It’s distressing how closed-minded and hateful people have become.

Specifically, my people.

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of our president. I recognized decades ago that he was a media-hyped jerk while assigned to read his book “The Art of the Deal” by a conservative-leaning history teacher my junior year in high school. I didn’t see the point in reading an entire book by some real estate guy bragging about his own genius the whole time.

It’s clear to me now that I was just one of many fertile minds sitting in that classroom being groomed for a new Republican rule. While the worship of Trumpism did not take root in my ideological belief system, it clearly did in some of my small town Alabama classmates, who would go on to watch “The Apprentice” weekly on the TV — a thought growing in the back of their heads that, yeah, we should let this successful businessman have a crack at fixing what’s broken in America so we can all get rich too.

Maybe it was my career experience working in television and helping to produce programs that dispelled this fantasy that there’s anything real about reality TV.

For millions of others, the seed was planted, it grew and took root. So deeply so that the idea that it was all just bullshit is deeply painful and offensive. If Donald Trump isn’t actually a genius tycoon who boldly tells the less worthy they’re fired, what else that they’ve believed for a generation is just fiction?

Faced with contradictory information, the mind revolts and resentment grows. Eventually, of course, our nation will learn the actual depths of Donald Trump’s depravity, corruption and incompetence – assuming we aren’t destroyed by nuclear war first – but even when confronted with the full case against our president, many will go to their graves believing he’s a good man unfairly attacked by people who just can’t stand that he’s trying to make America great again.

How We Got Here

I’ve been so shocked and angered by the exploits of Trump & Co. that I’ve dedicated a good bit of time volunteering to put my marketing and content creation skills to work for my local Democratic Party club.

Boy, did they need the help.

Which is not to criticize the good people who’ve built that organization and are working hard to breathe new life and energy into its works. They’ve become good friends of mine, and we are all working hard to make the club relevant after several years of losing ground to the ruthless Republican machine.

When I first moved back to my hometown from college, EVERY politician save one, Judge Clyde Traylor, was a Democrat. The Democratic Primary was THE election, with the General Election being a formality. I viewed a lot of those candidates with skepticism as a newspaper reporter covering local elections.

I fancied myself something of a Republican back then, emulating the coolness of Michael J. Fox’s Alex P. Keaton on the show “Family Ties” about a couple of former hippies dismayed by their son’s worship of money.

Of course, I wanted to be rich and successful, and I somewhat lacked the life experience to recognize that the Alex character was being used ironically as a critique of the Reagan era’s excesses and dismantling of the social safety net.

Beyond my TV set, something was happening, slowly but surely, as Nixon’s Southern Strategy appealed to more and more voters put off by the suggestion that blacks deserved the same rights as whites. That’s not to say that Republicans are all racists, but it does seem that all racists appear to be Republican.

Fox News came along and convinced them, day by day over a couple of decades, that Democrats were just a bunch of wacky, out-of-touch extremists who welcomed deviant homosexuals, promoted getting wives out of the kitchen and into the front office, and wanted to rapidly change everything so that the familiar, the traditional and the sacred became unrecognizable. Their Christianity would become less relevant in an increasingly secular world where they were expected to accommodate other faiths or the right of others to not be proselytized to save them from certain damnation. They were sold the notion that their way of life would lead to social ostracization if they did not elect like-minded people to public office and fight back.

And brother, did it work!

So much so that the people who remain Democrats feel a bit intimidated now by the scores of mostly rural folks who look upon the Democratic Party with a seething disdain. Business owners hide the fact that they tend to vote Democrat out of fear that their customers will take their business elsewhere. They offer to write checks to support the party as long as no one finds out.

If I had any sense as someone attempting to start up a business here, I’d hold my tongue and be a cheerleader like everyone else. If only I had the capacity to ignore what’s happening in the world and keep quiet!

The fact that we are in a small town where everybody knows everybody else’s business is weaponized.

A couple of young men mocking protestors at a Donald Trump rally in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 2018.

I can’t post about an event for the Democratic Club on Facebook without a half dozen or more people I don’t even know posting hateful responses accusing Democrats of being an organization dedicated to the “destruction of America,” echoing the rhetoric of Limbaugh, Hannity and the rest of the right-wing media chorus.

They are trolls, every bit as much as the person who uses the anonymity of the internet to leave hateful comments in YouTube comments for the pure sport of causing someone else discomfort.

Free speech is an American right, of course. I’d argue that free speech is the very ingredient that keeps our union from cracking apart from division.

But there are consequences for such reckless speech, as we saw a few months ago when a gunman took the president’s criticisms of Hispanic migrants to heart and turned an El Paso Wal-Mart into a killing field.

There’s nothing compelling Republicans to reply to my posts with hate-filled diatribes about how Democrats are “baby killers” or “socialist commies.” Nothing but a desire to “own a lib” and get in a hurtful dig at someone who has committed the horrible sin of not submitting to the area groupthink.

There’s a hunger to “get” the better of Democrats, who’ve become politically acceptable surrogates for gays, women, and minorities eager to gain greater social tolerance. I’m a straight white male southerner, but I’ll still get lumped in there for political expediency. I guess it doesn’t help that I naturally advocate on behalf of the underdog, as I did when Republicanism was largely an irrelevant “also ran” in northern Alabama.

Republicans call liberals, progressives, and Democrats “snowflakes,” yet THEY seem to be the ones who can’t go on about their day without putting in their two cents to insult us on our own social media pages and posts. They are the ones who boycott late-night TV comedians because they routinely mock the absurdity of Donald Trump running the free world.

I don’t go onto the timelines of my conservative friends (yes, I have some) to tell them they are wrong and insult them. Not usually, anyway. I don’t invite provocative attacks where other conservatives join in to attack me with a barrage of insults and name-calling that would make Daddy Trump proud.

I’ll defend myself, but I don’t purposely go around attacking others for their beliefs. If I ever have, I apologize for doing so.

The frustrating part is that Republicans don’t always indulge in such things as facts or shame. That’s quite liberating, provided you can look yourself in the mirror and sleep at night. If they ever do find a legitimate point to criticize, they hammer it into the ground with nationalistic zeal.

Dark Days of Fear and Division

While planning a recent event for the Democratic Club to register new voters, I grew concerned that we needed to hire an off-duty police officer to maintain a presence by the entrance, just in case some Trump follower felt tempted to show up with his assault rifle over his shoulder to intimidate people or, Lord forbid, arrived intent to kill some Democrats.

Yes, it has gotten THAT bad in rural north Alabama.

Perhaps this fear was only in my mind, but it wasn’t implausible at all. Minds shaped for a generation by fear-mongering is not operating rationally, especially if there is already some mental instability involved. Democrats own guns too, but it is the Republicans who like to brandish their AK-47s and threaten violence if anyone suggests restricting access to these weapons of war.

Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that your average Republican is a deranged psychopath at risk of inciting a massacre. Not at all.

I recognize that these are good people with good hearts. They don’t actually want to hurt their friends and neighbors who vote Democrat. They work hard at their jobs. They go to church. They care deeply about their families and our nation. That is the very root of what drives their politics.

It’s why I continue to defend them as being good people when friends in other parts of the country ask me why I continue to live amongst a sea of red.

To understand them, you have to recognize their fear of big cities gobbling up all of the resources, leaving only crumbs for small rural towns that are disintegrating before our very eyes.

Yes, they are good people at heart beneath the macho spectacle of partisan chest-beating, but the unleashing of Donald Trump’s shamelessness has provoked something dark and ugly that they fail to recognize within themselves. Like the angry mob incited to burn someone we feel threatened by at the stake, they are removing the guardrails that keep good people from doing harmful things they’ll regret in the morning light.

Why This Partisan Divide is Deeply Personal for Me

Speaking of regrets, I have them. Most notably the last time I saw my brother Mark, who became an outspoken Republican in the decade before he abruptly died.

He left Fort Payne for Nashville and got involved with a church up there that became a large part of his social circle and provoked his politics, particularly on the topic of abortion. Our mother would often have to warn us to avoid talking about politics whenever our family would gather for dinner together.

Mark failed to see the hypocrisy in attacking America’s social safety net helping society’s vulnerable citizens while simultaneously collecting disability payments from the government due to being physically incapacitated after years of poor individual choices resulting in morbid obesity and diabetes so bad that he was constantly recovering from agonizing neuropathy in his hands and infected sores on the soles of his swollen feet.

He was simply repeating what Rush Limbaugh told him to think. We would get into heated discussions in which he’d repeat the conservative talking points until he ran out of them and his only remaining recourse was to mutter, “Well, I guess I am just a dumb Republican and you know everything…”

I regret that he never got to bask in the victory of the Trump presidency, but my greatest regret is the way I mostly ignored him during our last moments spent together, dining with our mom on Mother’s Day. He had pissed me off with some idiotic comments a week or so earlier, and I just wasn’t in the mood to engage him or reward him for being a moron. So I barely exchanged any words with him. He was left with no doubt that I’d given him the cold shoulder.

A few days later, I got the call at work from my sister telling me something terrible had happened and I needed to drive back to Fort Payne. She didn’t tell me he was already dead. As I stood over his cold, gray corpse in a side room of the Fort Payne ER, I cried regretting the lost opportunity during that dinner to let him know that no matter our differences and how much I may have temporarily disliked his choice of words, he was my brother and I loved him.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I’m not asking Republicans to abandon their ideals or to keep quiet in promoting their beliefs. I welcome a spirited yet civil debate on the issues that affect the quality of our lives and our communities.

I do say a prayer that we can get back to that place where Americans can show our pride of being Democrats or Republicans without someone on the other side spewing hateful verbal venom, reacting with childish taunts and insults that do absolutely nothing to move us forward as a nation.

I hope against hope that we stop promoting this idea that someone in a different political party is against America. Voters deserve choices. Democracy relies on our ability to decide, and this is what separates us from banana republics where elections are just for show and outcomes never in question.

Lately, I’ve tried a new tactic when dealing with online trolls attacking me. Rather than being baited, I calmly clarify what they have said and ask if I understand them correctly (simply doing this can often result in a mental reset where they realize how awful they sound), then I point out areas where I agree with them rather than become entrenched in our corners. Finally, I attempt to explain that what they’ve said is not entirely true, at least for me personally.

It doesn’t always work, but at the very least, it can be disarming to acknowledge that they may have some relevant points worth consideration.

Take the immigration issue, for example. There’s no doubt that the influx of millions of undocumented migrants presents serious chaos to our society. It’s admittedly not safe to just let anyone in when there are whole groups of foreign people dedicated to our destruction. But I think the answer is a process that restores order, not policies designed with cruelty as the point, which only make outsiders hate us even more.

I choose not to hate someone for wanting to give his or her family a better life – that’s why OUR forefathers came here, after all – while completely ignoring the whole reason those folks have been coming: interference in South American affairs by past US administrations leading to murderous drug gangs and industrialists here in American putting out the welcome mat so they can exploit cheap labor. We never arrive at common sense solutions because powerful people stand to lose money.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, even when it’s convenient to scapegoat the terrified brown people fleeing for their lives with small children in tow and the shirts off their backs.

There isn’t much point to two grown men screaming at each other about matters that shouldn’t be personal grievances. Someone has to be the grown-up, and it might as well be the one of us who recognizes the subtle nuances that come with discussing complex political issues rather than the one who thinks a guy from a reality TV show makes for a competent leader.

Do I think I am better than you for saying that? No, not better. But hopefully better informed, recognizing that you work hard and may not have as much time to watch the news as I do (my job heavily involves doing that so I can intelligently comment about what’s happening in the world).

I recognize the dangers of confirmation bias and try to get my information from a variety of sources, including some conservative intellectuals like George Will and some thinktanks on the right. I recognize that Democrats won’t always be right and Republicans won’t always be wrong. It is with that humility that I seek to engage in civil discussion devoid of strawman fallacies and dismissive insults.

I hope that we can return to that place where the good of the country is dictated by our unity and compassion for one another rather than this exhausting pursuit of rhetorically taking down fellow Americans because of the political party to which they subscribe.

Yes, my faith in the people I most know and love is being tested, just as our democracy is under threat by an administration that rejects subpoenas and acts against our constitution.

Do you suppose we can ever get back to peaceful co-existence again without some external threat forcing us to abandon our distrust of one another to pair up and confront challenges together?

©  Steven Stiefel
Stiefel Creative