The day before the eclipse, my younger sister came out to our house with her husband and three of their children. My mother and stepfather were also there, as were another niece and nephew of mine. Amid the chaos of kids running around, we adults got to talking, and eventually talk came around to Trump. I think the subject of Trump is like a black hole – you get too close and it starts to suck you in.
My sister is a Trump supporter, as is her husband – we’ll call him Ray. And my mother and stepfather both voted for Trump. My wife and I voted for Clinton.
We must’ve started by talking about Charlottesville, but I can’t remember who initiated it. Then the talk came around to Nazi Germany, and I brought up Milgram’s famed behavioral experiment illustrating the power of obedience, and my sister said that the people following Hitler weren’t necessarily all sociopaths, but they were falling in line, drawn by a charismatic leader promising solutions to their problems.
I detected not a hint of awareness that there were similarities between Germans in the 30s and 40s and those following Trump today. Not when we talked about an authoritarian dictator like Hitler, promising that he alone could fix everything, not when we talked about the propaganda campaigns – such as documentaries Hitler would have made showing the adulation of a crowd, children on their tiptoes, eager to get a glimpse of the Fuhrer as he went by – at no point did I get the impression that they were making the comparison to Trump, though I kept thinking and feeling that we were right up against it. They had to be.
Then, at one point, Ray said something about how Trump allowed people to finally be who they are. That they didn’t have to hide it anymore.
My wife, who is always keener than I, and uses a much lighter touch, leaned in a little and said, “What do you mean – what are they hiding?”
And Ray sort of sputtered and didn’t exactly say what, just the vague idea that being politically correct and afraid to voice your opinions is over now that Trump is president. And Ray went on to say that when he was a kid, and people said you could be anything that you wanted when you grew up – he really sees this in Trump. That anyone can become president – for real. And I agreed, saying that the criteria had changed: it used to be a position requiring some experience, but over time, being a celebrity has had more and more to do with it. I quoted something I’d written down on my phone – “In the war between common sense and marketing, marketing is winning.” And Ray grinned, because he likes that.
A bit of background on Ray: Ray loves Trump, admires him a great deal. Ray has a cleaning business that he built on his own, and is very studious about business and investing. His response to Charlottesville was, “who cares?” As in, it doesn’t affect me, what’s happening way over somewhere else. “Are your neighbors threatening you?” he asked, spreading his hands, looking around.
I tried the line that just because I’m not hungry doesn’t mean world hunger doesn’t exist, but it probably fell on deaf ears. As would fall on deaf ears that the fact of my neighbors not threatening me exactly highlights my privilege.
Ray then reverted to a kind of Regan-era triumphalism – he said that we have no abject poverty in the United States. None. This was an implicit nod to the virtues of capitalism and people like Trump.
The thing is, to his point about something happening “way over there” not mattering, I agree with that somewhat. I agree with it in the Neil Postman sense, that first TV and now the internet and social media have brought global issues into our lives and heads – we all know how quickly news comes at us, how wide the territory is that’s covered in our Facebook feeds, and there are gobs of decontextualized tidbits which often just contribute to one “side” or another, and otherwise are things that, perhaps pragmatically, we can’t do a whole lot about.
I also agree, to some extent, that capitalism has its good points.
So why, over the course of our hour-or-so long conversation, did it flash through my mind that I wanted to leap across the table and hit Ray in the face? Am I just an intolerant liberal? As Ray sat there extolling the virtues of Trump, eventually I asked him to stop. I said that hearing anymore about how great Trump was would “sicken me.” And that’s where things got heated, and Ray said that my denunciation of Trump was what “sickened” him.
“Fair enough,” I said, and we cooled our jets for a minute.
Then, perhaps because I am an author, and Ray does admire that, he said that Trump is an author, too.
I asked him if he knew who Tony Schwartz was, and Ray said no, he didn’t.
I said, you should look him up.
But the expression on Ray’s face told me he probably wasn’t going to.
I’ve known Ray for ten years or so now. And what I’ve come to understand is that he has two debate tactics, really, and he uses them over and over again. The first is to minimize and gaslight. Your concerns are blown out of proportion, or don’t matter to him (“Who cares what’s happened in Charlottesville…”) and are really of no importance. Right now, as I write this, in fact, I can imagine him looking on, grinning, shaking his head in that dismissive way, giggling a bit and saying, “Why are you writing all of this? What’s the point?”
The second tactic is pretty standard for someone of his political ilk, and that is to be reductionist, usually to bring something down to a fiscal or legal point of view, or try to capture you in a gotcha moment, such as the tu quoque logical fallacy. When I mentioned that retraining people might be a better solution than being outraged over the loss of manufacturing jobs, for instance, Ray’s response was, “Who’s gonna pay for that?” And when I admit, “Taxpayers,” he says, “But why do I have to pay for something I don’t want to?” This is the pretty typical libertarian argument. When I tell him I don’t share his admiration for Trump, because being a casino developer, reality TV star, is not something I aspire to, and I find it particularly distasteful how Trump got to where he is, with discrimination lawsuits and bankruptcies and tax avoidance along the way, Ray says, “Yeah, but did he do anything illegal?”
I’m no tax law expert, I tell him, but not to my knowledge.
“Then what’s the issue?” Ray says that if Trump took advantage of tax loopholes, claimed major losses one year to avoid paying taxes for many years after, so what. If it wasn’t illegal, there’s no problem.
And I said, morally, to me, it’s a problem.
Which is just kind of an eye-roller to Ray. Because for him, what’s behind that grin is this tacit sentiment that anything I say I don’t like about Trump just comes from jealousy, or hypocrisy, because I do it too.
Ray points out my clothing – I’m wearing a zip-up Merrill jacket, one of the few nice articles of clothing I own, and says, “You’re dressed pretty spiffy.” He says that I benefit from real estate developers like Trump, entrepreneurs like Trump, and people who, let’s say, own companies that make the clothes I’m wearing.
Yes, and I also drive a car that uses gasoline, and live in a house heated by fuel oil, floored with hardwood probably from the Amazon rain forest, and have an iPhone assembled in an Asian sweatshop – I know – and it’s all true. But this notion that we can’t talk about ideals, we can’t try to improve things while simultaneously being a part of the sprawling, pervasive system in place is absurd and not an excuse to do nothing, and this is the funnel to where all this really goes with Ray –
There is a celebration of narcissism in Ray’s love of Trump. Not only of Trump, but of the other “great men” he admires. He brings up Elon Musk, and what an asshole Elon Musk is despite his being such a titan of industry, and he cites this with unabashed glee. And of course there’s Steve Jobs, and others who are prickly people – and Ray’s right – from things I’ve seen and heard, some of these guys are assholes; they’re not all Bill Gates (who, though I can’t know for sure, seems like a pretty nice guy).
So it’s a real challenge to talk specifics to someone about things like Trump and the economy and the environment when there’s this underlayment of ideology, of cultural identity, of a personal philosophy that’s a bit nihilistic, self-serving, that says, “Who cares. I’m going to get mine. Anything else is a waste of my time. And men who act in this way are my heroes.”
My stepfather piles on. As I’m talking about how I believe rapid globalization – with its shifting demographics, immigration, and the closeness social media brings to other people’s opinions and attitudes – along with intelligent automation, which has been replacing lots of low-skilled or dangerous or dirty jobs for years – is partly the cause of a lot of paranoia and unrest, I cite two possible ways to help with this, and those are retraining and even subsidized relocation, i.e. take people out of the towns where the factory has left and there’s no gainful employment and set them up where there’s work. It’s not a perfect solution, by any means, but at this point I’m just trying to offer some alternatives to rallying and protesting and hating each other. And my stepfather, glibly as one can, says, “The solution is never more government; it’s less.”
My sister, somewhere in there, says she’s watched this documentary that suggests some 80% of democrats are actually closet communists.
At this point, my head is starting to explode.
I boggle at my sister’s comment – admittedly much in the way Ray minimizes and gaslights me, I can only shake my head at her, incredulous that A. such a suggestion in a documentary exists and B. that she would lend it any credence. But this is the slippery slope of debating. Debating is so hard – especially for me, as I am an emotional person and can be reactive. I can feel myself coming unglued a bit, when up to this point I was careful to keep measured, to stay rational and unemotional.
I have to ask my stepfather to walk back his comment about government. It’s a broad platitude, and has no place in the conversation, especially when he’s the one requesting I get more specific with my own ideas about how to make things better.
But there it is again, this sense of a fundamental underlayment to the debate – in this case, “government is bad.” And I can’t articulate it, not succinctly, not in the moment when I’m reeling, but later I think about how preposterous this is, that any scenario in which a small group of people work toward the needs of a larger group of people is “government.” There is government in a household, for example, by the parents. And what if – for some crazy reason – the government as we know it were to suddenly abandon the area in which we lived? Let’s say all the public services – police, fire, highway department – it all went away one day, and the people were left to fend for themselves – wouldn’t a group, perhaps the strongest, or the eldest, or the smartest, or some combination thereof, get together and try to keep things from falling into chaos? If everyone were truly atomized and not accountable to anyone else, what would that look like? The inequities would be severe, the casualties catastrophic. We’d be reduced to a type of animal that doesn’t really reflect the truth of who we are – that we actually function better when we cooperate, not exclusively compete. That, at the very least, we’d need to ensure some kind of egalitarianism in a government-less situation, or it would be mayhem.
Anyway. I don’t say any of this in the moment.
What I do, is a little later after things have shifted and the needs of the many kids running around have distracted the conversation, I take Ray aside. I apologize to him for saying I’m sickened by his reasons for loving Trump. I have to talk fast, because already he’s grinning and shaking his head, trying to tell me he doesn’t care what I think, or why does it matter. I tell him I can be reactive, and I’m working on that, and it’s more important to me that I conduct myself well than whether or not I’m right, or seen as right.
Ray says that he’s not like me, he’s not trying to change anything, he doesn’t do what I do – debate to prove a point, or learn about the other’s point of view. He says I want everyone to be thinking about these things, and that’s just not something that really interests him. He says, “I don’t even watch the news.”
I tell Ray that, the way I am, I’m not so good extemporaneously – shooting from the hip. I try to be, and I guess I do alright sometimes, but almost always – especially when confronted by superior numbers – in this case (because my wife left the table to see to the kids and other things for much of the conversation), I was up against three Trump-voter / libertarian-ish republicans, and when my stepfather made the comment about less government is always the solution, I lost it. I tell Ray that this was why I like to write, because later I’ll be apt to sit down and process everything and synthesize it into some writing. And he grins and shakes his head; what a waste of time.
Maybe he’s right. Who knows. But here I am, and here it is.
When they finally were leaving, I walked over to Ray and shook his hand. This man in his late forties who is never going to change. Who thinks Trump is doing a great job. Who admires Trump, and says Trump lets people be who they are. Who, for some reason I didn’t quite catch because I was off to the side, doing something else, he’s talking about Yoko Ono’s influence over John Lennon and how she apparently wrote the line “A woman is just a n***er for a man,” and my mother asked him to please watch what he said around the children.
Final words: I was watching Penn Jillete on Bill Maher the other night. Penn summed up libertarianism this way: that one should always ask the question, how can we do this with the maximum amount of freedom?
Freedom. That’s a word we probably use more than just about any other when discussing politics and the economy and the environment and just about anything else. And I think it’s been misappropriated.
Yes, I want to do what I want to do; I want to be free. And part of this is having police and fire and highway and water departments so I don’t have to do everything myself. Take care of it for me, please, so I can go write fiction. I’ll gladly pay you to do so with my taxes.
Taxes I don’t mind either. When I was broke and raising my son alone, I got tax returns. Then later I started to earn more money and had to pay quite a bit in taxes. Good. Now someone else who’s broke and needs a return can have one. This doesn’t mean I’m a closet communist.
Solutions: I would love to talk about things like anaerobic digesters and permaculture and alternative fuels, and I tried to get in some points about new jobs in green energy during our debate, but mostly it was a conversation laden with assumptions and heavy with ideology. Debates like this are fascinating to me, highly complex. I don’t want to fall into ad hominem attacks – I want to discuss ideas – but you can’t discuss them if someone doesn’t even consider X a problem in the first place. How can you discuss sustainable practices with someone who doesn’t think we’re affecting climate or at least industrial pollution is a problem? Or, if they do, that the only way to solve the problems are through entrepreneurs and private enterprise? I don’t discount the role of entrepreneurs. But we’ve also managed to do a lot of things collectively one person couldn’t accomplish alone, and there’s a bit of a myth to the lone hero; it’s easy to forget that “great men” typically tend to follow a chain of other men (and women), or that outliers usually have some early advantages leading to later opportunity. It’s hard to talk about circumstance, about white privilege – really it’s impossible to talk about it to someone like Ray who just dismisses or denies it. For Ray, there’s always an example of someone who “rose from the gutter” and so giant, systemic problems like institutional racism are just liberal mumbo jumbo.
We didn’t really get a chance, either, to talk about government subsidies in the oil industry. “How are you going to pay for it?” (Meaning retraining and relocating) – I dunno… the same way we pay for endless wars, the same way we underwrite the fossil fuel industry, big agribusiness, big pharma?
Ray doesn’t care about antitrust, and he’ll deny the oligopolist tendencies of capitalism, or dredge something up to support why oligopolies and oligarchies are actually a good thing.
And you know, in so many cases, there are facts and studies to support this view, or that view. We can pull just about anything out of our ass and say, See, this is why I’m right.
So we’re left just being people. And not living in the same world as one another, as is often the case. Ray actually agrees with me here. At one point before he left he said, “I see what I see, and you see what you see.”
I think the world is getting more like this every day. It is the information age, okay, but information has no moral directive; it’s just information. Neil Postman is rolling in his grave right now, seeing how we’ve come into this a la carte reality, where we take what we want and use that to support our ideology.
Because I think ideology comes first for most humans. There’s something within us – how we were raised, perhaps, is a part of it, but maybe more so what we encountered when we first stepped out into the larger world. My wife, for example, coming from the suburbs, raised with religion, traveled the globe, encountering every kind of other belief system, seeing abject poverty, experiencing the sheer magnitude of the earth’s population, developing her deep sense of compassion. That’s her ideology.
And my wife has changed me, too. I’ve continued to grow – somewhat shedding the fiscal conservativeness of my twenties and early thirties (I was always social liberal, I think) – and have become something else. I really don’t have a label for it, and I don’t think it matters. What matters is how entwined personal psychology is with a belief system, with an outlook on what’s going to work, what’s not going to work for the future of humanity.
The encounter with my family over the weekend left me with this: a sense of futility. Not that I wasn’t able to convince anyone of some great idea or outlook I had, but that, as a society, we’re always going to succumb to this binary equation. It’s a complex world, and debating about the issues involves cultural identity, personal psychology, religious beliefs (or non-beliefs), and circumstance. And so to cope, we lump people into this group or that group.
I’ve done it, for sure. In my mind right now, Ray is “one of them,” and I’ve just about had it. Honestly, if I never see the guy again, that will suit me just fine. And surely he feels the same way about me.
It’s just sad, isn’t it? Isn’t there something sad about that?
I doubt Ray would feel like there was. He would just grin, and shake his head, and say it doesn’t matter.