel in a rural part of northern California, asking a man at the breakfast buffet what he thought of Barack Obama. Up to that point, we had been talking, affably, about drug addiction, paganism and the likelihood of a volcano in the area blowing any time soon, before moving on to his enthusiasm for Donald Trump. Now he looked at me suspiciously. The question, he knew, contained an accusation within it, as did my follow-up about Hillary Clinton. “I would love to see a female – a black female! – be president,” he said carefully. “Just not her.”
He was, of course, right to be cautious: I was prodding him to say something deplorable. This man, who must have been in his middle to late 40s, was a recovering meth addict who lamented the death of local newspapers and thought Christianity had a lot to answer for, which is to say he didn’t quite fit into my preconceived notions. Nonetheless, he liked Trump because, he said, “he isn’t a politician”, “can’t be controlled by the bureaucracy” and “looked out for our people”, by which he meant Americans. The only thing he disliked about the president was “the way he makes fun of people. You don’t have to make fun of people to get your point across.”
I can never decide, in these encounters, where the line falls between humouring, pandering and drawing someone out to see how they think, nor to what extent my condescension is readable. It’s a mode I fall into – a kind of simpering half-agreement characterised by the sound “hmmm” – that, by forestalling conflict, potentially invites someone to keep on hanging themselves while ruling out the possibility of frank discussion.
It would be nice, I sometimes think, to be the sort of person who robustly attacks those with differing political opinions, passionately disagreeing with them. But my inclination, at least with those to whom I’m not close enough to be irritated, is to smile and make nice.
I do it with cab drivers. I do it with family members who voted for Brexit – bright smile, “hmmm!” – and with acquaintances flogging what I consider to be wrong-headed opinions. It’s partly laziness. Most of us could go around fighting all day if we felt so inclined, particularly if we spend time on Twitter. I tell myself that the need to win an argument with a stranger is an odd form of narcissism that gets you nowhere closer to learning how other people think. But the nod and smile leaves a bad taste, too.
I felt some sympathy for the guy in the hotel, and then – a sign of the times – wondered if this amounted to collaboration. “This is redneck country,” he said sardonically and for a second it seemed as if we had broken the fourth wall to acknowledge the narrow labels we apply to each other.
The moment passed and I went back to judging. This person felt weak and admired Trump, claiming him as a tribal affiliate because he aligned with his idea of what it is to be strong. The question of whether his life had improved in material terms under the president was irrelevant. What Trump stood for was all that mattered.
• Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist