On Not Meeting Nazis Halfway
When Trump won the 2016 election—while losing the popular vote—the New York Times seemed obsessed with running features about what Trump voters were feeling and thinking. These pieces treated them as both an exotic species and people it was our job to understand, understand being that word that means both to comprehend and to grant some sort of indulgence to. Now that Trump has lost the 2020 election, the Los Angeles Times has given their editorial page over to letters from Trump voters, who had exactly the sort of predictable things to say we have been hearing for far more than four years, thanks to the New York Times and what came to seem like about 11,000 other news outlets hanging on the every word of every white supremacist they could convince to go on the record.
The letters editor headed this section with, “In my decade editing this page, there has never been a period when quarreling readers have seemed so implacably at odds with each other, as if they get their facts and values from different universes. As one small attempt to bridge the divide, we are providing today a page full of letters from Trump supporters.” The implication is the usual one: we—urban multiethnic liberal-to-radical only-partly-Christian America—need to spend more time understanding MAGA America. The demands do not go the other way. Fox and Ted Cruz and the Federalist have not chastised their audiences, I feel pretty confident, with urgings to enter into discourse with, say, Black Lives Matter activists, rabbis, imams, abortion providers, undocumented valedictorians, or tenured lesbians. When only half the divide is being tasked with making the peace, there is no peace to be made, but there is a unilateral surrender on offer. We are told to consider this bipartisanship, but the very word means both sides abandon their partisanship, and Mitch McConnell and company have absolutely no interest in doing that.
Paul Waldman wrote a valuable column in the Washington Post a few years ago, in which he pointed out that this discord is valuable fuel to right-wing operatives: “The assumption is that if Democrats simply choose to deploy this powerful tool of respect, then minds will be changed and votes will follow. This belief, widespread though it may be, is stunningly naive.” He notes that the sense of being disrespected “doesn’t come from the policies advocated by the Democratic Party, and it doesn’t come from the things Democratic politicians say. Where does it come from? An entire industry that’s devoted to convincing white people that liberal elitists look down on them. The right has a gigantic media apparatus that is devoted to convincing people that liberals disrespect them, plus a political party whose leaders all understand that that idea is key to their political project and so join in the chorus at every opportunity.”
There’s also often a devil’s bargain buried in all this, that you flatter and, yeah, respect these white people who think this country is theirs by throwing other people under the bus—by disrespecting immigrants and queer people and feminists and their rights and views. And you reinforce that constituency’s sense that they matter more than other people when you pander like this, and pretty much all the problems we’ve faced over the past four years, to say nothing of the last five hundred, come from this sense of white people being more important than nonwhites, Christians than non-Christians, native-born than immigrant, male than female, straight than queer, cis-gender than trans.
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Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito just complained that “you can’t say that marriage is a union between one man and one woman. Now it’s considered bigotry.” This is a standard complaint of the right: the real victim is the racist who has been called a racist, not the victim of his racism, the real oppression is to be impeded in your freedom to oppress. And of course Alito is disingenuous; you can say that stuff against marriage equality (and he did). Then other people can call you a bigot, because they get to have opinions too, but in his scheme such dissent is intolerable, which is fun coming from a member of the party whose devotees wore “fuck your feelings” shirts at its rallies and popularized the term “snowflake.”
Nevertheless, we get this hopelessly naïve version of centrism, of the idea that if we’re nicer to the other side there will be no other side, just one big happy family. This inanity is also applied to the questions of belief and fact and principle, with some muddled cocktail of moral relativism and therapists’ “everyone’s feelings are valid” applied to everything. But the truth is not some compromise halfway between the truth and the lie, the fact and the delusion, the scientists and the propagandists. And the ethical is not halfway between white supremacists and human rights activists, rapists and feminists, synagogue massacrists and Jews, xenophobes and immigrants, delusional transphobes and trans people. Who the hell wants unity with Nazis until and unless they stop being Nazis?
I think our side, if you’ll forgive my ongoing shorthand and binary logic, has something to offer everyone and we can and must win in the long run by offering it, and offering it via better stories and better means to make those stories reach everyone. We actually want to see everyone have a living wage, access to healthcare, and lives unburdened by medical, student, and housing debt. We want this to be a thriving planet when the babies born this year turn 80 in 2100. But the recommended compromise means abandoning and diluting our stories, not fortifying and improving them (and finding ways for them to actually reach the rest of America, rather than having them warped or shut out altogether). I’ve spent much of my adult life watching politicians like Bill Clinton and, at times, Barack Obama sell out their own side to placate the other, with dismal results, and I pray that times have changed enough that Joe Biden will not do it all over again.
Among the other problems with the LA Times’s editor’s statement is that one side has a lot of things that do not deserve to be called facts, and their values are too often advocacy for harming many of us on the other side. Not to pick on one news outlet: Sunday, the Washington Post ran a front-page sub-head about the #millionMAGAmarch that read “On stark display in the nation’s capital were two irreconcilable versions of America, each refusing to accept what the other considered to be undeniable fact.” Except that one side did have actual facts, notably that Donald J. Trump lost the election, and the other had hot and steamy delusions.
I can comprehend, and do, that lots of people don’t believe climate change is real, but is there some great benefit in me listening, again, to those who refuse to listen to the global community of scientists and see the evidence before our eyes? A lot of why the right doesn’t “understand” climate change is that climate change tells us everything is connected, everything we do has far-reaching repercussions, and we’re responsible for the whole, a message at odds with their idealization of a version of freedom that smells a lot like disconnection and irresponsibility. But also climate denial is the result of fossil fuel companies and the politicians they bought spreading propaganda and lies for profit, and I understand that better than the people who believe it. If half of us believe the earth is flat, we do not make peace by settling on it being halfway between round and flat. Those of us who know it’s round will not recruit them through compromise. We all know that you do better bringing people out of delusion by being kind and inviting than by mocking them, but that’s inviting them to come over, which is not the same thing as heading in their direction.
The editor spoke of facts, and he spoke of values. In the past four years too many members of the right have been emboldened to carry out those values as violence. One of the t-shirts at the #millionMAGAmarch this weekend: “Pinochet did nothing wrong.” Except stage a coup, torture and disappear tens of thousands of Chileans, and violate laws and rights. A right-wing conspiracy to overthrow the Michigan government and kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer was recently uncovered, racists shot some Black Lives Matter protestors and plowed their cars into a lot of protests this summer. The El Paso anti-immigrant massacre was only a year ago; the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre two years ago, the Charlottesville white-supremacist rally in which Heather Heyer was killed three years ago (and of course there have been innumerable smaller incidents all along). Do we need to bridge the divide between Nazis and non-Nazis? Because part of the problem is that we have an appeasement economy, a system that is supposed to be greased by being nice to the other side.
Appeasement didn’t work in the 1930s and it won’t work now. That doesn’t mean that people have to be angry or hate back or hostile, but it does mean they have to stand on principle and defend what’s under attack. There are situations in which there is no common ground worth standing on, let alone hiking over to. If Nazis wanted to reach out and find common ground and understand us, they probably would not have had that tiki-torch parade full of white men bellowing “Jews will not replace us” and, also, they would not be Nazis. Being Nazis, white supremacists, misogynists, transphobes is all part of a project of refusing to understand as part of refusing to respect. It is a minority position but by granting it deference we give it, over and over, the power of a majority position.
In fact the whole Republican Party, since long before Trump, has committed itself to the antidemocratic project of trying to create a narrower electorate rather than win a wider vote. They have invested in voter suppression as a key tactic to win, and the votes they try to suppress are those of Black voters and other voters of color. That is a brutally corrupt refusal to allow those citizens the rights guaranteed to them by law. Having failed to prevent enough Black people from voting in the recent election, they are striving mightily to discard their votes after the fact. What do you do with people who think they matter more than other people? Catering to them reinforces that belief, that they are central to the nation’s life, they are more important, and their views must prevail. Deference to intolerance feeds intolerance.
Years ago the linguist George Lakoff wrote that Democrats operate as kindly nurturance-oriented mothers to the citizenry, Republicans as stern discipline-oriented fathers. But the relationship between the two parties is a marriage, between an overly deferential wife and an overbearing and often abusive husband (think of how we got our last two Supreme Court justices and failed to get Merrick Garland). The Hill just ran a headline that declared “GOP Senators say that a Warren nomination would divide Republicans.” I am pretty sure they didn’t run headlines that said, “Democratic Senators say a Pompeo (or Bolton or Perdue or Sessions) nomination would divide Democrats.” I grew up in an era where wives who were beaten were expected to do more to soothe their husbands and not challenge them, and this carries on as the degrading politics of our abusive national marriage.
Some of us don’t know how to win. Others can’t believe they ever lost or will lose or should, and their intransigence constitutes a kind of threat. That’s why the victors of the recent election are being told in countless ways to go grovel before the losers. This unilateral surrender is how misogyny and racism are baked into a lot of liberal and centrist as well as right-wing positions, this idea that some people need to be flattered and buffered even when they are harming the people who are supposed to do the flattering and buffering, even when they are the minority, even when they’re breaking the law or lost the election. Lakoff didn’t quite get to the point of saying that this nation lives in a household full of what domestic abuse advocates call coercive control, in which one partner’s threats, intimidations, devaluations, and general shouting down control the other.
This is what marriages were before feminism, with the abused wife urged to placate and soothe the furious husband. Feminism is good for everything, and it’s a good model for seeing that this is both outrageous and a recipe for failure. It didn’t work in marriages, and it never was the abused partner’s job to prevent the abuse by surrendering ground and rights and voice. It is not working as national policy either. Now is an excellent time to stand on principle and defend what we value, and I believe it’s a winning strategy too, or at least brings us closer to winning than surrender does. Also, it’s worth repeating, we won, and being gracious in victory is still being victorious.
Rebecca Solnit’s first media job was in fact-checking and her last book is the memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence. She’s sent a lot of mail to her nieces and nephews during the pandemic.