Recently, I wrote that Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign, like Pat Buchanan’s 1992 insurgency and Ted Kennedy’s 1980 rebellion, pushed Hillary Clinton so far to the Democratic Party’s extreme left, it became difficult for her to recover votes in the center for the general campaign. I called this one of many reasons why Clinton lost.
For having done so, I received hundreds of obscenity-laden tweets, emails and Facebook posts condemning me, my looks, my suits, my intelligence, my professional judgment, my integrity, my motives, my religion. Some of these messages threatened violence and even mentioned my office address, trying to intimidate me. But they were not sent by members of the alt-right, the proudly bigoted conservative movement well known for its anger and trolling. Instead, they came from Sanders supporters — misreading my analysis as an advocacy piece — who felt I’d blamed their hero for Hillary Clinton’s failures.
Beyond the obscene attacks, I was called a “paid Shill,” an “enormous hack with tenure.” Tweeters and Facebookers wrote: “Thanks TIME and thanks Gil Troy for being stalwarts of the American Dark Ages”; “run back to Palestine”; “only a beanie wearing kyke could write something so wrong and misguided”; “now I have to vomit.” (I confess, however, that I laughed when someone said, “This guy @GilTroy is so wrong about stuff it’s amazing he wasn’t working for the Clinton campaign.”)
Amid this barrage, I wondered: How could these bullies defend Bernie Sanders’ decent campaign so indecently? How does calling me a “kyke” (again, their spelling) and a “greedy Jew” help this Jewish politician? And how could they applaud Clinton’s ad that showed how Donald Trump’s insults about women’s looks harmed young girls’ body image, and then mock someone’s looks? How dare they denounce Trump’s boorishness?
These supposed enemies of the alt-right were enjoying the same Internet-enabled anonymous power-rush of their opponents. They shirked responsibility for the words they post, the hate they spew, the democratic dialogue they demean. Their sense of injury trumped all.
If Barack Obama’s election in 2008 ultimately launched the alt-right, Donald Trump’s election in 2016 is launching the alt-left. Despite preaching to Republicans that Trump would have to accept the election results when he lost, these extremists reject the Trump upset as illegitimate. They are the ones who not only took to the streets but also turned violent in Oakland, Calif., and Portland. Their fury excuses anything, from vandalizing property potentially owned by Trump opponents in those liberal downtowns to rioting — despite not even voting. Of the 108 rioters Portland police arrested, 72 hadn’t voted and 36 weren’t even registered.
Hillary Clinton defined the alt-right as rejecting “mainstream conservatism” and stewing in “prejudice and paranoia.” Now, resenting Trump’s rise, these #BernieOrBust and #NeverHillary followers reject mainstream liberalism. They call Clinton a “Republican” or a “neoliberal,” their all-purpose epithet for nonconservatives lacking their ideological purity.
In many ways, this alt-left matches the alt-right. Sure, they differ on policy and live on either side of identity politics (although, unlike the Culture Warriors of the 1980s and ’90s, they fight less about economics). And condemning them equally doesn’t mean they’re equally dangerous, with the alt-right’s Hitlerism and hooliganism spiking since Trump’s election. Still, extreme liberalism and conservatism intersect in their economic populism and bullying tactics. They both obsess about Wall Street, the Big Banks, the Mainstream Media and what they see as the dysfunctional federal government. They refuse to learn from the Age of Clinton that bipartisan coalitions and centrist policies are possible and often beneficial. They ignore the real causes of middle-class distress including deindustrialization and the ease of importing now that it’s cheaper to transport things across the globe — the benefits of which they, as consumers, enjoy.
And for their work, all they will do is strengthen Trump’s Right, as they browbeat their natural, more reasonable, allies as “neoliberals” and keep Trump and his followers feeling attacked, self-righteous, and thus, unwilling to temper or compromise.
Given the high stakes — and self-destructiveness of these attacks — I tried reminding these virtual bullies of who they actually are in real life.
I started with one Facebook account. In its first message, the person fumed: “Your TIME piece in regards to Bernie is a lame attempt at revising history. I’ve since read a few more of your postings. Your writing is awful. You suck. Retire.” The messages kept coming. But each post was less rabid, more substantive. Sensing an opening, I replied I was ignoring the first posting, adding: “You seem like a decent person but your first instinct was to do what most respondents did — bombard me with the ugliness we usually associate with Trump — and which Bernie avoided. Beyond that first belch of insults, we agree more than we disagree.”
Suddenly the person behind the Internet’s camouflage emerged. “I’m very, very sorry,” he wrote. “I actually wish I could take that first response back.” Two warm exchanges later, he conceded, “Also, you don’t suck. And you shouldn’t retire.” Having cybersnooped him, I added: “Enjoy that new baby.” He replied with a photo of his newborn, and the elegant summation: “I second that. I’ll tell him about what a good guy Gil Troy is. Teach him not to overreact on social media like I did.” And, now a person, he signed the message, “Matt.”
I saw how the Internet’s anonymity and the vehemence within each partisan tunnel demonizes any dissenters. Once we established a person-to-person connection, we discovered common ground, and changed tone.
One interaction does not a revolution make — or, for that matter, prove that all people will come around. But it offers a potential template for American healing. As the alt-right and alt-left collide, we must re-engage one another as real people with real concerns, agreeing and disagreeing freely, substantively, respectfully.
The American philosopher John Dewey taught: “Democracy begins in conversation.” Restoring the art of real, person-to-person, political conversations, will help get our democracy back, reminding decent people whose political sensibilities are offended by critical writers to respond with substantive arguments not demeaning insults, and seek common ground for the common good, not just partisan points to inflame your side.