At the 2016 Republican National Convention, which I covered for Flavorwire, I said (perhaps too optimistically) to someone I would not have met under other circumstances (but think highly of nonetheless), “I am more interested in hearing other peoples’ opinions than my own.” Which was not to say that I am a blank slate, or that I don’t care, or that I don’t have opinions. But just as I hope my parents are not that kind of Republican when they talk about The Muslims (all 1.6 billion of them, who are surely as homogenous and unvaried as Christians and Americans and Republicans)¹ I hope not to be one of those—perhaps I’ve forgotten what.
1. Annie Dilliard writes in For The Time Being, “There are 1,198,500,000 people alive now in China. To get a feel for what this means, simply take yourself—in all your singularity, importance, complexity, and love—and multiply by 1,198,500,000. See? Nothing to it.”
Leading up to the convention were a string of police shootings—in both directions—that seem to have receded from our national attention under the waters of Louisiana flooding, Clinton emails, Trump slanders. But before the convention, friends wrote to tell me “Good luck.” They said, “Stay safe.” I couldn’t be sure if they worried about Republicans or protesters or some mysterious Other? It is hard sometimes to know who is out to get us.
As I walked around the convention with another writer, Nick Jaina, he confided that more people had reached out to him, concerned for his wellbeing, than when he’d left Portland to live in Columbia in 2013. There was a seriousness in the air that contradicted the insistence that the event was sure to be a circus, that the entire Republican Party is made of clowns.
But the assumption that (the other) half of the voting population is fundamentally incapable of logical reasoning and should not be trusted to vote makes even a liberal like me uneasy. It sounds eerily like history repeating itself.² During my preliminary interviews Kate Sopko, who directed the Fixers film series, said, “If democracy isn’t striving toward radical inclusion at all times, it’s kind of a failed system.” In the context of our interview that seemed to mean the down-trodden, the disenfranchised. But it reminded me that everybody, to my own chagrin, means everybody.
2. The easy comparisons are slavery and women. But, you may not know that Alexander Hamilton—that founding father basking in the warm light of a rekindled popularity—made his law practice from defending Tories (the British sympathizers left in the wake of the revolution). He believed that for The American Democratic Experiment to work, everyone had to be protected by the same laws. In order to uphold the dream of a country where even a bastard immigrant like himself could prosper, he had to defend his opponents’.
On the penultimate day of the convention Mijente and the Ruckus Society organized the Wall Off Trump protest around the Quicken Loans Arena where the Republicans were meeting and speaking and maybe listening, too. I asked a passing delegate from Chicago, Kelly Anne, what she thought the protest was about. She seemed exasperated. “I don’t know,” she said, as a large, white TRUMP button pulled on her blouse. When I asked what she cared about most in the election she softened—she has kids, she’s a single mother, she wants to feel safe. She thanked me for not asking how she could support Trump as a woman. “I care about more than my vagina,” she said. “I also care about money.”
You know, some days, even I am overwhelmed with the expense of burning my bras.
Behind Anne the wall of protesters was taking shape, on the other side of it I asked Iuscely Flores, a protester, who she wanted to hear her message. She said, “I bet they’re mad.” When I asked again she said, “We’re taking attention away from them.” Had I not been writing about the protest I may well have been participating in it, and I had to resist the temptation to announce myself: “Same team! Same team!” Which I recognized as a desire to get a quote that would better support the story I already had in mind. Helping her would make my job easier.
At the end of the Convention, a friend asked, “Do you feel more or less hopeful than you were before the RNC?” The answer was decisively more.
I wrote my dispatch that evening with the acute sense that despite my own ideological leaning I could not betray Kelly Anne. Eventually I wrote: “Ultimately I felt overwhelmed by the uselessness of talking if no one is listening… I wanted to believe that two people from different places with different experiences could recognize each other’s legitimacy. Could work together to make both of their lives easier.”
Today, my grandfather is watching the news at the anxiety-inducing volume at which the news is often watched, as he does every day from 8am into the next morning’s wee hours. After roughly 48 hours of this I feel decidedly less hopeful than I did at the end of the Republican National Convention. Were I to believe that this news is “fair and balanced,”3 that I am indeed entering a “no-spin zone,” I would be forced to believe, also, that the apocalypse is imminent. I understand now why everyone was so scared for my safety at the RNC.
3. Joseph White, a political science professor at Case Western Reserve, told me before the RNC, “There is a part of the Republican base which basically thinks the press are liberal elites who scorn them and don’t like them and make fun of them and are part of what has taken the country away from them. Fox News [claiming to be] ‘fair and balanced’ is an accusation—they’re calling CNN and NBC unfair and unbalanced.”
Now, as I make my way through another day as an unwilling participant in the 24-hour news cycle at my grandfather’s house, the warmth I felt in Cleveland, the engagement and empathy and concern for the future is absent in the cold glow of The News. Of my Facebook feed. Of complex issues demoted to clickbait. And I’m not pretending another station would yield any less self-righteous anxiety. Perhaps instead of seeking out news sources that we agree with, we should be questioning the very impulse to agree with rather than evaluate the news.4
4. As Joseph White told me in our interview, “There’s no agreement about facts. Criticisms are not taken all that seriously unless they’re taken from my side. Unless Trump does something that Republican leaders have trouble defending, it’s just going to get shrugged off by right-leaning voters using right-leaning sources. And same for Hillary.”
The thing that is crushing my Hamiltonian dream of a better America today is that my cohort5 is electing to learn about the plight of their neighbor via the corrective lenses of the news rather than by asking.
5. As Annie Dillard describes it: everyone alive at the same time as me.
“What,” Jaina asked with a note of incredulity as we walked through the streets of Cleveland, “do people think a president does?”
Originally published in This Land: Fall 2016