From a personal encounter with MAGA America on the beach straight to the legislative priorities of the Republican Party
Prof Zimmer, thank you for another elucidating, clarifying post.
Two questions about this, one existential and one personal: "Once you have convinced yourself and/or your supporters that the other side is scheming to deprive you of what is rightfully yours, any measure you take, regardless of how radical, is justified as an inevitable act of (preemptive) self-defense."
1. What is your prediction for how this goes? On each of your podcasts you say in one form or another, "it's not clear to me how democracy survives here." What are you anticipating?
2. As you had anticipated with your interlocutors, I feel terrible *for you* to have arrived in America at this time. And I wonder, how can you possibly remain? Do you feel that you are "in the fight" until the end, so to speak? If so, you have my heartfelt thanks and appreciation. In my view, we have no more effective voice than you, this wonderful German who has chosen to show us the truth.
This has been the terrible frustration of the past 7-8 years -- how to bridge that deep divide. I doubt you ever could with someone like this. We can only hope that (some?) other MAGA voters are more persuadable. I like your observation that "She obviously didn’t fit the ideal of the economically anxious, left-behind by the evil forces of globalism Trump voter, nor the stereotype of the conspiratorially inclined fringe." I agree that people are more complicated than that, and am reminded of Dorothy Thompson's 1941 essay, "Who Goes Nazi?" https://harpers.org/archive/1941/08/who-goes-nazi/
It might help to think of MAGA and Trumpism, not as a political phenomenon, but as a religious one. They worship the charismatic Leader, ignore or deny his crimes, sins, and flaws, and proudly take part in a Manichean struggle against (liberal) evil. It's all nonsense, lies, myth, and a wilful ignoring of the true and the plausible, but, then, like I said: religion. These people get out of bed each morning full of resentment, but God forbid (so to speak) they undertake some self-inquiry and learn to understand their own personal history and motivations.
My fantasy is to ask one of them, "Would it matter to you if what you're saying is wrong?" I bet half of them would answer, "No."
One more thing, as you note, the right has an extraordinary effective message machine. At some point, I would like to know who is in charge the content of this messaging. Who determines the daily talking points, for GOP politicians as well as the anchors of Fox News.
I have had so many of these encounters, particularly when I worked in retail during the pandemic and old white people seem to take it for granted that "the help" is a captive audience who isn't allowed to resist listening to their gas lighting and vitriol. I usually tried to offer some variety of, "I understand you feel that way, I do not. I'm not required as part of my job to stay here listening to things unrelated to customer assistance, so I will be on my way. If you need help related to your shopping experience, I'll be happy to help."
At least that feels like making it clear I'm not a receptive audience and I'd rather be toiling away in a freezer than listening to their nonsense, yet I'm completely professional about it. If they go to a manager to complain it's going to fall on deaf ears.
After having several phone conversations with my Mom that made it clear she was more emotionally invested in engaging in Trumpian tribalism than having a considerate relationship with her daughter I finally just reached my breaking point and have been non-contact ever since. I had made it clear often enough that we shouldn't bother talking about politics, that we'd never see eye to eye. I stopped using Facebook and told her it was borne out of my personal preference to not be associated online with people lying and spreading propaganda.
Under the guise of "everyone is trampling my life and rights" she constantly kept overstepping *my* boundaries, saying whatever crass thing based in lies she felt like saying in the moment and bringing up political news just so she could dump her views and attitude on me.
My mom thinks we've stopped talking "because of politics." But the reality is, we've stopped talking because she's become a completely self important asshole who can't exhibit the self control or consideration to not waste my time and emotional energy listening to her rant about politics.
At the height of the pandemic I was an "essential worker" dealing with extra stress of supply line problems, customer anxiety, on top of the uncertainty of the pandemic itself on daily life. I finally just decided I didn't have the emotional overhead to give to her.
In that moment I needed some compassion and understanding. She had none to give. Her actions show that she clearly loves Trump more than she loves me, and I can live with that. But I'm not going to also waste my time having it repeated to me day after day, sapping my emotional energy in the process.
Thomas, what an extraordinary experience in such an ordinary context. On the beach with your children and thrust into a politically charged conversation. You are right when you say that this was not about ideas or truth that can be debated. What struck me about your description of this older woman is that she was not just educated, but had previously been in the academic community -- and she had traveled abroad. It would be interesting to know how she had changed through the years and how she had been radicalized. Very alarming. Thanks for sharing this.
Oof, I am having PTSD just reading this post. Not about the pain of the encounter itself, but the self-flagellating rumination afterwards, replaying on repeat the interaction, wondering what you did wrong, what you could have said or not said to have steered the conversation back on an amiable track. I recently had a similar experience, meeting a college roommate for dinner who I hadn't seen in some 15+ years. I was heartily looking forward to reminiscing about our adventures, friends in common, updating each other about wives/kids, etc. I had intimations from some texting over recent years that he voted for Trump but thought that it may have been of the reluctant pinched-nose type. Boy was I wrong - it was complete right-wing mind capture. When I explicitly begged us to change the subject ("I even brought photo albums!!!"), he looked insulted. I was so upset, uncomfortable, and flummoxed by my inability to steer things back to mutually enjoyable topics, I seriously considered getting up from the dinner table and bolting. There is only so many times one can say that 'I understand but am not sympathetic to Russia's geostrategic insecurities." That I can answer the question, "Do you care enough about the Ukrainians to have your kid go fight there" (easy answer: that's why, among many reasons, I want Western gov'ts to support the Ukrainians fighting now, to forestall direct conflict as the wolf's appetite is whetted and looks to Poland and territories westward(I studied history too!). And finally, "I don't care one whit about Hunter's laptop. He is one in a long history of politician's fail-sons. I don't believe Joe Biden was benefitting." You get the picture. The point is that he left feeling happy that he got to expound his beliefs, and I left in a frustrated and saddened funk that hung over me not only for the drive home but well into the next day. I finally was moved to reach out to him by email and express how uncool it was to insist on those topics when I had explicitly stated how uncomfortable I had become and what a shame to spend our rare chance to catch-up on specific details of our lives with conversation topics he could have with anybody. I copped to my part to the extent that I engaged in these (as above) but repeatedly made clear my heartfelt desire to return to our reminiscing. Similar to your description of the woman being "fully policitized", he insisted that this is who he is and the things he cares about, so he wouldn't have been being 'real' and it wouldn't have really been a visit 'with him', if we shied away from these topics. There are so many easy answers to that response, that any socially competent adult knows, that I won't recount here, but nonetheless, they held no truck with him. Needless to say, self-protection is key and that friendship is now dunzo. What a shame. Again, similar story to yours - the conspiratorial paranoid right-wing mindset leaves such interactions positively energized - these types (hate to be so reductive) get to hear their beloved reassuring air-tight arguments again, get to see you submit or if you don't, feel smugly elated by their superiority to the sheeple. You walk away miserable - knowing that life is grey, complex, with unfairnesses and truths on both sides of any issue - the underlying recognition that gave birth to liberal democracy - the shield against the dangers of hyperpartisanship, , so we don't kill each other in religious/ideological-driven violence at the local, nation-state or civilizational level. Though this sounds like a plea for 'radical' centrism, your writing persuades again and again against both-sides-ism. The center can only hold, when there is a center-right and center-left party. It doesn't work if we turn a blind eye to the radicalization of one side, that rejects the legitimacy not only of a liberal democratic polity in 'abstract' but the legitimacy of their specific opponents in any shared political space for the crime of being 'liberal', a Democrat, etc - so estranged from their definition of what a real American is so as to be illegitimate. So thanks again for sharing the personal experience (I hope you didn't mind me doing so as well.) but also of making these critical distinctions and warnings so clear on the regular on the bird app and now substack.
Imagine this on every coast in Florida--and they are armed!! My encounters are daily in grocery stores, in home improvement shops, plumbers, neighbors, and family. When you are the minority in a collective gaslighting of reality, headphones and medication may be required. Will anyone from regular reality be sending assistance (Garland/Smith/IRS/Biden)?
Thanks for this, we all need to remember that tax avoidance by the 1% is the reason why the Party is so heavily funded. IRS boogey men are lies the told to the rubes.
As always, thank you for the clarity. I have had many interactions like this in many similar situations (with kids playing by water). Not quite as heated but similar all the same. I don't want to say it gets tiring being told to find common ground but ... when you are living in different perceptions of reality, it's not the most helpful answer.
Thank you, Prof Zimmer.