Why I'm Giving Up on Understanding My Racist White Relative
A perfectly nice, 70-year-plus, elderly white man in a rural part of New England posts an alt-right-themed digital meme to his Facebook page, sporting the words: “I’m proud to be white. I bet no one passes this on because they are scared of be called a racist.” This grammatically incorrect sentence is superimposed on a Confederate flag and is reposted several times on this nice man’s feed. Elsewhere on his Facebook page is an image of President Obama with the words: “Cuts Veterans Assistance by $3 billion, Allocates $5 billion for Syrian Refugees,” and an image of a boy saluting the U.S. flag, with the caption: “Facebook had the NERVE to remove the beloved photo because non-Americans find it ‘hateful.’ “
This man constantly posts similar inflammatory and easily refuted hate-filled assertions common to alt-right and ultraconservative America aimed at immigrants, women and people of color, to his Facebook page, interspersed with cute videos and photos of animals and kids doing funny things. I obsessively check his Facebook page because he is related to me through marriage, and because for all the years I have known him he has been a loving husband, father and grandfather. He is a small-business owner with working-class roots and a nice house. Gagging at the racism and sexism he has seen fit to embrace on social media and trying constantly to reconcile that with the person I know has become a favorite pastime.
I suspect many Americans know others within their circle of family and friends who fit the profile of my relative: perfectly nice Americans who love their families, hug their grandchildren, send their kids checks for their birthdays and even have loving relationships with nonwhite family members like me, while propagating hatred toward those perceived as “others” in their online lives.
In private conversations with many friends who share my values, I’ve learned it is common to have such family members. Those of us who expose the virulence and violence of the alt-right publicly struggle privately with the prevalence of such ideology in our own families. These Americans we know and may love voted for Donald Trump in 2016. They may or may not have admitted this at the dinner table. These are the Americans whose burning resentments Trump brashly embodies and boldly expresses—with little regard for the consequences for the rest of us.
There is a paranoia infecting the conservative mindset that is particularly susceptible to false assertions. The Russian-originating social media accounts aimed at wreaking havoc in the November 2016 elections were treated with much more credibility by those on the right than those on the left. Researchers studying the phenomenon found that “[a]lthough an ideologically broad swath of Twitter users was exposed to Russian Trolls in the period leading up to the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, it was mainly conservatives who helped amplify their message.” In fact, “Conservatives retweeted Russian trolls about 31 times more often than liberals and produced 36x more tweets,” according to the study.
Such false and polarizing posts on social media, together with overtly partisan Fox News anchors on cable television, now have their political views amplified even more by hundreds of local television stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group. Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner revealed in 2016 that Sinclair had “struck a deal” with the presidential campaign to “broadcast their Trump interviews across the country without commentary.” A recent viral mash-up of local news anchors parroting a centrally written script that ironically warned of the dangers of fake news shows that Sinclair has continued to amplify the Trump agenda in numerous ways. In addition to centrally written partisan scripts, the network forces its local stations to air unabashedly pro-Trump commentaries by a former Trump aide named Boris Epshteyn. Trump has rewarded the network by praising it on Twitter in a move seen as essentially green-lighting the company’s impending acquisition of Tribune Media.
There exists a perverse relationship among the White House, the aforementioned constellation of conservative media, and Americans like my relative. All three forces work in symbiosis to affirm each other’s power, fuel a mutual paranoia and assuage fragile egos. What is lost in this unholy triangle is any semblance of reality. Trump, who is one of the biggest purveyors of lies today, has perfected the art of deflecting attention from his own deceit by repeatedly harping on about fake news. It is no coincidence that the script Sinclair mandated its local anchors to read on the air was focused on “fake news,” and included the innocent-sounding sentence “We’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country.”
This perfectly echoes Trump’s own sentiments dismissing mainstream media as fake news even as he constantly disseminates fake news. Indeed, Trump’s goal appears to be to dilute the idea of “fake news” so much that it ultimately becomes meaningless and the distinction between reality and fiction becomes ever more blurred—eventually reduced to an exercise in arbitrariness, as if objective truth were simply a concoction of one’s partisan position. There is an old word for this seemingly new phenomenon: propaganda. When cast within such a frame it becomes easier to accept that we need not make sense of why our family members consume and proliferate nonsense.
I have spent months trying to understand why my relative responds to the wildly preposterous claims he encounters and why he reposts them. In person he does not appear to espouse such values. But online he freely insults and degrades those who look like me—never in his own words, only through the pre-digested vitriol he encounters online. I suspect that if I were to confront him with the fact that most of his Facebook posts are verifiably false he might become defensive or simply deny everything (much as Roseanne Barr, a self-described Trump voter, displayed in her stunning ignorance and vociferous denials in a recent interview about her popular show’s reboot).
There have been many attempts to explain the economic, racial and psychological motivations of Trump voters, and I have read perhaps almost all of them, hoping that I will be able to relate to, or at least understand, the anger my relative feels and why he finds it acceptable to perpetuate outrageous claims. But maybe there is no point in understanding him or the Trump voters who continue to back a dangerous demagogue. In attempting to understand or reconcile with them we risk normalizing that which is utterly not normal.
We need to cast as utterly “abnormal” the hateful rhetoric that Trump and his supporters harbor and express. Racist claims perpetuated in digital memes and fake news stories, anti-immigrant rhetoric that dehumanizes real people and other related pieces of right-wing propaganda cannot remain acceptable. They embody on a very personal level a danger to me, and to the vast numbers of people of color and immigrants like me. We may be related to the paranoid foot soldiers of hate, but we are on opposite sides of an existential crisis, and my right to exist in safety is not a compromise I am willing to make. None of us should be willing to make such a compromise.