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The Reaching-Out Industry

Journeying into red states with bridge-building liberals

In late November, The Onion ran a story that deftly blasted both the New York Times and right-wing media, while satirizing pretty much everything wrong with the fake balance that has infested journalism anew after the 2016 election. The story, “Breitbart Criticized For Publishing Humanizing Profile Of Libtard Beta-Cuck,” was in response to the Times’ much-maligned “Nazi next door” profile, the one that opened up with a perfectly normal couple worrying that their perfectly normal wedding might be busted up by Antifa; you know, just your average American wedding planning woes.

The Times piece received a wave of pushback for portraying the Huber Heights, Ohio neighborhood Nazi and his inherently violent ideology with the same gentle curiosity as they might treat a die-hard Yankees fan who opened a hot dog stand on Lansdowne Street. So The Onion flipped it around: “It’s absolutely absurd that Breitbart of all places would think it was okay to portray this low-T liberal shill as a sympathetic figure,” the paper fake-quoted a Breitbart reader saying. “Just because he goes to Olive Garden with his family doesn’t mean that he’s not actively promoting white genocide.”

The joke does double duty, skewering the unifying ethos of right-wing today, which is founded on intellectual dishonesty and stoking liberal resentment. So, of course, the idea that Breitbart would ever even open a conversation with the vast majority of the country that doesn’t hold their opinions is hilarious.

The Reaching-Out Industry, as we might call it, has spawned podcasts, books, and TV shows.

The 2016 election broke reality in many ways, not least by confronting us with the absurd-sounding idea that facts don’t work to change people’s minds. Neither, it seems, do common sense, decency, appeals to reason, or the gag reflex that clearly should have been triggered by the thought of Donald Trump’s stubby, chicken-grease-stained fingers reaching under someone’s dress. The mainstream, fact-based media don’t know what to do with a broken reality. We reached the point where some argued a Democrat is worse than an accused child molester. How do we get everyone to calm the hell down and have rational conversations again?

The Times profile was just one segment in a long line of efforts from outlets to build a bridge across the chasm of understanding they so obviously tripped over and fell into, Wile E. Coyote style, during the 2016 election. Legacy media reporters have used up barrels of Purell after shaking hands with every remaining coal miner they could find and run up tabs at every greasy spoon diner in red-state America.

But beyond those patronizing profiles, a whole new cottage industry has popped up seeking a more earnest, direct conversation, begging Trump voters and the like to just sit down and explain: how exactly did we get this way? The Reaching-Out Industry, as we might call it, has spawned podcasts, books, and TV shows. They share common traits: eschewing (tiresome, predictable) point-by-point debates and stripping things down to a basic level: help us understand you.

But is it working? And even if it is, what can are we supposed to do with this new information?

Comedian Sarah Silverman tried to reach out . . . sort of. She launched her Hulu show I Love You, America on October 12, to “connect with people who may not agree with her personal opinions through honesty, humor, [and] genuine interest in others.”

It’s easy to write this approach off as a feel-good liberal stunt, an attempt to study Trump voters like animals in the zoo of their own living rooms. But in a way, Silverman is perfect for such a role. She’s famous, a Disney princess even, but not a stratosphere celebrity. She seems genuinely hurt by the election result, but eager to find out what went wrong. She’s clearly a native of a Northeast, Jewish family, but she shows up on the doorstep of a family in Chalmette, Louisiana in the first episode in overalls and Chucks with a disarming, rambunctious energy.

The show, however, trips out of the gate and fails to achieve anything more than point-and-laugh segments that feel ripped out of the early Daily Show era (a Halloween episode shows off costumes to scare Trump voters, like “Female God” and “Stay-at-Home Dad”). Despite its touchy-feely pitch, the show lacks a thesis, so it thumps along filling time for ten episodes, using the incidence of Trump’s election, but not the backdrop of its all-too-real effects, to create a directionless variety show about America.

That Chalmette family regurgitates birther conspiracies and unremarkably admits that they are utilizing Obamacare. The show shockingly never again revisits this fieldpiece format. I can’t say whether ten weekly conversations between a Hollywood comedian and a family of Trump supporters would have been productive, but it’s notable that the show’s only viral breakout segment involved Silverman’s monologue about the Louis C.K. revelations. It was a touching moment of the host publicly wrestling with her complex feelings toward a long-time friend, but it strayed from the show’s stated central premise.

Vice journalist and comedian Harmon Leon went deeper into Trump’s America. His book, Meet the Deplorables: Infiltrating Trump America, released in December, aims to be a gonzo look inside right-wing America. He spent time with a New Hampshire tattoo artist who was giving away dozens of free Trump tattoos, the pseudo militia Oath Keepers, and a pray-the-gay-away group in Sacramento.

Leon’s book is meant to be a satirical journey, but he’s able to elicit some journalistic exposure by posing as a member of the groups. “You don’t have to agree with what they’re saying but you have empathy for their motivations,” he told me. “They look toward conspiracy theories as the reason why their life isn’t going great. They have a family, they’re just struggling to get by. It’s easy to jump on a conspiracy theory of why things are going wrong for them.”

But reading Leon’s book, you aren’t left with a roadmap for how to connect with gun-toting Muslim-haters in Long Island. The best you’ll get is a sense of just how bleak and irredeemably unhappy much of the country is.

“This town is home to deplorableness,” he writes of Reno, Nevada, “that sense of grinding white-man’s dispossession that led to Donald Trump’s stunning victory . . . stunning to those who don’t spend time in places like this.”

Leon had hoped to end the book with a tale of one of those free tattoo recipients getting the tattoo removed, or at least facing their regret. The tattoo art was, after all, particularly bad: the artist draws Trump’s face to look like a swollen Gerber baby (perhaps an subliminal ode to our man baby president). But the tattoo shop owner said the clients were living with no regrets. Sense had failed to break through again.

A variety talk show about America, in all its fucked up, misunderstood, multi-ethnic glory, could be a fruitful exercise toward the stated goal of Reaching Out. Silverman’s guests are worthy of national attention, though they all come from one side of the political fence, including Roxane Gay, Megan Phelps-Roper, Christian Picciolini, Paul Ryan challenger Randy Bryce, and (oops) Al Franken. But her show seems anatomically designed to scare away anyone who’s not already on the host’s side from the first minutes of the first episode. She jokes in an opening song number that “I’m condescending to you;” moments later, she uses the freedom of a streaming service to show extended shots of a naked man and woman, including a close up of his penis, for no particular reason. It’s hard to see how even the curious Trump-supporting family in Chalmette would make it past the first act to see what she had to say.

Conversation isn’t a panacea, but its pursuit is the least pessimistic reaction to the election. The other option, chosen by a large portion of those in liberal bubbles, was to angrily write off the rest of the country who’d decided the Trump gamble was worthwhile. The usual accusations got flipped: it’s not the people who live in diverse, efficient cities that are in the bubble; it’s the people who live in demographically monotonous communities who fell prey to Trump’s big-city con man swagger, and used their electoral votes to hold the rest of us hostage.

CNN’s Van Jones started a series of town halls and an online show last year to try to open up dialogue—and the typical bold-item-issues-only CNN style debate—with Trump voters; he launched a new program, “The Van Jones Show,” on the network this month, which will, according to CNN, provide his “unique take on the forces that elected Donald Trump.”

Simple conversations can work, at least on the micro level. Writer, performer, and activist Dylan Marron was facing a wave of hateful feedback last year in reaction to a series of videos where he “unboxes” concepts such as transphobia and rape culture. After the election, he said he felt “blindsided” by how little he knew about people who thought differently than he did. He pivoted away from blocking and ignoring the comments and engaged instead.

“I live in the liberal bubble. I felt like these people were kind of knocking on my digital doorstep and I didn’t want to turn them away anymore,” Marron told me. “I got to a point where I was ready to face it head on and see if some of these people were willing to talk.”

The result was a nine-episode podcast Conversations With People Who Hate Me, in which Marron calls up someone who sent him a hateful (though not physically threatening) message, along the lines of calling him a “piece of shit,” “a flaming homo,” or telling him to kill himself.

The Reaching-Out Industry has a major flaw: nobody knows what to do with the product it produces.

No one’s going to win a Peabody revealing that people act differently online than they do one on one, but it’s hard ignore the fact that so much anger, resentment, and rage in this country has been incubated by anonymous comments, Twitter trolling, and the sportsification of politics that confuses political debate with “owning” someone online. Naturally, most of Marron’s guests are chagrined and apologetic from the first moments of their interviews. He’s careful not to give oxygen to hateful ideologies—the fundamental flaw of fawning profiles like the one in the Times.

“I’m much more interested in why people think the way they think,” Marron said. “I have gotten a few notes from people who are like, ‘Why are you doing this? This is pointless. You’re giving them a platform.’ I clearly disagree with that. I am interested in what is the intellectual environment, the digital environment, the geographical environment that you’re coming from that makes you truly believe this thing. Then that’s when you get into really interesting conversations.”

The guests include people who fell prey to messaging that Black Lives Matter, a group founded on the idea that black people shouldn’t be shot dead by the cops in the street for no reason, is somehow actually a hate group. In one remarkable conversation, Marron interviews a southern man who called him a “flaming homo” in a comment. The man turned out be gay himself, and had a tough-as-nails story that started with his mother shooting his father to death in front of him and later surviving homophobic discrimination on a police force.

“We often dole out to other people what we get from the world,” Marron said.

It’s not just a left-versus-right podcast, as he also talks to other queer activists and progressives who think his approach is misguided. He doesn’t change minds, but the episodes end on a hopeful note: the guests pledge more conversation, less yelling with a keyboard.

The problem with Marron’s approach seems to be that he can’t have everyone in America as a guest.

The Reaching-Out Industry has a major flaw: nobody knows what to do with the product it produces. I do think there is a genuine desire at work here, to learn how a significant minority of the country (based on the popular vote, and the administration’s current approval ratings) let themselves get scammed by Trump and co. But once the reaching-out is done, the result isn’t surprising. Biases, right wing fear-mongering, and whitelash combined with a visceral hatred for Hillary Clinton to produce Trump’s victory.

It’s also a one-sided phenomenon, and that’s the real problem: to truly cross the chasm of American politics, reaching out would need to come from all sides. The Times gives us profiles of Nazis and famous conservative transphobe Ben Shapiro, perhaps in the genuine hope of understanding these figures’ influence, but we also need thoughtful conservatives to try to understand the bogeymen of the left. We shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for a Breitbart profile of a “liberal cuck beta male,” but it seems just as unlikely that any conservative-leaning podcast would spend a day trying to understand the Black Lives Matter movement, or that Sean Hannity would sit down for a frank discussion with a transgender person to understand their daily struggles.

It seems unlikely that any conservative-leaning podcast would spend a day trying to understand the Black Lives Matter movement.

“My theory: maybe it’s because we’re all such special little snowflakes on the liberal bubble side, maybe there is more of a value [in] emotional understanding,” Marron posited.

Leon was blunter in his assessment, tying the lack of reaching out on the right to the conspiracy-minded people he met for his book. “Maybe they don’t want to understand,” he said, spefically referencing his interaction with anti-Muslim group ACT for America. “Sure, they want to shut down a mosque, but I think their day to day interaction with Muslims is limited to absolutely none. They have no interaction with it, therefore it’s easy to point a finger at a big macro group.”

So reaching out isn’t breaking any new ground, but it is trying something different than screaming about the Access Hollywood tape over and over. The only glimmering of a revelation from these efforts is that we need to focus less on changing people’s minds and change the tenor of the conversation first. Everyone should turn off CNN, delete Fox News from the planet, stop trying to score some sort of political victory in a 280-character tweet, and refrain from telling strangers on the internet to kill themselves. Facts don’t work, but neither does screaming online. Trump is an anthropomorphic internet comment that got upvoted into the presidency, and we can see where that got us.

The core of Trump’s America isn’t those card-carrying Nazis anyway, it’s the comfortable family in with two-car garages in an affluent exurb who comfortably absorbed the bad faith messaging of right-wing media. When you talk to them without screaming, you find, at least, that the people who hate you online don’t actually hate you in person.