A disease claims another victim: How I lost my dad to FOX News
My dad’s been my hero for a long time.
I don't think that's out of the ordinary for someone that was fortunate enough to grow up with loving parents. But, still- it’s something I cherished. A relationship I knew plenty of others weren’t lucky enough to have. He taught me how to always listen to what folks have to say, and never be afraid to ask for advice, because everyone has something they can teach you. He was always positive, and even when we didn’t agree on things, we always got along.
My dad has led an interesting life. He’s a Vietnam veteran, and in the 1960s, he was a staunch Democrat. Vociferously anti-war after he was discharged, he became an activist- even ending up on one of J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO lists. He was also a mover and shaker of some note in the Iowa Democratic Party, a staunch Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy supporter who never got over the “backdoor, smoke and cigar filled room” way that Humphrey badgered his way to the nomination in ‘68.
Then, he followed the same line too many farm and rust-belt Democrats did, something my friend Sarah Smarsh details beautifully in her book, “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth”:
Reagan said that big, private money would “trickle down” to us through the economy, as though we were standing outside with our mouths open praying for money to rain. Reagan was big on states’ rights and deregulation, which appealed to the government-weary streak of my people. Back then, conservatism made some fair claims about keeping government out of people’s lives, a noble enough idea in a country that won its independence from an oppressive monarchy.
It’s easy to see now, looking back on it forty years later, that those claims (“Voodoo economics!”) were always laughable on their face- serving only as a mask for situational ethics and moral relativism in the pursuit of winning at all costs. But it was a siren song for folks like my dad. A line baited with some delicious truth (“The government shouldn’t be sticking its nose in your business!”) that hid a wickedly sharp hook.
Turns out that keeping government out of the private sector could lead to a different sort of oppression, where the Federal policies that helped create the middle class were destroyed to make way for corporate rule in which billionaires bought politicians and made the rules. But it was always a long con game for those folks. If you adjust for inflation, my dad (a high-school graduate) made more money in 1980 on a single income than my wife and I (both nurses with Bachelor’s Degrees) make combined.
So Dad could take a look at what he’d done to get where he was, hear the arguments made by the Republicans, and think, “Hey! Makes perfect sense to me!” And he became one of the off-mentioned “Reagan Democrats,” that had, by the time I was born, migrated fully into an unyielding Republican.
Dad’s always been an intelligent guy. To be fair, here, the TV in our living room only picked up three channels on a clear day, of which one was PBS- but growing up, I remember sitting with him watching documentaries and science shows galore. NOVA, Cosmos, Ken Burns- the man ate those up, and shared his love for learning with me. He’d also read the National Review, pick up the latest book by George Will, etc- anything discussing the latest treatise on small government conservatism, or the latest thing that the conservative Intelligentsia was talking about in their policy shops.
As the years progressed, the Republican party began its descent into pure tribalism, making the thin veneer of “conservative principles” and pseudo-libertarianism less and less necessary to keep up. My dad and I would butt heads, and though we still disagreed more often than not, he’d concede plenty of my points. He’d note unhappily that the Bush Administration was doing very few things he’d call “conservative”, or grumble that I was right about whatever argument I’d made- and would own up when he was wrong.
But that’s the kind of guy my dad was. One of those people who say “I don’t agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” and actually mean it. Who would poke holes in your logic with a cutting rhetorical wit a trial lawyer would envy. He would grumble and be upset when he was wrong, but it always stopped there.
The last time I really remember connecting with dad in that fashion was when he told me the story of attending a 2012 Romney Election Night watch party. In a tone that vacillated between subdued shock and disgust, he told me that what he’d witnessed that night was reminiscent of “1984”. “The Tea Party folks, man,” he told me, “they’ve just totally lost it.”
I wish I could point to a place, between then and now, where I knew it was truly going downhill. Maybe I could have done something to intervene. That’s something I’ve been kicking myself about. I’ve read stories like this one many times before; always sympathetically, but thinking, “Well, at least it’ll never happen to me.”
There were warning signs galore; signs I was ignoring because I just didn’t think they could be true. I knew he had more and more free time he was filling up with something, one thing of which I knew was Fox News, but my dad was too intelligent. Surely he wouldn’t fill his whole day with that.
We started to have more curt endings to our political discussions. He started to engage in more recursive logic. But I still did a few things to try and stem the potential tide. I asked my dad to read the books “The Death of Expertise” by Tom Nichols, and “Everything Trump Touches Dies” by Rick Wilson; almost dared him too. And though we had great conversations about each, discussing politics with my dad was still less of an exchange of ideas and more of a verbal minefield where one wrong step could set off an explosion.
Last spring, I had some sincere hope, when I wrote an article titled “My dad's a Fox News watching Texan. What he said about Pete Buttigieg stunned me.” You can see the hints there, too. But when he told me how much he liked Mayor Pete, I thought, well- look. There’s my dad. Sure, he’s watching more Fox News than I’d like. A lot more. A LOT more. But he can still break through the noise. He’s still paying attention and calling out BS!
A few weeks after I wrote that article, the subject of Mayor Pete came up again, and dad angrily waved it off. “He’s a jerk,” Dad said, referring to Pete. “A fraud.”
I was puzzled. “Didn’t you just tell me how great a guy he was?!” I asked him, incredulously. “You even said you were gonna donate to him!”
“That,” my dad spat back at me, “was before-” and immediately dove into an in-depth “critique” of Mayor Pete… catalogued by which Fox News personality had said it, and on what show.
Here I was in active denial, the kind where you refuse to look at your bank account statement because you know you can’t deal with what it’s going to say, so you pretend all is well and quickly look for something else to do to take your mind off it. I thought, well. Maybe I didn’t call him enough or do enough to engage him. Surely I’m not fighting a losing rearguard action here.
A recent conversation in regards to impeachment is what brought it all tumbling down.
I won’t go into the whole mish-mash here; it’ll be familiar to anyone who’s had one of these conversations with a family member, and it’s all recursive logic, so. Not worth replaying in whole. Some highlights, though, all of which my Dad would note relevant Fox citations for:
- Mentioning Jimmy Carter selling his peanut farm brought the retort that, well, it wasn’t okay for a President to profit off personal ventures in 1976, but “times have changed” and “it’s just the way things are now” in regards to corruption in general
- Being assured the spending at Trump Turnberry by the Department of Defense started in earnest during the Obama administration, and what was happening now was merely a continuation of that
- A fiery indictment of Trump never having had to work a hard day in his life- where I gave examples of my dad and I both having to do that our whole lives- brought the rebuttal that white-collar managers often put in long hours and do stuff the blue collar folks don’t see, which I think is a variant of the “twelfth dimensional chess” argument in regards to Trump.
But the kicker for me was a comment made during cross-talk, when we were both arguing points simultaneously, that made me stop cold. “The only person who’s been more put upon in their life,” my dad told me, in reference to Trump, “who was more hated just for who they were instead of what they did, was Jesus Christ.”
Yes, as in, Donald Trump is the modern equivalent of Jesus Christ,
Just… no words.
I got no words.
I love my dad with all my heart- nothing will ever change that. But to see what Fox News has done to the man I once knew was more than a body blow; it was a blow to my heart and soul.
It illustrates the stakes for all of us. How easy it is when powerful groups use their entire effort to tear everything down around them. I’ve known this man for thirty-four years. I trace a hell of a lot of my political sentiments and the fact I’m running for office at all to him and the high-minded notions he taught me about what our Republic stands for, about standing up and fighting for people who can’t, giving voice to the voiceless… all wrought asunder by weaponized and non-stop invective.
It’s a campaign of rhetorical terrorism, one they have to wage because they know they cannot win with the truth; they cannot win because the vast majority of Americans stand against them.
It’s a fight we have to undertake with one hand tied behind our back, because we have to refuse to engage in the kind of tactics they do every day. That puts us at an immediate disadvantage. But we cannot engage in a race to the bottom with these folks, because they are experts at racing to the bottom, and will always win.
We have to fight our fight. We have to fight for the progressive values that are the new American center. We have to fight to make things better for every American family, in every zip code and every corner of the country. To lift everyone up instead of tearing everyone down.
We can, and we will, get it done- but only working hand-in-hand. Only through enormous effort. And we will not fail, because the consequences for doing so are too dire.
We will fight. We will win. And we will bring progress to our country- together.