Once upon a time, I used to enjoy debating politics with my conservative friends. I found it enjoyable, invigorating, and educational.
We don’t do that any more.
In some cases we remain polite, but now only talk in superficial and anodyne ways—about our kids, sports—and much less frequently than we used to. There are a couple of friends with whom, for years, I carried on a daily, running dialogue about current events. It turned heated and ugly in the summer of 2016 and we all backed off. Now all we do is exchange pleasantries every few months.
With other friends, we have ceased talking completely. I haven’t had any soap operatic “I’ll never speak to you again!” moments, but I haven’t had to, because both of us are disgusted with the other, and neither is up for a veneer of niceties.
I do occasionally argue with one old, archconservative friend (for arbitrary reasons that don’t bear going into), but even that is fraught. Every time we unaccountably get into it, it gets nasty quick, insults are exchanged, and we retreat to neutral corners for months.
Then there are friends with whom I never talked politics in the first place, and with whom I am now afraid to do so. I don’t know for sure how they feel, or how they voted in 2016, but I really don’t want to know, because we have long histories together, and I simply don’t want the peace—or my illusions— destroyed, even if that peace is a mutually agreed upon charade.
What doesn’t exist at all anymore in my world is vigorous, intelligent, civilized debate with right-of-center friends whose opinions I respect even if I don’t agree with them. Now I have that only with strangers, and even that is pretty rare if we’re going to keep the qualifiers “intelligent,” “civilized,” and “respect” in there. And I know I am not alone; I know that many people are dealing with a similar dilemma not just with friends but also within their families.
All of which has forced me to think about the balancing act between friendship and principle. Where is the line? How bad would things have to get in our cold civil war before I could no longer be (ahem) civil to old friends on the other side of the barricades, or them to me? Would it be petulant and self-righteous to throw away (in some cases) decades of friendship just because of partisan differences? Some of these people were like brothers and sisters to me at one time. Do I want to be so churlish and petty, so sanctimonious, as to cut them out of my life over a non-entity as ephemeral as Donald Effing Trump, no matter his accidental starring role in this revival of It Can’t Happen Here?
Or is it the opposite? Is it selfish and unprincipled to maintain a friendship with someone who is complicit in such a monstrous regime, to place those personal relationships ahead of serious moral disagreements about bedrock principles? What even constitutes a bedrock principle that rises to that level and demands that kind of decision?
Do gradations matter? Maybe it would be too hard to be friends with an ICE agent on the Mexican border, no matter how far you go back, but is merely voting for Trump a sufficient dealbreaker?
The questions are complicated and sometimes painful.
And of course, these folks have to answer the same questions about me.
YOUR RACIST FRIEND
Not long ago—like, less than three years—none of this was an issue. Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals: there were stark differences and strong disagreements, but outside of the fanatical extremes, all players were within the realm of normal, reasonable politics, bound by our common loyalty to country and allegiance to the fundamental, communally agreed upon principles of American democracy. Ideological and policy differences rarely rose to the level of a moral quandary that caused people to stop speaking at parties.
You’ll forgive me if I don’t bother with a tedious recap of how one of our two major political parties lost its fucking mind.
But now that these differences have become so polarized and so extreme that they have turned into a kind of battle for the nation’s soul, making nice with the other side can feel less like civility and more like consorting with the enemy.
So where to draw the line?
Clearly there is a level of political turpitude that outweighs any personal connection.
I would not be friends with a Nazi, to take the most extreme example. Support for Trump does not (yet) rise to that level; much as I despise this administration, things would have to get a fair degree worse before I’d make that equivalence. But before any right-leaning folks who might read this leap up and accuse me of hyperbole and so-called Trump Derangement Syndrome, let’s just pause for a moment and take in the fact that we are even discussing the comparison at all.
That’s right: it is necessary for defenders of this president to mount a serious argument about why their hero is not in fact as bad as Adolf Hitler, because the comparison is raised frequently enough by thoughtful observers, and his tendency toward proto-fascist behavior is sufficiently apparent, that it demands addressing.
And it’s true: he hasn’t yet orchestrated the industrialized mass murder of twelve million men, women, and children. Don’t ever say I didn’t concede to Trump supporters when they’re right. (Although he has, arguably, built concentration camps along our southern border. So there’s still time.)
But let’s leave Nazis out of it. I wouldn’t be friends with a Klansman either, and Trump’s racism earns him an honorary Grand Wizardhood at the very least. (Central Park Five anyone?) Is that transferable to his supporters? We’re often told it’s not helpful to demonize the other side, by—say—calling them names, especially “racist,” since weirdly enough, even racists get offended when you call them racists. (Looking at you, Mark Meadows.) It’s one of the most incendiary allegations you can call someone in contemporary American life, even when there is ample evidence to justify it.
But if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably Pepe the Frog.
So short of the open display of swastika armbands and white hoods, how much support for Trump (if any) is tolerable before a friendship has to end?
Supporting him because the tax scam benefits you but opposing the family separation policy at the border? Is that OK, or not? I suppose it’s better than actively cheering the kidnapping of children from their parents, but in other ways it’s even more contemptible, as it bespeaks a unwillingness to break with the administration even over an unconscionably cruel and inhumane policy, so long as you are personally benefiting from other policies.
Obviously, the more tepid and qualified someone’s support for Trump the more readily I could see maintaining some kind of relationship. But even some people I long counted as menschen have defended to me ideas that are absolutely anathema. Is that cause for termination?
I don’t have the answer. If I did, this column would be a lot shorter.
A few conservatives I know have turned against Trump, or never supported him in the first place, so they’re not really germane to this discussion. I welcome them into the resistance with open arms and admire their integrity and courage. (Not quite ready to teach them the secret handshake, though.) Of course, the very term “conservative” is wildly inaccurate. The modern GOP is anything but conservative by the textbook definition; on the contrary, it is a radical reactionary insurgency. I’m using the word only as a convenient if imprecise shorthand for people right of center, which includes not just card-carrying Republicans, but lots of folks who obstinately refuse to identify that way but might as well go to the same tattoo parlor as Roger Stone.
The people I am talking about are more precisely described not as “conservatives” at all but as “Trump supporters,” and even that is fungible. Some voted for the man, with or without reservations, and some have had misgivings to a greater or lesser degree since. (Others have not.) A lot of them want to have their proverbial sheet cake and eat it too, professing dislike for Trump because it’s socially and intellectually uncomfortable to admit otherwise, but defend him at every turn—or at least make excuses—while relentlessly attacking the Democrats, the Mueller probe, the “myth” of Russiagate, etc. (And you won’t believe this, but a lot of them are still pretty incensed over Hillary Clinton.)
Fox Nation likes to talk about RINOs but the opposite, this breed I’ve just described, is just as common: ReTChTOIs, Republicans Too Chicken To Own It. These slippery right wingers are especially maddening as they won’t cop to their allegiance to the party, claiming to be “neutral” and “independent,” but mysteriously never have a good thing to say about the Democrats, and never a discouraging word about Benito.
I can’t say I prefer full-throated MAGA types, but at least they are honest about who they are.
THE WEEK THAT WAS
So a brief reminder then of what our friends on the other side are OK with:
The past week saw Trump’s ill-advised engagement with North Korea end in abject failure—long ago predicted in these pages, not that it required a lot of clairvoyance—capped by the humiliating revelation that Pyongyang has begun rebuilding its Sohae missile site, reportedly ahead of a satellite launch.
We saw the New York Times display six canceled checks from Trump (five with his own seismograph-like psycho killer signature, the other with Don Jr.’s) reimbursing Michael Cohen for hush money payments he made to Trump’s porn star paramour Stormy Daniels, all written while Trump was in office.
We learned—via Jane Mayer’s towering New Yorker article about Fox—that Trump had, out of sheer vindictiveness (and presumably as a favor to Rupert Murdoch), personally intervened to order the DOJ to stop AT&T from buying Time Warner, CNN’s parent company, an act which the conservative columnist Bret Stephens argued was an impeachable offense in and of itself, one that ought to have outraged Republican free marketers more than anyone else.
We also learned that Trump—despite bald-faced public lies to the contrary—personally ordered Top Secret clearances given to his son-in-law and daughter over the objections of US intelligence professionals, a move so alarming that both White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and White House Counsel Don McGahn wrote memoranda for the record registering their opposition. (But her emails!)
Hot on the heels of that revelation, it was also reported that when Kushner traveled to the KSA last month he met with MbS behind closed doors, with no US government personnel present or briefed on what was discussed. The Saudis even provided Jared’s security, shutting the US State Department out entirely. No wonder this guy can’t get a clearance.
We learned that at the very same time in 2011 that Trump was demanding to see Barack Obama’s school transcripts— like a redneck at a polling place insisting on a literacy test—and suggesting that Barack wasn’t smart enough to get into Columbia and Harvard, he had his goons strongarming his own high school and college alma maters to deep six any evidence of his own grades and SAT scores. Wild guess: it’s not because he was so modest and they were too high.
This kind of hypocrisy has come to be so old hat in the Age of Drumpf that we usually don’t even bother to note it, but for some reason this really struck a chord with the public. Maybe it’s that Trump himself usually doesn’t even both to hide his hypocrisy—see golf—and this time he did, signaling that even he knew it was super fucked up.
Most memorable of all, this past week saw a sweat-soaked Trump give an unhinged, free association, Fidel-length rant at CPAC that the mainstream press, having apparently learned nothing from 2016, covered like business as usual with headlines on the order of “Trump Lashes out at Mueller in Lengthy Speech”…..not “Man with Nuclear Codes Is Dangerously Crazy.” As many noted, if your elderly uncle went on a two-hour tear like that, you’d call Bellevue. But, hey, this is just the leader of the free world. No biggie.
(To their credit, several observers noted this disconnect, including Amanda Marcotte and Bob Cesca, both writing in Salon. But the closest most pundits came to critical analysis of the speech was the widespread argument that Trump wasn’t so much crazy as crazy like a fox in playing to his base. As always, a lot of the professional political class gave him the benefit of the doubt as a demagogue genius, rather than seriously considering the ramifications of having someone who is potentially cuckoo-for-Cocoa Puffs in the Oval Office. This treatment of politics as mere gamesmanship is truly poisonous. As Cesca sagely pointed out, even if Trump was engaging in deliberate theater to keep his red meat-loving fans frothing at the collective mouth, it still raises disturbing questions about the judgment of the President of the United States.)
And it’s not just Trump and his early onset dementia displaying this kind of deeply worrying behavior. Also at CPAC, fake PhD but real neo-Nazi Sebastian Gorka compared AOC to Stalin and suggested she wants to take your hamburgers and pickup trucks. But believe it or not, he was outdone by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, responding to increased Congressional oversight and investigation into Trump with a statement accusing the Democratic Party of being “socialists” who want to “kill babies after they’re born.” (Quipped Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine: “As one does when one is innocent and facing an investigation that will definitely not uncover any crimes or wrongdoing.”)
And by Trump standards, this was not even a busy news week.
THE AGE OF HUMPTY DUMPTY
So how do we deal with people for whom none of that merits the batting of an eyelash, particularly when they are not red-hatted abstractions on TV but real, flesh-and-blood people in our own lives? And why is any of it germane, beyond the awkwardness of our own personal relationships?
Because someday we as a country are going to have to pick up the pieces. Are we going to be able to come back together after this period of epic divisiveness?
Now, you might say that, divisiveness-wise, our current moment is nothing compared to, say, the Civil War, but the truth is that we are still dealing with wounds of that war—indeed, those very wounds inform the struggle in which we are now engaged. (See Charlottesville.) We are still dealing with the legacy of slavery, the original sin of these United States, the cancer with which we as a country were born. Related but of more recent vintage, we are still dealing with the backlash to the New Deal—and the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s—which gave us the Reagan Revolution and the United States’ hard swing to the right over the past forty years.
And we will be dealing with the fallout from the con man from Queens for generations to come.
There are major questions about what the long term damage to the republic will look like when the proverbial dust settles, and whether the United States as we once knew it will re-emerge in recognizable form. In that context, asking whether personal friendships now in abeyance will eventually return in something resembling their old forms seems very trivial indeed, except that it is central to the whole issue of healing and reconciliation. Will we as Americans be able to come together to repair the damage, rebuild our democracy, and institute new protections and safeguards to strengthen and defend it going forward?
Naturally, a lot of it will depend on how things play out and just how raw and bitter the wounds wind up being, on both sides.
In the worst case scenario—Don and Kim fall out of love and humanity is incinerated in a global thermonuclear war—it won’t matter.
Short of that but still pretty goddam bad, if the GOP manages to bury the findings of the special counsel and deflect any meaningful Congressional or legal action to address Trump’s crimes and unfitness for office….if Trump manages to win in 2020 and the Republicans retake the House….if the Supreme Court acts as a right wing rubber stamp and gives this cretin something close to unfettered power….if we descend into an authoritarian police state where the administration is unchecked by a self-neutered legislative branch and protected by a toadying judiciary and no longer feels the need to pay even lip service to the rule of law…..if that happens it’s hard to imagine feeling very kindly to erstwhile friends who abetted that descent into dystopia. But our feelings won’t matter much, as we’ll all be in re-education camps watching endless loops of Hannity.
Hysteria? Alarmism? OK—if you say so. Even the reliably progressive Nick Kristof recently published a column praising the tensile strength of American democracy in resisting Trump and downplaying fears of incipient fascism. I hope he is right. I’ll happily look a fool if he is. That is far preferable to a future in which we look back bitterly on that column as hopelessly naïve.
If Kristof is proven correct and justice prevails, if Trump is fairly adjudicated for his crimes and held to account for his manifest betrayal of his oath of office, either by Congressional action or at the ballot box, maybe we will look back on this harrowing period of American history as a valuable test from which we emerged chastened and wiser and maybe even stronger.
But even in that happy scenario, how will we approach our fellow Americans who took Trump’s side and stood by him, and may even continue to defend him after he’s gone? As I wrote last week, even today there remain Nixon loyalists, McCarthy loyalists, Confederate loyalists—tiny pockets to be sure, but there they are. How will we proceed, having had these massive fissures in our nation exposed, revealing deeply disturbing proof of the kind of horrific things many of our fellow citizens believe, and would support, and the lengths to which they would go, and the depths of their contempt for democracy, all tendencies that are not likely to disappear even when Trump does?
Asking for a friend.