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Americans, Let’s Talk

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TELLURIDE, Colo. >> Crystal Hesch has been having a hard time with her father who told her that, by bringing her 8-year-old son to this liberal bastion in southwestern Colorado, she was giving the boy early training as a “terrorist.”

For a dozen years, Hesch directed a movie festival called Frozen River in Winona, in rural Minnesota. She’s been a regular visitor to the Mountainfilm festival here in Telluride, a former mining town that went through hipster rediscovery and has retained something of that spirit in its current upscale incarnation.

Hesch approached me in distress. She’s frustrated that she can’t even get to a point of departure for a reasoned discussion with her dad, a strong supporter of President Donald Trump. “What can I do? We can’t even agree on a reality to discuss or a source we both accept,” she said. Like many Trump voters, her father is convinced there’s a liberal plot to sabotage the president.

Hesch’s experience is normal. Tens of millions of Trump opponents cannot communicate with tens of millions of his supporters. There is no viable vocabulary. There is no shared reality.

This is the chasm to which Fox News, Republican debunking of reason and science, herd-reinforcing social media algorithms, liberal arrogance, rightist bigotry, and an economy of growing inequality have ushered us.

It’s perhaps the most important problem confronting the United States, because the end point of hardening fracture and mutual incomprehension is violence — like last week’s fatal stabbing of two men by a Muslim-insulting white supremacist on a Portland, Oregon, commuter train.

In New York you never need encounter a Trump supporter. But in Colorado, neither red nor blue but purple, it’s impossible to evade difficult conversations that cut across political lines. The state voted for Hillary Clinton in November with a nearly 5 percent margin over Trump, but he is convinced he could have won; 2020 Trump ads have already appeared. Colorado is in play.

Echoes from Trump supporters coalesce in my mind: God put us on this land and now we’re not allowed to make a profit as a result of all the environmental regulations and I have to subdivide and sell out while the welfare queens collect handouts because they’re too lazy to work.

Or this: People have to choose between heating their homes, buying food or buying health care and you want them to worry about the survival of the planet or transgender stuff? I respect business and I distrust government. That’s the American way. I don’t want illegal immigrants taking our jobs. I don’t like liberals who shop at Whole Foods talking down their noses at me because I shop at Wal-Mart. White lives matter, too, you know. That woman forgot that — and lost. We lost our discipline and our moral code in this country. So we need honest Trump to shake things up.

And this: We need God back in our schools. We can’t just condone anything our kids do. Nobody’s gonna run God or guns out of our country. I don’t want anybody telling me I can’t defend myself. I don’t want to take a knife to a gunfight. Don’t tell me I can’t have a gun if the crooks have one. It’s a matter of taking care of myself. If this country ever told me I couldn’t have a gun, I’d be out in the streets.

These are composites from Trump World. It’s important to hear people out. That’s democracy: listening to what people say. There are hateful racists among Trump supporters; there are also many decent, thoughtful, anxious, patriotic Americans who felt they were losing some part of their country’s essence. The liberal complacency that holds that these people simply need to be “educated” is self-defeating. If that’s what the Democratic Party exudes — coastal complacency — it will lose, just like Clinton did last year.

As Abe Streep, a journalist and writer based in Montana, put it to me: “Nobody’s ever been convinced by being made to feel stupid.”

I spoke to Alexandra Arboleda, a lawyer in Phoenix, who was elected last year to the board of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District. She’s a Democrat in a Republican county and a woman who feels strongly about climate change in an area where such convictions encounter hostility.

“You have to be more receptive and see where people who don’t think like you come from,” she said. “Most people are concerned about climate change. But where in Telluride that might be priority number one, with Republicans it’s down the list. So you have to adjust. Instead of talking about sustainability and climate change — words that set them off — talk pragmatically about drought conservation plans. Persuade them that increasing irrigation efficiency at a time of the longest drought in recorded history on the Colorado River System benefits everyone from farms to downstream city users. It’s doable. But you have to curb the liberal arrogance that’s out there.”

America needs the conversations it’s not having. They start, for both sides, with listening. The alternative is bloody confrontation.

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