What Happened When I Tried to Have a Civilized Conversation with Fox News Fans
No sooner had I got off the set of the Fox News studio in Washington D.C., after some verbal sparring with host Tucker Carlson, than Facebook Messenger began pinging on my iPhone.
I chose not to answer, because my wife and I were chatting with Carlson. On the air, Tucker is a well-stuffed, ex-frat boy skilled in the arts of Caucasian victimhood. In a word, insufferable. But in person, he couldn’t be nicer. He is gregarious and humorous, in the hail-fellow well-met style.
Ping. Ping. Ping.
I gave Carlson a signed copy of my book, Snow-Storm in August, which tells the unknown story of Francis Scott Key’s role in a white riot that swept Washington in the summer of 1835. The book was the reason I had appeared on his show. Using research from the book, I wrote a piece for AlterNet about the racist roots of our national anthem. Specifically, I told a story that virtually no one in the multitudes singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" knows.
When Key’s famous song was designated by Congress as the national anthem in June 1931, supporters of the song celebrated by marching under the stars and stripes of the USA, and the stars and bars of the defunct slaveholding republic known as the Confederacy. This was no accident, I suggested.
“Racism is baked into our notions of patriotism,” I wrote, a line that would cause more than a few snowflakes of the alt-right to melt into puddles of pale self-pity.
After the show, I pressed Snow-Storm in August into Carlson's mitts in the faint hope that its historical truths about American racism might have some corrosive effect on his racial chauvinism. Then I said good-night.
Ping. Ping. Ping.
I opened Facebook Messenger to gauge the reaction of Carlson's 2.4 million viewers, a metropolis of souls I call Tuckerville, USA.
My kindest critic, Brian, called me “a complete irrelevant loser.” Joe said I was a “rat and a scumbag” and wondered if I had a tail. (For the record, no.)
Frank said I was a “jerk." John called me a “moron.” Dave suggested that I "LEAVE THE PLANET," a request I hope to honor in 2023 when Elon Musk launches his shuttle to Mars.
I learned that advocating violence against people who talk about the history of "The Star-Spangled Banner" is not unknown in Tuckerville.
Two correspondents, who will go unnamed, expressed the hope that I would soon have a close encounter with ISIS. A third wished for my violent demise, but thoughtfully abstained from recommending any specific assassin.
Showering obscenities on strangers, once regarded as impolite by old-fashioned Americans, seems to be quite common among the male residents of Tuckerville.
Dave said, “You’re a f**ked up nutcase.” Rod called me a “f**king idiot.” George said I was “a simple piece of sh*t.” Jason said I was “a f**king retarded a**hole.”
A few cooler heads contested my facts with questionable claims of their own.
Rod accused me of “making stupendously ridiculous statement like ‘We have a president who thinks white supremacists are good people.'” Marc was amazed by “the generalization that every person who marched behind the Confederate flag is a racist.”
Les said, “stop defacing America,” which was uncalled for, but understandable. While I was talking on the air, Carlson’s producers had run a chyron under my name about the defacing of a Francis Scott Key statue in Annapolis, thus deliberately and falsely giving the impression I support such vandalism.
Carolyn—the first and only woman I heard from—said, “This is not needed at this time.”
Who is 'good'?
I deleted all the messages from those who wished for my death on the unlikely but non-zero chance that they might actually want to dispatch me to that great blue state in the sky. I wrote back to the rest to see if we might do something so radical as to exchange differing points of view.
It was a fool’s errand, some will no doubt say. "There’s no such thing as a good Trump voter, AlterNet contributor Dana Rauschenberg asserted last week. Slate's Jamelle Bouie made the same blanket assertion, under the same headline, a few days after the 2016 election.
I find that proposition dubious, professionally, factually, morally, and strategically.
To say there are no “good people”—none, zero, not a single one—on the other side of Trump’s America is a recipe for bad journalism and arrogance, if not civil war. It's the kind of thing people say on Fox News all the time.
I talked to a dozen of Trump’s female supporters at the inauguration and sought to quote them without passing their words through the filter of my own opinion. When an AlterNet editor added a headline saying their claims were "indefensible," I asked for the word to be removed. I thought it was more important that AlterNet readers hear their opinions than mine. It was one of the most popular articles I’ve ever written for AlterNet, and I think I know why.
Factually, I know Trump voters can be good people. My brother Tom is a Trump voter, albeit not an enthusiastic one. He’s more of a Scott Walker-type Republican, but he preferred Trump to Hillary. His politics are anti-elitist, but not racist. He is a good person.
Tom opposes the removal of Confederate statues because he feels it is “erasing history.”
“History is not a melodrama,” he wrote me. “It's a tragedy.” That's a nice formulation and a plausible argument, though I'm not convinced by it. It's not a racist argument, not coming from him.
Is Tom effectively a racist because he supports a public policy that is supported by racists? Not necessarily.
When some pro-Saddam Hussein activists of the Answer Coalition opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, my friend Christopher Hitchens told me that opponents of the invasion were effectively pro-Saddam. It was a fatuous argument then, and it's a fatuous argument now.
Morally, I think it's wrong to dismiss all Trump voters because, statistically speaking, many, or even most of them, harbor racist and reactionary views. The exceptions to the rule—and statistically speaking, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of them—are precisely the Trump voters I hope to reach.
As George Packer recently wrote in the Atlantic, “Any writer who wants to understand American politics has to find a way into the minds of Trump voters.”
The only way to do that is to engage them.
Strategically, it is short-sighted to rule out talking to people who disagree with you, especially in a democracy where one hopes the majority will rule.
“Any progressive politician who wants to gain power has to find common interests with some of them,” Packer notes.
Or as my friend Micah says, “You don’t grow a church by turning away the sinners.”
I tried to find common ground with my critics by suggesting we have a profanity-free conversation, a low bar I know, but you have to start somewhere. And it worked occasionally.
George thanked me for accepting his friend request and apologized for cursing me. “I was pissed. I got over it,” he wrote. We went on to have an interesting discussion about the reasons for Colin Kaepernick’s unemployment.
In response to my conciliatory text, John complained, “This is a world where if you disagree with a black person’s opinion and you happen to be white, you are a white supremacist."
I said I didn’t believe that, but I agreed with him that the country is “in a downward spiral.” What could be done about it, I asked.
“It is normal for people to disagree and that is why sensible people from all walks of life can talk, debate and agree to disagree,” John replied. “But unfortunately there are less and less of those sensible people around. This country can only stop this plight by showing others love, regardless of gender, color, religion, etc. Unfortunately, not everyone has been shown this love so they don’t know how to show love to anyone else.”
“My apologies for the cruel words,” he added.
I think "showing others love" is an idea to be encouraged, and I signed off amiably.
Carolyn wanted to know if I would be bringing up “past history” if Hillary had been elected. I said yes. I was writing about the "Star-Spangled Confederates" when Barack Obama was president. I would have done the same under a Clinton presidency. History matters, whomever is president.
“I am a strong patriot of the USA,” she replied. “I believe in building it up, not tearing it down....When a president won who I disagreed with, I got on with my life without tearing anyone or anything down and did a lot of reading. I did not profess to know any more than the next guy regardless of beliefs. I totally disagree with all the violence regarding just that… we all have that right not to be correct all the time, but to continue to learn re: both opinions.”
I could sympathize with her feelings. The political violence we have seen—the killing of Heather Heyer and the shooting of Steve Scalise—is disturbing. Fair enough, I wrote back. “I’m a non-violence guy too. I ask myself, What would Martin Luther King do?”
She responded not with words, but with five American flags. Some will find that to be a racist response. I don’t think King would have.
When I told Bryan I didn’t want to trade insults but rather have a discussion, he said, “All you want to do is have your way and stoke flames so brainless followers will go out and disrespect history. Take your discussion and shove it.”
“Have a blessed day,” I wrote, and figured that was the end of it. But actually he wanted to continue the discussion.
“You might want to use your energy and resources helping our homeless or building homes for our vets,” Bryan wrote.
I replied that was a constructive suggestion and asked if he did such work.
“Absolutely, I donate 5 percent of my salary to Wounded Warriors and 5 percent to ASPCA,” he replied.
That reminded me of my brother, the Trump supporter, who is also an animal lover. (“The only people on the left I can stand are members of PETA,” he once told me.)
I told Bryan I admired his work. He said he could not do the same.
“Our differences are real,” I said. “Let’s leave it at that.”
So in my unscientific sample of two-dozen residents of Tuckerville, I found a plurality to be abusive, if not violent, at least rhetorically. I found a minority with whom I could begin to have some semblance of a civil discussion.
I didn’t change anyone’s mind; I didn't expect to. I hoped to plant a seed of liberal discourse in Tuckerville. I’m under no illusions that it will grow. But who knows? You have to start somewhere.
I think George, John, Carolyn, and Bryan are “good people," good enough to keep talking to, even if it may be difficult, and in some cases fruitless. The alternative is bad journalism and arrogance, if not civil war.