Donald Trump’s election proves America’s left and right hold polar opposite views on most issues. Many believe “Make America Great Again” means a billionaire and his fat-cats friends will fight for blue-collar workers while others, myself included, think the slogan is a rallying cry for a more sexist, racist and xenophobic country. The interpretations are so different that debates between liberals and conservatives have become more like verbal games of whack-a-mole than actual conversations.
Empathy is better at changing minds than rage. And there have been some admirable examples of non-defensive discourse. Take The Daily Show host Trevor Noah’s recent calm and respectful interview with conservative commentator Tomi Lahren. “What do you wish people would understand about you on the other side?” he asked, and he prefaced a question with “I’m not saying this in a challenging way…”
When we agree on facts (poverty is a problem) but have conflicting opinions (poor people need to work harder vs. poor people need more government assistance), productive dialogue is possible. But Trump’s presidency has emboldened the alt-right, an ideology based more on conspiracy than objective truth. It’s impossible to engage this group in rational debate, because many of its opinions are based on falsehoods.
The alt-right, in case you haven’t heard, is code for racism. It is mostly made up of young white men who take their anger out on minorities and women online. Many are white nationalists who believe America should be made up entirely of Caucasians, and some subscribe to the fabricated KKK-esque notion that whites are the superior race. Trump brought the movement’s talking points into the mainstream and appointed one of its most high-profile members, Stephen Bannon, as his chief strategist.
Trump’s presidency has emboldened the alt-right, an ideology based more on conspiracy than objective truth. It’s impossible to engage this group in rational debate because many of its opinions are based on falsehoods.
There’s no doubt this group inhabits a delusional universe. Its members often refer to themselves as “red pillers,” a reference to the scene in The Matrix in which Keanu Reeve’s character has the choice between taking a blue pill that will keep him in a fantasy world or a red pill that will thrust him into reality. Yes, alt-righters think our actual world is an elaborate ruse and often do not accept basic historical facts.
In the group’s alternative universe, a white genocide is imminent, because other ethnicities have inched their way toward equality. Alt-righters believe immigrants threaten white dominance, Jews control the world through the global financial system and Black Lives Matter protesters are terrorists.
You can’t talk about racism with a group that actually believes the white race is under threat and that the fatal police shootings of black men are part of a “sinister plot” to oppress cops. There is no reasoning with those who deny the ongoing effects of colonialism and slavery.
The alt-right’s stance on gender equality is also based on a rejection of historical fact. The movement is full of men’s rights activists (MRAs) who believe men have always been the more oppressed gender. That’s right. They think women ― who couldn’t vote, own property or credit cards, get a divorce or work outside the home ― were privileged compared to men, who had to earn money and fight in wars.
It’s impossible to discuss women’s rights, misogyny or sexual violence with a group that denies how the economic and political systems created by men treat women as second-class citizens. There’s no reasoning with anyone who thinks the goal of feminism is to persecute the male species.
There is no reasoning with those who deny the ongoing effects of colonialism and slavery.
It’s more important than ever for those with opposing political views to try to understand one another. Yet it’s unfeasible to have a rational conversation with a group that rejects reality. You can’t talk about how the U.S. should best fight ISIL with people who believe President Barack Obama founded the terrorist group.
The alt-right desperately needs to be challenged, but it’s hard to believe such debate will lead anywhere. The movement has insulated itself from reasonable dialogue and, given its dangerous ideology, we should all be terrified.
This piece was previously published in the Ottawa Citizen.