The Hunted Reds of October

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This past October I got the chance to attend Politicon, the recently annual conflagration of political junkies and pundits in California. The slate of speakers and panelists ran an interesting gamut, from serious discussions about the opioid epidemic, and pow-wows among each camp to discuss how to move forward in these unprecedented times, to arguably less-serious spectacles, like Dennis Rodman discussing how “Slam Dunk Diplomacy…might bring peace to North Korea.”

One of the more engaging talks I saw involved Clay Aiken interviewing conservative YouTube firebrand Tomi Lahren, with the former American Idol contender channeling his inner Better Angel with sincere, searching questions aimed at drawing out commonalities, rather than just differences based on their highly disparate political leanings.

In one of the more enlightening exchanges between the two figures, Aiken pointed out the growing fissure between the two extremes, telling the crowd that at this year’s conference there were very few members of each side who were even willing to sit on a stage with their political opposites. He posed the question to Lahren how we might address this extreme polarization, and to her credit she pointed out a practice that disturbs her especially among her own “team,” that of intentionally antagonizing those who they don’t agree with, “because they wanna record a liberal attacking them.”

Politicon presents attendees with an environment where they can have their political leanings confirmed and challenged in the same space. Sure, there are boisterous fans of every stripe there to cheer on agents of their chosen squad and to holler out against their perceived villains. But most in the audience were respectful voyeurs, who seemed, at least in part, interested in taking in new perspectives that might expand their own view.

At least, that’s the way I chose to see it.

And in that spirit, I decided to engage with those sitting at my lunch table who clearly bore the marks of my political counterparts. I’ll certainly admit, seeing their proudly donned red hats, embroidered with that most effective of political slogans, “Make American Great Again,” does evoke a visceral reaction in me, bringing to mind how misguided I feel the sentiment actually is.

But I decided to lay aside my progressive worldview for a bit, and play the curious inquisitor to find out a bit about how the other half think. In service of my role as someone with the mission of growing the influence of Better Angels and helping us to attract a balanced assemblage of workshop attendees, I introduced myself, and led with the question that’s at the forefront of the minds of many of the leadership of our group: How can we attract more conservatives to our cause?

The answer I got wasn’t the mythical how-to manual that we’ve all been hoping for, and it never is. Instead my question gave these Trump fans the space to vent their frustrations with their treatment at the hands of those they see as commanding control of the cultural and political direction of the country.

Especially in California, these MAGA hat wearers felt that Politicon was one of the only places they were free to be themselves.

The first two people I talked to were Ann Marie and Noemi. They declined to give their last names, since they knew their words had the potential to end up in the public domain, and this aligned exactly with the fear that they had about expressing themselves fully.

Ann Marie claimed to have been a liberal Democrat for 30 years leading up to the 2016 election, and going into it she was in the Bernie Sanders camp. But following his primary defeat, and realizing that the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal was perhaps her biggest issue, Ann Marie found herself in the Trump camp, which is when she started to lose friends.

She described personal conflict that had consumed her life both online and off, telling me she couldn’t count the number of friends she’d lost due to her leanings.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say if you voted for Trump you’re stupid,” she said. And it’s not just emotional consequences she described suffering.

“I’ve been in ‘Facebook jail’ six times,” referring to being locked out of her account due to being flagged for writing something that violates Facebook’s policies.

Now, hearing this, particularly as committed progressive, I’m inclined to actually give the benefit of the doubt to Facebook on this one. The site has clear policies against hate speech, but clarifies that “there are instances of offensive content, including distasteful humor, that are not hate speech according to our definition.” And Facebook states that they err on the side of free speech in these instances.

Still, these standards will always be subjective, and the fact is these experiences are likely to feed the narrative that Facebook, like the rest of the media landscape in general, is under the control of “the liberals.”

What’s more, Ann Marie has experienced these things not just as a threat to her enjoyment of social media, but to her livelihood.

“I’m a food blogger, and I can’t do my job,” she said. She also stated that her husband worked in Hollywood, and can’t express himself for fear of being run out of town.

“We’re hunted,” she complained. “It’s not safe for us; we have to go into hiding.”

A father and son, sitting a bit further down at the table, were willing to put their names on the record. David Grinstead was there with his father Greg, and told me that he’s experienced several instances of harsh judgement, when he feels like he’s “walking on eggshells.” And his father added that his car had even been vandalized due to his wearing a MAGA hat.

Greg and David Grinstead

I’ll be honest, it’s likely that I disagree with nearly every aspect of these people’s political philosophy. And I’m highly skeptical of their claims of victimhood, given my own experiences with conservatives and with the statements of President Trump himself, for whom this is a favorite narrative.

But I also have an issue with those who believe that the best course of action is to disengage with those who see things so differently from themselves. As I stated in a previous piece for our Media Network, “it is nearly always worthwhile to reach out across the divide.” And worse yet is the instinct to shame and vilify them so they feel dismissed as stupid or evil.

We may be so far apart that we’re working with a different set of “facts,” but we’re all still people, who generally share many of the same desires and fears, and when all else fails we can come back to our common values. It may take hard work, but there are still productive ways to engage with someone whose worldview you find misguided or downright offensive.

Ann Marie told me that for her, the giant inflatable Trump baby that sat in the convention hall specifically to mock the president—and was even listed as a “speaker” on Politicon’s website—said it all for her. I actually think it’s pretty funny satire, and encapsulates his thin skin and lack of maturity and focus, but I can imagine how insulting it must be to someone who takes their leader seriously.

“I paid $400 for this ticket,” she said, “and this is what I get?”

More to explore

How We Are Divided and Why We Are Polarized

American politics has grown increasingly polarized over the past 20 years, degenerating after the 2016 election and in the Trump Presidency into all-out partisan warfare. Observing from the sidelines, a significant portion of the voting public has begun to sense a real danger in this fracturing of partisan politics, and are searching for solutions.

10 thoughts on “The Hunted Reds of October”

  1. Anita M Graf

    It seems so easy and obvious to me that connecting to each other people first should be the way to go. And I just don’t relate to people who’s first instinct is to shame and vilify. But I realized even just reading this article that I likely wouldn’t put it up on FB because I wouldn’t want to provoke the backlash I would expect from many of my Lefty friends. It seems like too many of my lefty friends are out for blood, and no matter how many seriously progressive things I post every day on my page, no matter how obvious it should be where my political heart lies, the minute I suggest anything short of shaming, vilifying, and denigrating people on the right, I lose my credibility with them and become worthy of attack. It’s deflating to acknowledge this. I think much of the country suffers under “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” both on the Left and the Right.

    I’m glad to know that there might be others out there trying to bring some sanity to this divided craziness, some calm to the jugular hunters. But it looks like I’m the first to even comment here, so I”m not sure how much traction this is getting yet.

    1. Anita, I definitely appreciate your comment, and sympathize with the issues you stated. I tried to write a piece of balance, and I’ve received negative feedback from both sides (including on FB and in comments after yours). But feedback like yours helps make it clear that there can be a positive impact from this sort of approach. Thanks.

  2. Lisa von Geldern

    The author states:
    “And I’m highly skeptical of their claims of victimhood, given my own experiences with conservatives and with the statements of President Trump himself, for whom this is a favorite narrative.”

    And the leadership of better-Angels wonders why reds don’t want to participate. Are you kidding me?

    What a rude and dismissive attitude to people who were willing to open up to the author.

    You want to talk about harmed? I do not know one liberal who has lost business because of their political beliefs. I,
    a small business owner, volunteered on a political campaign in 2009-2010 in my free time, and lost 75% of my clientele in open minded liberal San Francisco as a result.

    My stepson (28) and daughter (14) and I were physically accosted by antifa at a Milo speech at UC Davis – this was before the riots in Berkeley, All because a person who’s views the progressives dislike was speaking . Communism would rather prevent his libertarian view (message of freedom) from being aired.

    Then my so-called friends…one friend who I helped do 24 hour hospice care for her mother as she died of lung cancer – that girlfriend made multiple phone calls leaving long voice messages ranting about how she was afraid I was going to turn my children into racists and other horrors. She actually melted down and cried on two 30 minute plus rants.
    Another person decide to post on my Facebook page. A man I know in AA – alcoholics ANONYMOUS folks – I’m pretty open about my recovery of 27 years but this clown posted on FB that he had heard from our friends in AA that I had started drinking again and that must explain my support of Trump. On my FB page – for any work relationship or parent of my children’s friends to see and then wonder. Thank you progressive liberals for that attack and sharing of information supposed to be shared only by me and as I see fit.

    I posted both before and after the election of Trump and invitation to my many liberal friends to have coffee or lunch so we could discuss why I think how I do and maybe they could begin to understand – the response was not just deafening silence – that actually would have been preferable to people posting on my page and other places that I was a misogynist, racist and many other pejoratives – none of which are true.

    I saw your information on FB and went to sign up. Lo and behold the leader of my state is close with our newly elected Senator Kirsten Synema. (Yes- I gave up on California and escaped in time as my house value dropped over $60K from when I sold in July, before Gavin Newsom was elected and today.)

    Kirsten Synema, I struggle to believe won her seat legitimately. Who votes for someone to represent you when they condescend and disparage you? The way she talks about Arizonans is revolting.

    AND THAT IS WHY ATTRACTING REDS WHO ONCE WERE WILLING TO SIT WITH BLUES IS BECOMING IMPOSSIBLE.

    I was excited to join BA and then depressed as it looked like yet another liberal mouthpiece designed to spread the word about how they had reds listening and converting. So sad to think that but why would your leadership be made up of people who support politicians like Synema?

    1. Hi Lisa. Thanks for reading the article, and for taking the time to share some of your experiences. I definitely understand that you’re upset over my skepticism, and it’s possible that I might have expressed that sentiment a bit inartfully. I also lament the negative interactions you’ve had, because it’s clearly not the best of us. But what I would like to emphasize is that I’m a progressive, and I’m not ashamed of that. I have my own set of experiences that have informed my viewpoints, and while I try to reach out to people who come from a different perspective, that outreach doesn’t mean that I’ll agree with or believe everything that is said by the person I’m talking to. I certainly wouldn’t expect you to take all of my claims at face value either.

      It sounds like you’re the type of person that Better Angels could use more of, a conservative who is eager to reach out to the other side to foster understanding. If my column has put you off, I’m truly sorry to hear that, but I would welcome a continuation of the conversation if you’re open to it.

  3. To let you know where I’m coming from, I’m basically a progressive. I’m also deeply involved in Better Angels as state coordinator for Indiana as well as Blue (left-leaning) co-chair of our local Better Angels Alliance. Bravo, Randy, and bravo, Anita! I agree with just about everything both of you have said. Just one thing: Randy said he’s “skeptical of their claims of victimhood”, “they” being two Trump supporters. I suspect they’re exaggerating slightly, but only slightly. I’m in Bloomington, Indiana. We’re in the most left-leaning county in the state, and several of the Reds (right-leaning folks) in our Alliance are active in Republican politics as candidates for local offices and/or in the county GOP. They’ve given me an earful about how disrespectfully — to put it mildly — they’ve been treated by total strangers. I totally understand the frustration and anger of my fellow progressives, but that kind of behavior is disastrous. As someone once said, extremists on either side empower extremists on the other side. I’ll bet most of the people giving the GOP loyalists a hard time don’t consider themselves extremists, but we’re so polarized these days that the effect is the same.

    1. Thanks for the perspective, Don! That line definitely seems to have struck a sensitive chord. While my skepticism is real, I’m also trying to practice empathy in how I receive these experiences from conservatives. I’ll definitely try to ensure I focus on that going forward.

  4. Mr. Lios,

    Until the last two paragraphs, I actually thought you were trying to be open-minded. An inflatable baby blow-up of a president, any president, is hardly “funny satire”. Ann Marie is rightly upset for paying $400.00 to come to a convention in which a president is being mocked with junior-high pranks.

    1. Thanks for the comment. It’s unfortunate that I lost you at the very end, but I’m just trying to be honest about my beliefs. As I said, I can understand why it would be insulting, so while I can’t really help what I find funny, I hope that my attempt at empathy carries at least a little weight.

  5. I thought your tone was kind but frank. What else can we do but be honest about our own perspectives, part of which includes acknowledging what sorts of claims seem dubious to us?

    It would have helped if you said more about why you were skeptical about conservatives claims to victimization, however.

    BA is a good idea, but it won’t work if folks on all sides aren’t open to having some painful and frustrating conversations.

  6. Hi Dan, thanks for your comment. I definitely think you have a good point about being more specific about claims of victimization, so I actually addressed that question in my next column: https://www.better-angels.org/walking-the-line/. Thanks for taking part in this conversation, regardless of how painful and frustrating it can be.

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