We’re told Americans can no longer talk across the political divide. We’re also told interacting with people on social media is nothing like (and no substitute for) real life. But, late Friday night, I proved both of those are wrong.
Lowering the Bar
It started innocently enough at our hotel bar after a Lyle Lovett show in Macon, when my wife and I paused for what was supposed to be a quick nightcap. I was sipping my bourbon, when a woman to my right struck up a conversation with us. She and her husband went to the concert too. We chatted about the show, Lyle’s music, Macon, and where we were each from. They live on West Point Lake; we told her about Covington and our second home on Jackson Lake. That led to talking about her job as a flight attendant, which eventually got around to them having been on a river cruise to Bordeaux on the same cruise line Kim and I will be taking this summer to Provence and Burgundy.
It was all going swimmingly (the bourbon was helping), when she paused, gave us serious look, and asked in a hushed tone: “Are ya’ll Trump people?”
Not quite sure from where she might be coming – but trusting the deep, meaningful bond we had now established (and the bourbon) — we both said “No.” Politely, mind you. “But, we like you anyway,” my wife added.
We worked through that and answered a few more of her incredulous questions, when she got serious again, asking “Well, what are ya’ll gonna do?” I wasn’t quite sure what she meant – and Canadian residency flitted across my mind. But, what she really wanted to know was how we could possibly vote for Elizabeth Warren.
I tried to explain I’m a moderate independent who wouldn’t necessarily choose Warren or Bernie Sanders as my first pick. But, I told her I would vote for either one over Trump. I mentioned moderate Amy Klobuchar as my likely first choice, but I don’t think she had any idea who that was. I mentioned John Kasich as a moderate Republican I could tolerate, and I still don’t think it registered. (But, again, I wasn’t the only one drinking.)
The Heart of the Matter
She kept asking over and over: “I just don’t understand why you hate him?” And I tried, without success, to explain I don’t hate him. But, that wasn’t something she could take in. (Truth be told, it’s more complicated. I certainly despise things Trump says and does, but I don’t harbor hate for anyone. More important, though, hate was an easy way out for her. To believe I was just consumed with irrational emotion would absolve her of having to engage in real conversation. And, I wasn’t having it.)
She knew she liked us. But, she couldn’t understand us. By now, my wife had abandoned me for the sanctity of our room. But, I was all-in.
The woman’s husband wasn’t beside her when we started conversing, but he was back now. His face expressed wonder as to what kind of mess she’d gotten herself into. But, he was also leaning in to listen.
She wanted to like us, so she said more than once. “I don’t think we’re that different. It’s those politicians in Washington.” I gave her partial credit, but said we the people are ultimately to blame. I argued it’s the things we’ve been willing to tolerate and the tricks we’ll fall for that create politicians we don’t like. I brought up the 2018 Georgia Governor’s race and the TV ads Brian Kemp ran during the GOP primary, pointing shotguns at teenagers, blowing stuff up, and “picking up illegals” in his truck. She said she didn’t like those ads either, but that she likes Kemp. Trying to hold common ground, I told her I felt some of Kemp’s actions since taking office are OK. “He’s been better than those ads,” I conceded.
By now, her husband was joining in and interjecting. He and I actually took a pretty quick liking to each other.
She asked what specific problems I have with Trump. I mentioned rolling back environmental protections, and she agreed, saying she and her husband were concerned as well. I mentioned the Muslim ban, and her husband shared he is of Arab descent. They weren’t so keen on the ban either. We even established mutual agreement on a woman’s right to choose. Still, none of this helped her understand my differing view on Trump.
(Someone I told this story to later asked if I found out why she did like Trump. I would say it was 1) the economy, 2) he’s not a socialist lib, and 3) he’s not a “Washington politician.”)
Still She Persisted
She asked again: “So, why do you hate him?” And the husband quickly corrected her. “He doesn’t hate him.”
At one point, she asked “how do you feel about AOC?” I said I might not agree with her solution for every problem, but I believe she’s way smarter than many people want to admit. They both said they think she’s dumb. “DUMB!” she said to underscore the point. I argued that just getting millennials/young people engaged in politics was an important step. Significantly, both we new friends were unconvinced.
We went on like this for at least an hour. My wife had caught last call for me before she left, but that drink was gone. It was past midnight, and my friend looked like she was losing steam. So, we bid our farewells.
Reaching the elevator, I chuckled, because this entire face-to-face conversation was EXACTLY the kind of back-and-forth I patiently (and perhaps stubbornly) persist with on social media. I was at least well-rehearsed for my live performance.
I didn’t change her mind about Trump, nor she mine. But, the cool thing was we really didn’t try. She, her husband, and I spent the final hours of a Friday night trying our best to understand something we know we honestly never will. But, we tried. And, I think that still says something.
I shared a less-polished, off-the-cuff version of this story on social media the day after the encounter. The reaction was largely positive, because most Americans long for more civility in our lives. All but the most cynical of us still cling stubbornly to hope.
But, I did receive criticism from a progressive friend who saw my telling of this tale as a dangerous sign of “false optimism.” I respect his view and share his sense of urgency about the perils we face as a nation and a society.
In my defense, I deliberately ended with the phrase “I think that still says something,” because it’s up to each of us to figure out what that is. I didn’t feel optimistic — at least not in the most simplistic sense — after Friday night. But, I did have a sense things are not over and these efforts to preserve humanity still matter.
I believe our human connection to each other is the one thing stopping even worse things from happening. It’s also the road we must travel someday back to sane existence. I won’t let that go. Because, when I do, the only things restraining us are the flat, 2-D cartoon representations we see as avatars for the others who are missing. It’s too easy to blow up Wile E Coyote, to drop an anvil on his head, or to send him plummeting off a cliff.
For one night, I was a flesh-and-blood expression of a liberal viewpoint normally caricatured in these people’s lives by memes. I was someone they could never agree with, but whom they also could not hate. And, it was a two-way street.
Our relationships with those who think differently from us are not strained because of Trump. Trump exists because our relationships were already strained. When we weaken our human bonds, we’re ready prey for a host of malicious actors exploiting the space between us for their own gain. In the body politic as in our own bodies, it’s the Immune System that matters. And, our humanity is all that can protect us.
There’s that. There’s also the realization Sisyphus didn’t even have bourbon. So, I raise a glass to my nameless friends on West Point Lake.