‘It's a Great Thing to Disagree With Friends and Patriots’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A familiar reader follows up. And his name is Pat:

Chris, I have to tell you, I am a little shocked that you posted my note [“‘I Voted for the Middle Finger, the Wrecking Ball’”] and even more shocked by the responses it elicited. I know there is no way for me to effectively respond to all of the incredible and heartfelt feedback from your readers. Below is my lame effort. I have no idea if it is what you want, but it is at least honest, although far too many words. Do with it what you will. Wow, your job must be hard. Happy Thanksgiving.

***

I am Southern. I am white. I am male. I voted for the wrecking ball and I wrote to Notes a rambling stream of consciousness email more for my own benefit than for anyone else to read, trying to figure out myself how Trump earned my vote—if he really did earn it?—and trying to explain that I don’t hate anyone or want to take away anyone else’s dreams of a better life in this great country.    

I was amazed my note prompted as many questions and responses as it did.  I never expected it to even be seen. I wish I could address all of them and am sorry that I lack the intellect and time to do so. I think it’s too bad these conversations happen too often over the internet and not in the local pub. I expect my response to echo in silence and definitely to lack the clarity your readers seek. But I read them all and I hear their concerns.

I think it sucks that a 32-year-old Ivy League educated lawyer can’t make ends meet. I hear you.  

I understand I have a limited view of how this election looks to the African American med student who refuses to let anyone or anything rob his or her humanity and dignity. I hear you.   

I will likely never fully understand the struggles an immigrant family may face trying make a life, a better life, in a new country as crazy and complex and diverse as ours. I hear you.  

I can only imagine how difficult it is for the small business owner who put her little retirement savings into a dream and through toil and talent made it work, and now deals with the government saying she has to provide health insurance to her employees whom she loves and employs … or else. I hear you.

I know it isn’t easy being Muslim, or gay, or poor, or sick, or a woman, or a drop-out, or felon, or a college grad waiting tables in America. I hear you.  

I know Trump said some crazy and mean-spirited shit. I hear you.

I know all of us wear both the scars and beauty marks of our history. We have saved the world but enslaved and murdered innocents. We have extended protections to the minority and pursued phantom threats with terrible consequences because people looked, thought, worshipped differently than our Founding Fathers did. We have been imperialistic and nativist, we have opposed authoritarianism, been the saving grace for immigrants, turned around at Plymouth Rock and said “Foreigner Go Home.” We continue to ask our young and able bodied of all races, creeds, colors, and genders to die for our freedom.  We call each other names, put one another in boxes and label them: foreigner, redneck, racist, bleeding heart, gay, bible-thumper, conservative, liberal, progressive, extremist. We’re all guilty … and most of us are innocent.

Our country is a beautiful, living, breathing mess of wonderful and amazing people all believing in the same lofty ideals but disagreeing on the way to achieve all of them. Our country is an enormous promise, an unthinkable undertaking, a miraculous contradiction of individualism, collectivism, voluntarism—every –ism under the sun. What an incredible mess to be a part of it. Thank goodness for it.  

I admit I vote based on my emotions as much if not more than I do my intellect at times. I admit my ballot and my worldview often clash and contradict one another. I admit I have never found a candidate who represented me fully and I probably couldn’t represent myself fully if I were ever to hold elected office. It is impossible to please everyone, unlikely to please even anyone fully, including yourself. Negotiation and compromise are part of every good romance, and so it goes with our democracy—a passionate and rocky love affair if there ever was one.

I admit I do not have all of the answers to all the responses to my note. What do I envision during and after a Trump administration? Maybe just a maverick bold (crazy?) enough to not stay put in his sandbox. What if he achieved something with both Elizabeth Warren and Paul Ryan? I think he is more likely to color outside the lines than Hillary would have, and most of us agree “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

So I rolled the dice with the wrecking ball, the middle finger, the guy insensitive enough to not care who he pisses off trying to get something done. He might be a disaster. If he is, I’ll own my vote and learn from it.

I’ll also admit my tyrants likely look different from someone else’s—hell, maybe everyone else’s. Mine are no longer monarchs from foreign lands or angry rich white males or left-leaning professors, or even special interests’ influence, predictable career politicians, media and political elites of all shapes and colors, or the ones with the safe zone/newspeak/microaggression fiascos that deny deliberative discourse, civil disagreement, and prohibit any gain of perspective by any party on either side of an issue. My tyrants expect something for nothing, offer excuses instead of solutions, and look to place blame instead of accept some responsibility.

Will Trump be a tyrant? Perhaps. He certainly has shown some of that. But haven’t we all? When it gets right down to it, haven’t we all been a little guilty of my kind of tyranny? I know I have and I see it every day.

My patriots, I fear, are too smart, too successful, too cynical, or too busy making it in America to run for office in this age of information and disinformation. Your patriots may be the kerchief-over-his-face-wearing, 18-year-old teenager protesting police brutality in Baltimore or the lawyer working pro bono to save the environment, but mine might be Trey Gowdy or the gay Latino woman managing an insurance office in El Paso and successfully raising three kids. So we vote from differing perspectives with different life experiences and differing ideas about how to move forward and whom to follow. Isn’t that what this is all about, living together peacefully knowing “elections have consequences” and agreeing to accept them?  

I admit I voted for Obama in 2008 and against him in 2012. I did not vote straight ticket; I never have. I honestly went to vote more for my neighbor running for town council than I did for either presidential candidate. I guess I still live in a small little world.

For now, I think I choose to encourage. I encourage everyone to “eat the blue pill” from The Matrix. Just as I urged my conservative friends in 2008 to do so, see America the way it is and not the way the talking heads tell you to see it. See America for all of her beauty and promise and all of warts and failures. Have a little in faith in US—we the people.

Just as Obama is a patriot, wanting to make us better, so maybe is Trump, even if his map to get there looks different (because of all the crayons?). We are all in the struggle wanting the same things that we can all have. There is no zero-sum game on what we want: a safe, open, honest, thriving, fair place to call home, to raise kids in, to enjoy life in, to push the ball forward in before we die. We should all get out of our zip code, off of our computer, out from our bubble once in a while and have frank, direct, pleasant-if-heated conversations with someone else about their perspective and agree that there is no way—if we’re being honest—no way we can’t find some common ground. Let’s look for more reasons to agree than reasons not to.

Don’t take my middle finger personally; I really want everyone fighting the good fight to find more success, enjoy more freedom, feel more welcome. I really do. I just ultimately thought we needed a good smack on the ass.

I will have beers and wings with my best friend next week. He is a Bernie fanatic. We will argue all night, laugh all night, cuss and yell and get red faced and probably spit a little on each other accidentally in the heat of it all. And we’ll go home, stay buddies, agree to disagree on some of it and know it is a great thing to disagree with friends. Ours will be a staggering drunk walk much like this march of diverse democracy. We stumble ahead, fall forward, lean to the left, sway to the right, go backwards a few spaces, contract in one spot, expand in another.  We bitch and moan and yell and scream at one another for one another. We get things wrong, we get things right. We remember old scars and make fresh wounds.

And somehow, when we wake up hungover and tired and wondering what the hell happened last night, we will all find ourselves in a better place in the morning and look forward to the next bar fight in 2020.

I encourage everyone: Go have coffee or drinks with a friend who sees the world differently than you do. Meet somewhere in the middle. Persuade, convince, argue and do it passionately. Don’t call them names, label them, or put them in a box. Listen more than you speak. Find an excuse to say “we” more and decline to say “you” as often.  Let’s admit to our prejudices, hang-ups, fears, ambitions, and failings, own our thoughts, our words, our actions, and deal with the consequences. Now is our chance to make Trump and the whole lot of them do the same.  

The wrecking ball was my choice. It may not have been the right one. Time will tell. I did not choose it out of hate. I might not even be able to defend all of it. I might end up of prouder than ever for it, though I might end up wishing I could take it back.

But I admit it. I own it. I accept the consequences. Can you hear me?

Update from Ernest, a reader who disagrees with Pat:

Oh, what a lovely picture. Let’s just hug this out after we pound a few cold ones in the bar. See, we’re really not too different, you and I.

Yes, I hear you.

I also hear the celebration of neo-Nazis and the KKK [link] at not only the election of our next president but his appointment of a self-described leader of the swamps of the alt-right to be his chief strategist. I hear them.

I hear the raging misogyny of Milo Yiannopoulos [link], who was hired and is employed by the president-elect’s chief strategist because he is a raging misogynist. I hear him.

I hear Myron Ebell, a global warming denier, being appointed as head of the EPA transition team. I understand from him that the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change is really just political correctness run amok to increase governmental power [link]. I hear him.

“Our country is a beautiful, living, breathing mess of wonderful and amazing people all believing in the same lofty ideals but disagreeing on the way to achieve all of them.” Yeah, that’s what this is.

I hear you, Pat, I really do. But your listening seems mightily selective.

Maria keeps the disagreement going:

I wanted to respond specifically to this quote from Pat and then briefly to the comment on the whole.

My patriots, I fear, are too smart, too successful, too cynical, or too busy making it in America to run for office in this age of information and disinformation. Your patriots may be the kerchief-over-his-face-wearing, 18-year-old teenager protesting police brutality in Baltimore or the lawyer working pro bono to save the environment, but mine might be Trey Gowdy or the gay Latino woman managing an insurance office in El Paso and successfully raising three kids.

Pat is wrong to suggest that any law abiding, honest, and hard-working person is not “my patriot.” In fact, shouldn’t someone who protests police brutality also be his patriot if he is who he says he is: a proud hard-working American who wants the system to treat other hard-working Americans fairly? Isn’t police brutality the antithesis what he believes is fair?

I would also like to respond to his original note, where he states:

I love working people who answer the alarm clock. I love parents who make sure their kids will have it better than they do. I respect people too busy paying the light bill to keep up with “the news.”

I am for a safety net for people when they fall on hard times. I am not for government handouts as a way of life. I want everyone—of all kinds—pulling on the same side of the damn rope. Pitch in, make this a better place for everybody that obeys the law, pull yourself up by your bootstraps everyday and do some form of honest work. Come here legally, adopt our way of life, learn our language and preserve yours, respect our legal and social traditions and observe yours freely, engage in deliberative thought and debate without risk of being labelled a bigot or a hater because you disagree.

These things somehow suggest that people who did NOT vote for Trump are not themselves hard working people who get to work on time and care for their children, or are against pitching in, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, or doing honest work. I would never in a million years vote for a troglodyte like Trump, but I too wish that people who move to this country respect our laws and customs. I’m willing to bet that more than a fair-share of Trump’s voters are on some kind of government assistance (especially if they’re older—Medicare anyone?).

Pat, I think your arguments are a stale stereotype of what it means to be a “liberal” (I despise that word, but it’s the best I can come up with). So to sum up, I still cannot get the logic that starts with “I want change” to voting for Trump. You can already see the people he is using to fill cabinet positions are very well-entrenched into the Wall St. and Republican establishment. Arguably the only one who isn’t is Bannon, and he white nationalist.

If you really wanted change, who did you vote for for Senate? Or your representative? Were they incumbents? What about writing to the Republican and Democratic parties that govern the Commission for Presidential Debates to challenge their stance on allowing third parties onto the debate stage? Are you for campaign finance reform? Tell me Pat, are these other “disruptive” actions too difficult for you to consider?

I think it was just too easy for you to vote for Trump because all you had to do was go into a voting booth. I regret to inform you that you made a serious mistake, which is unfortunately going to injure someone else. I doubt it will affect you much, so you will probably never learn.