After the election was called for Joe Biden, I stopped thinking about US politics for what felt like the first time in four and a half years.
This was a 10/10 experience, and it lasted until earlier this afternoon, when I went to a South Austin coffeeshop for Can A Fracturing America Heal? [In Person Version], one of several Meetups I’d signed up for in a surge of high spirits on New Year’s Eve.
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, I’d met a girl who had made an expedition to several red states, armed with a VR camera and hoping that the interviews she brought back to San Francisco could “do some small part to heal the growing divide in our country”. Myself, I’d made comments to the effect that “going on a date with a Trump supporter” was on my Texas bucket list, but I resigned myself to the fact that Austin, like every other urban county in the United States, leaned reliably left. The Austinites I’d previously met were almost indistinguishable from coastal liberals, except with more tattoos, more stories about firearms, and more opinions about barbeque.
I was expecting more of the same from the afternoon’s event, until I approached the table and heard, “I have plenty of friends who listen to the mainstream media, and the problem is that they believe them.”
Seven other people surrounded the table. Mostly men; mostly white; mostly older; mostly conservative, libertarian, or “I used to be a liberal, but…”
None wore masks.
Our conversation was messy, irregular, and occasionally bewildering in the way only large group discussions can be. It was also one of the most eye-opening I’d had in a long time.
One man started the discussion by lamenting the degree of exclusion he’d experienced as a straight, white, Trump supporter, complaining, “I can’t have hobbies. I used to do theater which, you know… Lots of gays. And I never minded them all the years I was doing it, but now I’m not welcome anymore.” When someone interrupted with, “You never thought about converting?” The 55-year-old member of the Travis County Republican Party countered, “I never did, but I had some good offers,” and the table roared.
The group talked about Alex Jones (“I met him in person, and used to follow him, before he got really weird”), Donald Trump (“prone to hyperbole and getting worse, but the deep state and the media have been out to get him since day one”), and Black Lives Matter (“I went for the marches myself after I saw what they did to George Floyd, but then the movement was co-opted by radicals.” “Did you know the organization was started by Marxists?”)
All agreed that police brutality was a problem, favoring the second amendment as protection against an increasingly tyrannical state. All got excited when someone claimed to know a gay, black, Republican gun store owner on the outskirts of the city (“you have to give me the address, I’d love to go!” “Does he sell rainbow guns?”) I was surprised when someone mentioned Sarah Jeong and the New York Times (“I remember being upset because I could not believe they would cover up for someone who had said things like that”). There was some dunking on AOC (“she doesn’t understand things and wants to just print money.” “She wants to make a list of Trump supporters and that’s what scares me!”) and some acknowledgement of Bernie (“I don’t like his ideas but they stole the election from him”). The topic of Texas secession made an appearance.
Some were furious at the hypocrisy of the CDC (“for months they called me a granny killer and now they’re making vaccine decisions that will literally kill people!”) Many were afraid of what they saw as a growing intolerance and slide toward authoritarianism on the left (“they’re always screaming ‘trust the experts’ but they just mean the experts on their side”). All were concerned that the fortunes of billionaires had soared during a year when families and small businesses had suffered.
One person said, “the fascists actually made things much better in Germany, they just got too expansionist,” and the group hesitated. I sensed that an invisible line had been crossed.
Towards the end of the conversation, with half the group remaining, all confessed a belief that the United States was heading towards a World War II-esque economic and civilizational collapse.
I haven’t discussed my own participation so far, because I was much more interested in hearing what my new companions had to say. But each time I spoke, it became clearer to everyone at the table that I was the most left-leaning participant in the discussion. The organizer started interrupting impassioned monologues about the actions and intentions of liberals with “I’m curious what you think,” causing the unmasked faces around the table to fall silent and turn towards me.
I found myself in the unexpected position of being a spokesperson for mask policy, social media suppression of the Hunter Biden story, and the Fed’s decision to fight the pandemic by turning on the money printer.
On the first two issues, my explanations seemed reasonably well received, or else everyone was too polite to challenge me to my face. But I don’t think I changed any minds, and I definitely failed to convince anyone that a Rube Goldberg machine hadn’t been set off that would lead the United States, inevitably, to hyperinflation.
At the beginning of the discussion, we all agreed that a reasonable first step to bridging the gap between any two sides would be identifying a set of common beliefs. We quickly discovered how few beliefs were common even at our little table. The fracturing of the media ecosystem had left many of us with no common elements in our information diets whatsoever.
Three hours later, we had discovered, maybe, several shared values, but no shared beliefs. The difficulty involved in finding the barest sliver of common ground between opposing parties with the best of intentions seemed enormous.
I felt like I had finally experienced American Thanksgiving.
I said my goodbyes, and drove home with the radio off.