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.
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?”