Why Oprah’s chit-chat with Trump voters makes me mad

Photo via aphrodite-in-nyc on Flickr. Photo via aphrodite-in-nyc on Flickr.

My anger caught me off-guard today.

A friend shared Oprah’s interview with a mix of women, some of who voted for Clinton, and others who voted for Trump (more of the women she gathered were Trump supporters, actually). Here is how Oprah framed the edited version of the conversation that she published on Oprah.com:

“Last November, Donald Trump was elected our 45th president, the leader of our nation—but you could say he became the leader of two nations. These United States are about as disunited as can be, split in half by two sets of very different, deeply held beliefs. In fact, in our 241-year history, we’ve rarely been so polarized. (The Civil War does come to mind….) It’s not just that we don’t see eye to eye on the issues, or that we differ along geographic, ethnic, or gender lines. It’s that our differences—and our disdain—seem to prevent us from even engaging with anyone who disagrees with us. Yet if we have any hope of healing our divisions, this is exactly what needs to change. That’s why I recently found myself at a diner in Maspeth, New York, ready to spend a Sunday morning talking about the state of our country with ten women I’d never met. They came from all walks of life. Their opinions ranged from hyperliberal to ultraconservative. Some of those opinions were shouted. Some were expressed through tears, and still others through song. (I’m not joking: At the end of our conversation, one of the women in attendance, Allison, who had played Diana Ross on Broadway, started singing “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”—and the rest of us wound up holding hands and singing along. It was that kind of day.) And what these women discovered after two hours of candid, compassionate discussion was what Maya Angelou knew all along: We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike. ”

I read the article, and I read people’s comments on Facebook praising the effort to build bridges of empathy — and to my surprise, I felt my ire rising.

Re-reading Oprah’s intro now, I see why I was so pissed off: The conclusion she draws doesn’t match the conversation she reports, at all. I don’t come away from reading the article feeling like “Wow, we’re really all the same.” That’s a nice bow to put on things, but it doesn’t feel earned. Let’s have genuine conversations with each other, sure, but let’s not share saccharine platitudes that gloss over just how wide the divide between us really is.

A screenshot of the article on Oprah.com A screenshot of the article on Oprah.com

Beyond that, I’m uncomfortable with the false equivalency that the “let’s all just share our feelings at a diner with Oprah” frame sets up. If you can listen to someone say there should be a registry of all Muslims and think, “Hm, good idea, that’s my guy,” I don’t think we can have a reasoned, intellectual conversation about candidates…because you have just endorsed bigotry. That crosses a line.

Now, as I type that, I realize, 45’s bigotry is simply (and profoundly) more overt than many, many other politicians we treat as normal. So maybe in a way there’s a flaw to my argument, because — is calm, intellectual conversation only warranted when the bigotry is more subtle? More masked? Is the issue here an issue of degree?

I’m not sure.

I’m inspired by the story of Derek Black and his repudiation of the racism he was raised with — if you don’t know about this, I highly encourage you to read the Washington Post article about it; it will give you hope that people, even people steeped in hate, truly can change, when met with love. But that transformation didn’t happen over a single breakfast.

And no one treated Black’s beliefs as legitimate. Even if you didn’t vote for Trump “because” of his racist or misogynist comments, YOU VOTED FOR A MAN WHO MADE THOSE COMMENTS. You voted for a man who has appointed a white supremacist as his national security advisor. You have to own that. That means you are complicit in something morally reprehensible, and if you did it to “keep jobs in the U.S.” — then your priorities are unethical. You voted for someone who threatened to deport people because of their religion. It’s more important to keep jobs in the U.S. than it is to protect the freedom of religion on which this country was founded? I don’t think so. You don’t deserve sympathetic nods from Oprah about how you were drawn to how “decisive” he was.

I want us to all understand each other better, I do. Do I love Trump supporters? I do. Do I wish them ill? I do not. But let’s be clear: They are in the wrong. Period. Do they have very human reasons that may not consciously involve bigotry for voting for the man? I’m sure many of them do. But they are morally in the wrong and the onus is on them to wake up to what’s happening and begin acting to protect their fellow Americans’ freedoms and our safety. We need to be very, very clear about that.

Will understanding their reasoning, their hearts, their minds, potentially unlock a pathway forward to a less divided America? I honestly don’t know. To the extent that this understanding provides an opening for us to educate them, sure. To the extent that it helps us understand the fears and suffering of fellow Americans and be able to prepare our candidates to address those fears and suffering, then yes, these conversations are useful. But there is a danger to these conversations, too. There is a very clear moral right and moral wrong in this situation, and treating both “sides” as legitimate dishonors those for whom the moral wrong is not an abstract concept but a lived fear, a concrete pain and suffering.

And yet, I realize that putting people down, insulting them, labeling them, will do nothing to move us past this place we’re in as a society, as a (failing) democracy.

I don’t know the right way forward. I really don’t. People say “I’m tired of going high.” I’m not tired of it. I’m convinced it’s the only way to true progress. But I’m not going to lie to myself. I’m not going to accept false equivalencies or platitudes in place of progress. Whatever the way forward, it relies on truth and hard work, two things for which there are no shortcuts.

Maybe the conversation in that diner was more of a breakthrough than comes through in the edited article (which, incidentally, is filed in the “inspiration” section of the website). Two women are hugging in a photo that appears with the article, after all. Presumably, they’re women who voted for different people? And yet, at the same time, I’m not sure that hugging a Trump supporter who has not apologized for her vote is ultimately an act in support of love.

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