Ever since Trump descended that golden escalator to a throng of television cameras and paid supporters, much has been written and said about what makes an objectively unfit candidate resonate with so many people.
Polls showing he drew most of his support from older, less educated, less affluent white men led to discussions about how the frustrations and the anger of the white working poor in rural America left them susceptible to Trump’s brand of populist nationalism.
While it’s always worthwhile to acknowledge the problems of our fellow Americans, economics and demographics were only the ground where that anger was planted. What fed it and helped it grow so large that the red-faced, spittle-flecked tirades of a semi-literate con man and reality show star proved irresistible?
When I was a child, we had three television networks and only a few radio stations. I remember how excited I was when we finally got cable. I was most excited about having MTV, but cable didn’t just offer new choices for entertainment. It also had news: networks like CNN and CSPAN came along for the ride. Eventually, FoxNews and MSNBC appeared. On the radio, Rush Limbaugh ushered in the era of talk radio. Once Al Gore invented the internet, Facebook and Twitter allowed people of like minds to find each other and share opinions.
Our media options have exploded. Not only can Americans watch the Golf Channel or Lifetime movies, it’s easy to find an outlet catering to almost every political affiliation. We may ridicule Millennials and their Safe Spaces, but perhaps they learned the concept from their parents. Too many people in America never hear an opposing opinion unless it’s filtered through a partisan lens. Even on social media, people with opposing political views rarely interact. We live in echo chambers.
To make matters worse, “they” (the people on the other side) are routinely demonized by the talking heads on these outlets. Liberals accuse conservatives of hating science, the poor, and the elderly. Conservatives accuse liberals of hating Christians, freedom, and America itself. It isn’t enough to disagree on environmental policy: conservatives must want to kill children by poisoning the air and the water. It isn’t enough to disagree about health care: liberals want death panels to pick and choose who deserves health care and who doesn’t.
Conservatives only care about the rich. Liberals want to destroy the American way of life. It never stops, and too many people, on both ends of the political spectrum, believe it all.
Much of the political dialogue in the media today is little better than George Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate,” and it serves much the same purpose. It keeps people loyal, and it prevents them from thinking too much. Railing against the other side’s Emmanuel Goldstein gets the ratings (and the votes) every time. The end result is that partisans on each side become more extreme as the true believers in base impose litmus tests on its candidates and purges the moderates.
In 2016, the extremist left tried (and failed) to nominate Bernie Sanders for president, and they may have cost Hillary Clinton the election. On the right, the Fox and Friends/Breitbart wing successfully imposed Donald Trump on the Republican Party by winning a plurality of votes in a crowded field of candidates – and the rest of America is paying the price.
I freely admit that until 2016, I was in the echo chamber myself. I watched Fox and Friends. I only followed #TCOT conservatives on Twitter, and I listened to Limbaugh whenever I could.
But I was one of those conservatives who actually believed in principles – and I believed those conservative TV and radio hosts believed them, too. Imagine my disillusionment when most of the conservative outlets I liked jumped on the Trump train in 2016. Gradually, I began to listen to the other side, because, aside from a few lonely outposts of integrity like Bill Kristol, George Will, and Jonah Goldberg, they were the only ones telling the truth about Trump. I even started watching Bill Maher and John Oliver on HBO. Guess what? They’re funny.
No, I haven’t turned into a liberal, but I am learning something. It’s something that used to be common knowledge in America, and this is true whether you’re a conservative or a liberal: people on the other side aren’t evil. They are not our enemies. They’re Americans, too. Most of them want the same things we do. They want the best for this country and its people. They see many of the same problems. They only disagree with us about how to solve them.
It might be a good idea if we all stepped out of our political bubbles to listen to the other side. I think we’ll find we have more in common than ever believed. Let’s spread those TV ratings around, give clicks to a few websites we hadn’t visited before, and talk to each other. We’ll still disagree and have political battles, but we can have those while we give people the benefit of the doubt. They aren’t Satan.
Yeah, I know. This column is almost as naive as the lyrics to “Imagine.” But I still have faith in people, and I still believe that even the poorest and least fortunate among us are capable of achieving spectacular things if only provided the opportunity. People are great the world over, and the measure of a country’s greatness is the extent to which it allows its people the freedom to achieve their potential. That is why America is great and always has been. Rush may have proved himself a phony about many things, but in that, he taught me well.
Maybe if we all recognized that in each other, we could dial down the hate and the anger. I bet we’d have fewer Donald Trumps in our lives.