Last February, on a Tuesday-evening television broadcast, the conservative political commentator Jesse Watters opined on several topics that reliably hold his attention and that of the other four panelists on the Fox News roundtable talk show The Five. He challenged a co-host who was questioning the usefulness of a border wall, called Brett Kavanaugh’s alibis when faced with sexual-assault allegations “airtight,” and belittled Democratic presidential hopefuls.
As the episode aired, Watters’s phone lit up with a series of text messages from an apparently incensed viewer: “I’m offended by a great many of your comments!” read one. “STOP YELLING AT JUAN,” read another, referring to Juan Williams, who is on the left side of the show’s political spectrum.
The sender was Watters’s mother, and it turned out that she had more feedback. After Watters referred to Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” (something Donald Trump has often done), his mom admonished, “Do not name call and parrot Trump’s insults. That is beneath you.” The barrage of criticism ultimately took a loving turn, though: “One positive! Your tie knot looks better and you are buttoning your top button!”
Anne Bailey Watters’s motherly blend of reprimand and encouragement has inspired a sporadically recurring segment on The Five called “Mom Texts,” in which Jesse gleefully reads aloud (mostly critical) text messages from his very liberal mom. The segment, which first appeared two years ago, is hardly a model of measured political discourse, but it has provided a glimpse into how one man and his mother have navigated the ideological rift that has opened up in so many American families during the Trump era.
Jesse started receiving these text-message reviews of his performance after he joined The Five in the spring of 2017. “I used to read them to my co-hosts, and everyone just got a kick out of it,” he told me. He doesn’t remember if it was his idea or a producer’s to read them on air, but, he said, “I always thought they were gold.”
They are indeed amusing. “Please pronounce your ‘ings.’ The word is ‘putting’ not ‘puttin’,’” Anne advised her son two years ago. And after Jesse wore a salmon-pink blazer on the show in spring 2018, she texted him saying that he looked like a “ferris wheel operator.”
Anne also routinely addresses their serious differences head-on. One Mom Text was “Do your research about border security—you don’t sound like you have any facts!” Another was “I hope your Squad criticism can be just a tad more measured today … Please don’t sound like an old white guy who lacks any understanding of otherness.” A media personality might hear similar statements from any online commenter. But the thing that distinguished those two messages was the parental warmth of their final beats: The first ended with “You look tired—after a vacation?” and the second with “Love you so.” Even as Anne has taken issue with her son’s commentary on the House impeachment hearings, she has sprinkled some affection into her messages: “Please be assured that despite your WRETCHED political orientation I love you forever!” read a text broadcast last week.
“I always laugh,” Jesse said of how he reacts when the texts come in. Sometimes he sees them during commercial breaks, and usually his responses are acknowledgements of her messages: “I’ll [send a] thumbs-up or a ‘Hahaha’ or an emoji—laughing, crying, something like that.” The messages don’t have any effect on his political beliefs, though, he said. “She's always telling me two things that are constant in these texts: One, stop screaming. And two, don't be too much of a Trump supporter. I don't really listen to either.”
“By pressing send, I actually find the action clarifying and clearing,” Anne, a child psychologist in Long Island, wrote to me in an email. “Next I pause, quietly hoping that he heeds just a moment of my perspective (and ire). And then, more times than not, I shake my head in disbelief and remark to my husband, ‘Can you believe that boy!!! Can you believe he said that! That’s typical. That’s my Jesse! Look at that grin and those sparkly eyes!’ Despite my degree of outrage, I have to laugh.” (Anne declined a phone interview but agreed to respond to written questions.)
Jesse thinks that “Mom Texts” makes for good TV because it “humanizes” him: “It’s even funnier that it’s my mom—everybody can relate to it … It’s just another layer to getting to know, or feeling like you know, the host.”
While conservative viewers likely enjoy laughing along with Jesse, the appeal of “Mom Texts” seems to be broader than the appeal of The Five itself, judging by the online haters the segment attracts; one recent tweet commenting on a “Mom Texts” clip read in part, “Imagine taking concerned texts from your mom asking you to be more human and less racist and... mocking them on national tv.”
Jesse is aware of the attention “Mom Texts” gets from those outside Fox News’ usual viewer base. Seeing him being scolded by his mother on television “seems to be the only thing the liberals enjoy about me,” Jesse said.
Many American families are in the political situation that the Watterses find themselves in, even if most families don’t work out their differences on TV. According to a survey conducted a year ago by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic, 39 percent of Americans said some political diversity exists within their family. And an ABC News survey found that the 2016 campaign made family relationships and friendships more tense for a roughly similar percentage of Americans.
The Watterses’ political differences predate the Trump era, though Jesse did not grow up disagreeing with his mother. “Although family and school philosophical underpinnings taught him to respect and value difference, his interests growing up were more evidently centered upon friendships, athletics, and fun and it really wasn’t until college where we recognized a pronounced and seismically different political identity,” Anne wrote to me.
She remembered noticing her son’s newfound conservatism on a family trip to Maine around that time, on a day when the family was planning to eat lunch on a boat. “We were told very clearly however, and with a commitment that was quite astonishing considering the breathtakingly blue-skied day, that he would not join us because he had to listen to Rush Limbaugh,” Anne said.
As Jesse leaned into his conservative views, he and his family had some strained conversations. Anne mentioned “dinners together where conversation went off the rails,” and said that her “fiercely smart, incredibly articulate” son often “easily left [her] in the dust” argumentatively. Jesse admitted to being more confrontational in his mid-20s and beyond. “When I was younger, and maybe when I didn’t have the opportunity to bloviate [on TV] five days a week … I definitely did not read the room,” he said. “I was all juiced up about politics and I’d come home and let it rip. It’s not always smart.”
But a couple of years ago—around the time Jesse became a panelist on The Five, and early on in the Trump presidency—he and his mom started having fewer heated discussions about politics. “I've learned that it's not in either of our interest to have a cutthroat political debate at home during the weekends or during holidays,” Jesse said. “It just doesn’t get us anywhere.” (He noted that he’s “completely outnumbered” in these scenarios; he’s the only conservative among him, his mom, his dad, and his sister.)
Anne agreed. “He tempers some of his jubilation about all things Trump when he is with us,” she said. “He can quickly read the room, we laugh easily and we move onto other subjects. And, we have found with time that we have so much more about our lives to discuss and to process and to laugh about than living in an atmosphere of opposition.”
My colleague Ashley Fetters wrote earlier this year about how family members might discuss their conflicting political views. Suggestions included “abandon[ing] the idea of winning an argument or convincing other people of the wrongness of their positions” and “deliberately distanc[ing] themselves from the full platform of policy positions supported by their chosen political party and instead examin[ing] each issue individually.”
The Watterses practice a different model of interaction, in which they avoid having intense political conversations in person. But they aren’t just ignoring their differences entirely. “I know how she feels, because she’s constantly texting me,” Jesse said. “And then she knows how I feel, because I’m on TV every day for an hour.” Perhaps this indirect exchange of opinions—with Jesse sharing his views publicly, while his mother texts him knowing that her messages could become Fox News programming—acts as a release valve so that their most fraught disagreements don’t have to be worked out in person.
While Anne clearly disagrees with her son, she’s not upset that he’s on TV promoting beliefs she doesn’t share. “Jesse is enormously committed to his work and he loves what he does professionally and I deeply respect that,” she said.
When I asked both Anne and Jesse if they’d ever changed the other’s mind on anything, neither provided an example of a specific policy or issue. But Jesse did note that Anne has gotten him to reevaluate how he presents his opinions. “I will definitely, after hearing from her, try to be respectful and try to take a more respectful tone sometimes on certain subjects that can be very touchy,” he said.
Which calls to mind a recent Mom Text: “I don’t think you have any idea how strident and screaming you are! You are struggling honeybun!” It must have been the honeybun that convinced him.