As a Better Angels moderator, I’ve had the pleasure of running several Skills Workshops, which focus on helping people to navigate conversations with those who have very different beliefs from their own. At the top of the agenda we give people some guidance about how they should approach using these skills, like jettisoning the expectation that they’ll be able to change the other person’s mind, and remembering that saving face is a basic need that everyone has when confronted with their inevitable ideological inconsistencies.
Among those guidelines is a note that these skills are “not intended for use online!” The exclamation point is, in fact, right there in the moderator’s guide, and it indicates how fraught we believe the prospect of conducting a civil exchange is in the worlds of Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and the darker corners of the web. It can be tougher to control the tone of the conversation when anyone can join in at any time, and in an environment where people seem more willing to say outrageous things that they would avoid when speaking face-to-face.
But I have a confession: I’ve gone rogue. In my experience, it’s entirely possible to use these skills online, and indeed, if people did so more consciously, our digital world would be a much kinder place.
Recently, when news hit of President Trump’s decision to host the upcoming G7 summit at his Doral golf resort—a decision since reversed after bipartisan condemnation—I saw it as an opportunity. To me, and nearly every one of my fellow blues, it was one of the clearest examples yet of a conflict of interest, something we have been concerned about for the entirety of the Trump Administration.
Blues have the reputation for seeing things in many shades of gray, but this seems to us—and apparently to many in Washington on both sides of the aisle—as a black-and-white issue. So it presented the opportunity to ask those who see it differently, particularly supporters of the president, why that is. What arguments do they see as the most salient in justifying this decision?
It seemed like a chance to distill the most fundamental aspects of the disconnect between Trump loyalists and critics. How do they differ on the most basic assumptions we make about how a president should behave and how Washington should work?
So I decided to try an experiment. I started off a posting, which referenced the New York Times’ article about the decision, by setting up my reasoning for exploring the issue.
“For many blues,” I said, “it’s been very difficult to understand certain beliefs of Trump supporters about the president’s actions, and I think this will be no exception.” I added that I wanted to engage in “a good-faith effort to understand those who might disagree with” my point of view on it, adding, “I certainly don’t expect either of us to change our minds, but it’s a genuine area of puzzlement for many of us, and I’m looking at it as a learning opportunity.”
I also asked those who agreed with me to hold off on offering their opinions. Most took me up on that, with a few commenting supportively on the goal. The first comment on the thread, from Judy Albers Carbone, was, “I’d like to hear, too, and promise to listen.” Good start.
A friend of a friend I met in Santa Barbara, whose friendly nature prompted me to immediately try to recruit him for a workshop, was the first red to respond with his take, though he asked that he not be named for this article. He started out his comments talking about the likely reality that Trump has not in fact profited from his time as president, referencing an article in USAToday that pointed out that Trump’s net worth has indeed gone down since he took office. The different things important to each of us about that story, though, are clearly telling: he sees it as evidence that Trump didn’t get into the political game to make money, whereas I see it as simply a proof point that his divisiveness has damaged his brand, which I pointed out later in the thread.
But this red friend offered further thoughts on the issue, making the argument that from a logistical and security standpoint, the decision made a lot of sense.
“The idea is that you can cut through a ton of red tape and bureaucracy by hosting it at his resort,” he said, stating his belief that the planning for the event elsewhere would be much lengthier and more difficult. He also believed that Trump was even being somewhat altruistic due to the risk of a security incident that he might be blamed for, saying that for this reason he wouldn’t want to do the same thing if he were in Trump’s shoes.
“But that’s Trump for you. He just doesn’t care what anyone else thinks; for better or worse,” he concluded.
There’s very little about his response that I agreed with, but I’ll say that it was the one that probably gave me the most food for thought. Later, when Trump’s acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney was explaining the decision, I found myself thinking about the president’s state of mind.
For most of his career, Trump’s most prominent role was as a hotelier, and he’s clearly very proud of his ability to provide hospitality for guests all over the world. I can certainly imagine a man like that thinking about a major event that would involve accommodating the most prominent guests one can imagine, and saying to himself something like, “Who could provide a better hospitality experience than I? I’m in the business, so how could I not take advantage of the fact that I own one of the greatest properties ever built on the face of the earth to show the world why the U.S. still has the best of the best?” I can even imagine him sincerely thinking that he was doing the country a favor by using his own property.
This might represent the biggest a-ha moment for me, that it’s possible to imagine someone looking at this issue differently, and doing so with complete sincerity.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that I’m convinced in any way by this line of reasoning, and I made that clear on Facebook. I didn’t feel that this friend had addressed the basic concept of conflict of interest, so I pressed the issue.
“I think we generally see it as less important to go through the books and determine if the bottom line is + or – for him on this,” I explained, “rather that the mechanism exists by which his finances [and] policy are related.”
I also mentioned that someone else had pointed out on the thread that Camp David—which hosted the last G8 summit—was an ideal spot, created for this kind of purpose.
My friend’s response was equanimous, conceding that I’d made valid points, but expressing his continued frustration that he believes the left seems to be looking for things to make a big deal of, rather than waiting for legitimate issues to arise.
“I will concede that this appears to be ‘swampy’ behavior,” he said. “I personally don’t see a huge problem.”
He closed our conversation with this thought: “I don’t agree with everything this president does…But I will defend him to my dying breath because the alternatives are so outside of what I consider main stream, and the policy proposals of the new Democratic wave scare the crap out of me.”
His sentiment about the blue attitude towards Trump was echoed by others on the thread. William Ellis, who engaged with the conversation from the Better Angels Leaders group, said that he’d prefer that appearances of impropriety weren’t there, even if respected the idea that Trump might want to be in his comfort zone.
“It’s still not a big issue to me,” he said, “but I will freely admit that if Trump hadn’t been, [in my opinion], nitpicked constantly and attacked, this would be a bigger deal.”
Again, I was frustrated at what I saw as the avoidance of the conflict of interest issue, so I prompted a more direct response on it.
“Conflict of interest is a big deal to me,” he answered. But he said that he was unconvinced that the standard solution employed by past presidents, putting their assets in a blind trust, was really an effective way to address it. “I am VERY skeptical any president isn’t aware of what his money is doing, so to speak.” (I have to admit that if that person’s holdings are not immediately liquidated or shifted to different assets, he’s got a decent point here.)
Ellis went on to encapsulate what he sees as the difference in the red and blue approaches to the president: “I don’t see him as running for President and doing the things he is doing to enrich himself. I think he is really wanting America to be number one in the world in just about every category.”
But what he said next, to me, spoke more clearly to the difference in attitudes: “As with any money in politics, I would need to see where it really influences things.” In response, I pointed out that he was looking for a proven quid pro quo, while from my understanding concerned citizens on both sides of the aisle were, throughout the history of our country, highly focused on the potential for such an arrangement. A conflict of interest doesn’t necessarily mean that one must be influenced. The potential for undue influence is enough.
The rest of our conversation reflected that difference in priorities, with Ellis declaring himself “skeptical of the personal gain,” while I asked about the potential for Trump benefiting from the rise in the Doral’s global profile.
“I don’t think it will make much of a difference to it,” he responded. “Anything Trump already has a high profile. I’m not sure it’s going to be able to get much higher.”
The next to chime in was Butch Porter, a red delegate I met at the Better Angels convention in St. Louis earlier this year. Porter is gregarious and engaging, without much of a filter, making him a hoot to hang out with there.
He started his post with a few caveats, particularly that it shouldn’t be taken as a defense or a condemnation of the president. He then laid out his belief that our course of action on this issue is unclear because of our lack of experience with the situation, specifically that “we have never elected a billionaire businessman with no political bona fides to the White House.”
For Porter, an important aspect of this issue was what he saw as the hypocrisy of our system, by which so many politicians, especially former presidents, are able to cash in so vastly once they’re out of office.
He also posed the question, “is political power somehow more noble a pursuit than financial gain?”
I mentioned the vital distinction that the lucre he had referred to came after these politicians were out of office, whereas Trump stood to be enriched further while he still had control over policy. But the fact is, I wasn’t entirely accurate with my point. As Porter alluded to, the Obamas’ net worth rose by $20 million purely within the time they were in Washington, largely from book deals. This wasn’t true for the Clintons—who supposedly left Washington $16 million in debt from legal fees—but Bill and Hillary were able to quickly wipe that out and assemble a fortune of hundreds of millions more, including the time during which she worked in Washington in the Senate and State Department, through speaking engagements and books deals, along with Bill’s consulting.
This certainly gets to one of the core reasons that many reds were uncomfortable with Hillary in the first place. She was part of a major Washington power couple, who knew exactly what levers to pull to keep the flow of money coming in, even as she kept her grip on influence. I personally feel that Secretary Clinton did nothing untoward, and I think that the Clinton Foundation has been an unmitigated net-positive for the world. But I can at least glimpse why Trump supporters feel as though their candidate is treated with a double standard for milking every opportunity that comes his way.
As our conversation continued, though, and Porter expanded on his thoughts about the scale of Obama’s and Clinton’s gains, he made a couple of points that I find deeply troubling.
“Any personal profit that would go to Trump as a result of one conference is minimal in the grand scheme of things,” he said. This wasn’t the last time a red would propose the idea that the scale of financial gain mattered more than the nature of it.
He then added, “Trump most likely did this simply to get the media and his opposition to have a conniption fit about it. It’s working. It always works.” I wasn’t sure how to react to someone implying that it was okay for their man to do seedy things to troll his opposition, so I just let this comment pass.
Getting back to the nature of Washington, he opened a new line of argument about the transparency of profiteering. In response to my comment that Trump’s Doral decision was “easy to condemn” because of its obvious wrongness, Porter said, “I do not see ‘easier to condemn’ as more contemptible or wrong. Quite the opposite. It’s arguably more honest.”
When I pointed out that transparent corruption does more to normalize conflicts of interest than hidden corruption, it prompted an interesting discussion of national cultures regarding corruption in places like Greece and Italy versus more powerful economies like Germany and France. But the conversation ended on a note that I thought was illustrative of the frustration felt by reds.
“One of the reasons why ‘reds’ roll their eyes at this: Mitt Romney basically manipulated his taxes to pay MORE and he (the most fundamentally decent person to run for President in at least 100 years) …was still raked over the coals as an evil profiteer, so it’s just hard to buy the righteous indignation.”
While I have no idea what he was talking about here—I couldn’t even find a right-wing source to back up the assertion that Romney paid more than required—I do fundamentally think that Romney is a decent person, and paid all the taxes he owed. While I would never ask him to look after my dog, I can understand why reds believe that Romney was unfairly pilloried on the issue of taxes.
My final red interlocutor was Som Mathur, a former colleague of mine who doesn’t actually support Trump, but challenged my outrage on this issue nonetheless. I often find him to be insightful and interesting to engage, but at other times I completely struggle to comprehend his arguments. This exchanged mostly proved to be the latter, and it was the most frustrating of the experiences I had with this experiment, but in the end it was still somewhat productive.
Mathur started off by bringing up a question whose relevance I failed to grasp: “What would be discussed in the G7 meeting that would be a conflict of interest of hosting this event at his own hotel?” In my mind the topics on the agenda at the summit were less important than the fact that the president was setting up a channel to receive money from foreign governments, creating a potential quid pro quo.
The conversation devolved from there, with some tough moments where I was vexed by Mathur’s assertion that because all the countries involved would be staying at the same place Trump couldn’t show favoritism to them all, and so it made absolutely no difference where the summit was held.
He also echoed Porter’s view about the insignificant scale of the issue: “A couple hundred grand is nothing when negotiating billion/trillion dollar deals between countries.”
This was honestly too much for me, and I said as much, doing my best to embody the skills that Better Angels emphasizes for these situations: “Wow. I’m finding it difficult to respond to this without a significant amount of emotion. It sounds to me like you just said that a bribe is not important if it’s a small amount of money compared to the larger amount of money that’s involved.”
The conversation continued in the same direction, with even some others jumping in to offer their views, but even this discussion eventually came to a place that I considered to be fairly enlightening.
“What’s particularly frustrating from my point of view is that most accusations against Trump are benign and/or false,” he proclaimed. “I’m not even a Trump supporter and never voted for him, and there are places he’s very bad on in my view, such as immigration, health care, sanctioning countries, foreign policy, tariffs, government spending, inflation, and drugs. He’s terrible in all of these areas and they affect millions of people, but all anti-trumpers talk about is petty things that are blown out of proportion or are part of a problem bigger than Trump.”
Mathur and I are never going to agree on the nature of the accusations that are made against Trump. But I can definitely see how someone might feel that the bigger picture has been lost in the thicket of smaller sleights.
As predicted, no one involved in this grand experiment changed their minds. But it did a couple of things that I think were valuable. It helped me to understand some of the frustrations that exist on the other side of the aisle, and—in the tiniest way—to embody the perspective that says: Things are so swampy in Washington, a city awash in murky money that usually finds its way to the most influential people, that it’s absurd for us to get so worked up about one hotel developer who wants to use his property to burnish the image of the country, even if it makes him a bit of side cash in the process.
But it also built good will between two groups for which there are so many forces trying to foster ill will. The feedback I got was wonderful.
Porter called it a “great and genuine post,” while Miles Eddy, a blue delegate I’d met at the convention thanked me “for keeping the BA principles intact.”
But probably the best comment I got was from Kerstin Lampe Benoit, another former colleague: “Thank you for opening this thread. As we are on opposite sides of this issue, I truly appreciate reading an open discussion without being harassed for my point of view. I find your approach very enlightening and genuine!”
This trial convinced me that, even around the toughest of subjects, it’s possible to have a productive conversation if you set the intention to do so, regardless of what medium you’re using. If you find yourself in a tough conversation, where things are devolving into insults and the questioning of motives, remember that you don’t have to respond in kind.
I think you’ll find that if you lead the conversation with honesty about your viewpoints accompanied with the intellectual humility to admit that your opinion is one of many perspectives that an intelligent person might reasonably hold, the discussion will find its way back to a place of respect and learning. And if we all started to take this approach, perhaps it might create a new way for us all to relate to one another in that murkiest of swamps, social media.