The independent news organization of Duke University

Trump supporter, Democrat and Libertarian come together for panel on grassroots activism

A Libertarian, a Trump supporter and a Democrat walk into Sanford.

It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it's not. They sat down with students and talked about activism at an event Tuesday sponsored by the political science department and the Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service (POLIS).

The panel featured Jillian Johnson, Trinity ’03 and Durham mayor pro tempore, Susan Hogarth, chair of the Libertarian Party of North Carolina, and Mitch Meyers, a former organizer at North Carolina for Donald Trump. POLIS Director Fritz Mayer—professor of political science, public policy and the environment—moderated the discussion. The topic was, as Mayer put it, “the job of citizens,” namely how someone “can affect change from the outside”.

“I live in Durham, so we don’t have a lot of conversation across the political spectrum,” Johnson said. 

However, if anyone in the room came hoping to see this politically diverse group butt heads, they left disappointed. The speakers were careful to take turns listening to one another and answering Mayer’s questions.

Meyers expressed his desire to engage with different political beliefs as he spoke about his experience organizing for Trump.

“It’s so wonderful to engage with other people, especially if you disagree with them,” he said. 

Meyers added that “the way to engage people is to be civil,” and placed emphasis on the importance of listening while going door-to-door.

A former Democrat, Meyers said his activist nature was imbued in him by his parents. He added that his mother calls him “Frankenstein’s monster” because he drifted so far to the right.

He cited disenchantment with his former party as an impetus pushing him to open up to and eventually throw his weight behind Trump. He joined the ground game and spent dozens of weekends knocking on doors for the candidate that would become president.

Hogarth noted that her introduction to the Libertarian Party came in a discussion with its presidential candidate and that she became involved when she moved to North Carolina. Although she voted against Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson at the convention, Hogarth campaigned for him and became party chair in North Carolina after.

Being a Libertarian has become easier in North Carolina since the party has been included on the ballot, Hogarth noted, adding that the party gains strength from its commitment to a fundamentally American ideology.

However, she added that being a Libertarian still has its struggles.

"Being a Libertarian is like being unable to swim and told you have to cross an ocean without a boat,” Hogarth said.

Johnson said she entered activism earlier. She started getting involved as an activist as a teenager and continued her activism at Duke, protesting against Mt. Olive Pickles and working to better the school. When she left Duke, Johnson shifted her activism to focus on Durham issues, where she has since organized in the community and ultimately entered politics. 

The three panelists entered activism at different times in their lives and have acted within different capacities, but Mayer noticed one similarity—each recounted their experience with pleasure. Mayer asked the panel how they thought students could get involved. 

Johnson told students that they should join organizations and avoid starting them because it is likely a group exists that could use their energy. 

“There are lots of ways to deploy Duke’s resources to serve your values and interests,” Johnson said, citing her own projects at Duke. 

Hogarth stressed one of Johnson’s earlier points that college is a great place to make mistakes, and—agreeing with Meyers praise of door-knocking—explained that the practice is sort of like running.

“You hate the idea of it, but once you do it, you’re like ‘wow, that was great!’” she said.

Meyers pointed out that activism doesn’t need to be political. 

“Registering people to vote is something I’m passionate about…it can be civic,” he said. “That’s just as important.”

Junior Sabriyya Pate, a founding member of Duke Students for Housing Reform, acknowledged how difficult it can be to organize at Duke. She asked the panel what makes mobilizing students difficult and how it can be done effectively. Johnson, a veteran student organizer, agreed that “student activism is a very hard space.” She said that national networks, engaged faculty and strong student leaders "who can put things on the line,” are critical.

Meyers said that both partisan and non-partisan activism are equally important. Johnson pointed out that due to the concentration of Democrats in Durham, she works in mostly non-partisan spaces.

As a Libertarian, Hogarth critiqued the panel's use of the word "bipartisan." Hogarth said that she is able to stay engaged because she is doing what she thinks is right.

“It’s satisfying to be on a side that is growing," Hogarth said. "On a side that is right, in my view.”

Meyers added that the only frustration he felt was when he was not organizing. He noted that even if the election had gone differently, he would not have regretted a single day.

Mayer then asked the panel how they “draw lines” between activism and the rest of their lives. Meyers and Johnson both shared that they have to place a limit on evening meetings and are careful to make time for their kids, although they often sacrifice for their cause. Hogarth said that “sometimes you just have to say no.”

However, she also emphasized the importance of her work.

"At some time in your life you should get lost in something,” Hogarth said.