by Ben Cohen
Last weekend I arrived at a house warming party of a good friend of mine in Los Angeles. I was in California for my friend and co-worker Chez Pazienza's memorial service, and used the rest of my time to catch up with old friends I knew when I lived there 6 years ago.
Upon arrival, I was greeted by a pretty, middle aged Haitian woman, whom I'll call Elise for the sake of this piece (not her real name). From first impressions, Elise was friendly, very sociable and engaging. I joined her and another elder white woman, who I'll call Janet (not her real name) on a table near to the kitchen where most of the other guests were gathered, and after a few pleasantries quickly dived into a conversation about drug addiction and its impact on relationships. Both women were thoughtful and articulate about the subject -- Janet came from a pretty terrible background and had witnessed a lot of drug and alcohol abuse, and Elise, who had lived in Los Angeles for a number of years, had seen much of it herself. While Elise came from a very wealthy family in Haiti, she seemed to be empathetic towards people's suffering and I found her to be sincere.
Being in L.A, I simply presumed they were both Democrats who would find Donald Trump abhorrent. As the conversation moved on though, I began to notice some odd quirks in both of the women. As we began talking about the dangers of alcohol and the bad decisions young people can make while drinking, Janet told me that the first thing she told her son about going to college was that he mustn't have sex with girls who are drinking.
"They'll accuse you of rape," she told him. "Back in the day, young people would just hook up. But now all these feminists are calling this rape".
Elise nodded her head in agreement. Taken aback, I asked her what she meant.
"Well, I'm just saying that women should take responsibility. If they are dressed like sluts and go out drinking, guys will take advantage. Young men are just horny and they are looking to get laid and relieve their hormones."
"So you're saying girls these days are asking to get raped?" I replied, still in shock.
"I'm saying they share some responsibility. These feminists have turned the whole thing around."
"Hold on, so you're saying women share responsibility for getting themselves raped, and feminists have changed the definition of rape so it's not really rape?" I asked. "Are you talking about actual rape, or something else?"
She seemed stumped.
Elise and Janet then began to talk about Muslim men raping women in Sweden.
"It's awful," said Janet. "They are coming into Sweden and raping women and liberals aren't talking about it."
Elise then jumped in. "I heard that, and that's why we have to be so strict on immigration. I want to know why the media isn't reporting on it."
Familiar with the story and the myths perpetuated by the right wing media, I interjected.
"Firstly, the story has been overblown and the focus on Muslims is creating unnecessary hostility towards some of the most vulnerable refugees in the world. Secondly, I want to get this right -- it is rape if a Muslim man does it, but not if a drunk American frat boy does it?"
Both Janet and Elise didn't want to answer the question and continued talking about immigration and not letting Muslims into the country. It then dawned on me that I was talking to two Trump supporters, and I settled myself in for a long, difficult conversation.
"CNN lie all the time," Elise told me. "It's the Clinton News Network".
"Okay, can you give me an example of a lie they told?" I asked.
"Yes, when they reported on her defending a child rapist as a young attorney, they added that "she was just doing her job"," she answered.
"Wait, where's the lie?" I asked.
"Why are they telling me that she was just doing her job? They are just supposed to report the news," she shot back.
"Well, they were providing context to the story," I answered. "That's part of good reporting -- to provide context to the story you are reporting on so it isn't seen in a vacuum. And they were entirely correct, Clinton was just doing her job, so in what way did they lie?"
Elise didn't want to answer the question, but continued saying that CNN was a fake news organization. "They lied about the polls," she declared.
"No they didn't," I answered. "They reported on the polls that turned out to be wrong. There's no evidence whatsoever that they created fictitious polls. If there is, please show me."
Elise got on her phone to google it, and after a minute or so, changed the subject again.
"Hillary Clinton took money from heads of state for the Clinton Foundation, and CNN didn't report on any of that," she stated bluntly.
"No, she didn't," I replied. "Hillary Clinton wasn't on the board of the Clinton Foundation while she held office and has never taken a salary from it. So that's just factually wrong."
"I've read articles that say that isn't true," replied Elise. "I think it's shady".
"Okay, if you have some evidence that she took money from heads of state, then I'd be keen to read it," I said. "We looked into this story last year and found no evidence of any wrong doing whatsoever, and neither did any reputable media organization".
"Well I don't believe it. I still think it's shady."
"So based on no evidence whatsoever, you are going to believe in something that is demonstrably wrong?" I asked.
"It's my opinion," she replied.
"Right, but it's based on no evidence so can't be taken seriously."
Looking a little flustered, Elise moved on.
"I'm an immigrant from Haiti, and I think Trump is right. You have to come here legally," she said. "A lot of people are coming here and not paying into the system".
Not wanting to get involved in a pointless argument about immigration, I shot back,
"Well unless you are a native American, we're all here illegally."
To her credit, Elise took the point and half heartedly agreed. A friend of mine, Ed, then joined the conversation, and we both began to ask Elise some questions. By this point, Janet had grown tired of the spirited debate and moved into a different room. I was grateful to be honest, because keeping track of the nonsense both of them were spouting was becoming extremely exhausting. Dealing with one Trump supporter was more than enough.
Ed and I asked Elise about the environment, and why she thought Donald Trump would be better than Hillary Clinton. Her answer? Again, the fictitious lies.
"Hillary Clinton is a liar, so she'd be bad for everything," said Elise.
"Okay, so what has she lied about?" Ed asked her.
"About everything. About her emails, about Benghazi. The list is endless."
"You do know that she has been cleared in five federal investigations of all of these Republican based allegations?" I asked her. "And several of them were headed by Republicans themselves".
"I believe she is a liar," answered Elise.
"Based on no evidence," interjected Ed. "And we know for certain that Donald Trump is a liar. He lies on a daily basis about literally everything, and you don't seem concerned about that."
"I am concerned, but I want to know what we do to move forward," she answered. "I care about the same issues you do, I want a clean environment, and I want to help the poor".
"You could start by not supporting him," I said. "He wants to get rid of the EPA and has hired someone to run it who doesn't believe in global warming, so he's provably worse on the environment than Hillary Clinton. Can you accept that?
"You don't know that," she replied.
"No, I do know that," I said pointedly. "Hillary Clinton believes in global warming and wouldn't have hired a skeptic to run the country's environmental agency."
"Yes, but she's a liar so you don't know what she would have done."
At that point I realized there was little point in continuing the conversation. We ended the debate civilly and I promised to send her some links to articles about Trump's ties to Wall Street. She certainly seemed a little less sure of herself after the two hour back and forth, but I sensed she hadn't really taken on board much of what we had been saying, save for Trump's position on the environment that had bothered her.
As I drove home later that night, it occurred to me that we are dealing with a very, very serious problem in America, and one that cannot be solved quickly. Elise and Janet were not bad people, but they had not been taught how to think critically or evaluate evidence. They based political beliefs on their feelings -- itself not a bad thing, but without critical thinking guiding those feelings, their beliefs become little more than egoic reactions. Minds that haven't benefitted from good schooling and lively intellectual environments are prone to becoming infected by political charlatans selling easy solutions to all their problems. Decades of poor education, MTV, Fox News and now hate sites like Breitbart.com have created a population extremely vulnerable to what can be likened to a deadly mental virus. The Alt-Right/Trump movement is like a computer operating system gone wrong -- it gets downloaded onto vulnerable computing systems and creates all sorts of dysfunctional behaviors.
Elise troubled me the most that night. I couldn't understand how a black, female immigrant could support someone like Trump -- a man who rose to power on a platform vilifying, stereotyping and disrespecting people like her. She presented a perplexing paradox that still gnaws at me, and I am unsure as to how to go about helping to remedying it. My instinct tells me that while the left must fight hard against the Trump administration, they must also attempt to engage with its supporters, however fruitless it might seem. Because once we stop talking to each other, we become "others" -- the very mindset the left abhors in Donald Trump. We win when we refuse to engage in the labeling, discriminating and vilifying. And that also means Trump supporters, who are also victims in all of this.