Curtis Stone, a stranger from Kelowna, British Columbia, is sitting on the couch in my Mile End apartment. It’s a cold March evening, and we’re drinking local beer, eating Saint-André cheese, and talking music preferences. Stone—a Barr Brothers fan—is wearing designer glasses and has a hipster haircut. He mentions that, while he now works out west as an organic urban farmer, he used to live in this Montreal neighbourhood—in fact, he played in a band here.
Stone, who, at thirty-eight, is a couple of years younger than me, looks as though he could fit in with my group of friends. He seems like a nice enough guy—he’s spent hundreds of hours volunteering at community gardens, and he once invited a Syrian refugee to tour his farm. He’s even a staunch environmentalist who refuses to use disposable diapers on his newborn daughter. Still, there is a tension between us.
Unlike anyone else who has ever stepped foot in my apartment, Stone is glad that Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Though he refuses to identify as alt-right (he says that he rejects white supremacy), he does share many positions with the far right. Stone loves the same thought leaders—Milo Yiannopoulos, Gavin McInnes, and, his favourite, Jordan Peterson—who are popular with that camp. He doesn’t like the Black Lives Matter movement, rages against “white, upper-class feminists,” and argues that politically correct lefties are nothing more than authoritarians.
Even though Stone champions the US president, he is candid in his assessment of the man. “Trump is an egocentric, megalomaniac asshole,” he says—something we actually agree on. But Stone also notes that he’s nevertheless a Trump fan because the “globalist elites” hate the president. “For me, it’s like the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” he explains. I’m not sure if he considers me to be an enemy as well, but I must admit that even before he stepped foot into my home, I thought that he might be mine.
After the shock of Trump’s election victory a few months earlier, I, like almost everyone else in North America, went online. Social media was a torrent of post-election rage—a lot of people calling other people racist. Posts alternated between mocking Trump supporters and attacking them for being ignorant bigots. News reports described a groundswell of hatred: an alt-right conference featured Sieg heil-ing white supremacists who saluted Trump, and David Duke, former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, called the election one of the most exciting nights of his life. “Make no mistake about it, our people have played a HUGE role in electing Trump,” he wrote on Twitter. I read post after post and wondered, Is this how war begins?
As a Jew raised in the shadow of the Holocaust, I was trained to be vigilant about the resurgence of fascism. I thought about 1920s Berlin, when left- and right-wing groups fought in the streets. Even though I had a cozy life in Canada, I felt a growing hatred for the people today committing horrible acts. While I recognized that the alt-right conference attendees and David Duke are members of fringe groups, I thought about all the other Trump voters who, without taking part in violence themselves, had willingly joined ranks with these white supremacists. Were Trump supporters—all 63 million of them, as well as their cohorts on this side of the border—also my enemies?
Then one day, I walked into class and found that a student had placed a Make America Great Again hat on my desk. She was teasing me, as I’d spent the term trash-talking Trump. But, after putting on the cap as a joke, I started thinking. Were the people who put on this hat in earnest really that different from me? If I were to meet some of them, might we understand each other a little better and start to undo the angry polarization that seemed to be consuming our society? I decided to try an experiment: I’d spend the next year finding men around my own age who support the US president or have right-wing politics. I didn’t want to debate them or set out to prove them wrong. Instead, I’d listen as they explained why they believe what they believe. I reasoned that the new Trumpian brand of politics seemed to be here to stay, and I hoped that, if I could come to understand my right-wing doppelgängers, maybe one day I could change their minds.
But finding Trump supporters in Canada proved to be difficult, because I live in a bubble. As a feminist and a socialist who supports the welfare state, I feel at home in downtown Montreal. I am vocal in my support of LGBTQ, Indigenous, and immigrant rights, and in my circles, this is pretty much the norm. My friends are other liberal artists, activists, and members of the media, and my job, teaching at a college, has me surrounded with like-minded humanities professors. It took weeks of outreach, plus an online call for volunteers made by The Walrus, before I was able to connect with a Canadian fan of Trump willing to participate. And, one cross-country flight later, that’s how Curtis Stone came to be on my couch.
As we get to know each other a little better, Stone explains that he considered himself a liberal up until about six years ago. His politics began to change, however, when he left the musician life behind and became a farmer. He met a lot of the people he and his friends had often derided—“the Christian, Republican, gun-toting rednecks that all of us liberals make fun of.” But he found these conservatives to be accepting, rather than hostile, people who gave to charity and helped others in their community. “That was sort of a trigger to a greater cognitive dissonance to what my liberal values were,” he says. Stone continued his rightward drift after he became influenced by libertarian icon Ron Paul, and he later started believing that taxation was theft. But his journey to conservatism came at a price: certain friends cut off contact, and Stone claims that one even sought out his farm’s customers to inform them of his new-found politics in an attempt to start a boycott. “I don’t want to demean the term, but I feel like I have come out of the closet,” Stone says (he quickly adds that his brother, brother-in-law, and best friend are all gay).
Two hours into our time together, I am surprised to find that speaking with my ideological enemy has become easy. Though we have our disagreements, we find ways to laugh at our disputes. Then, not long after we switch from beer to Scotch, we move on to the concept of white privilege. That’s when we get into the subject of “the Jews.”
It starts when Stone talks about how he grew up working-class and how he believes that the idea of white privilege is nothing more than “reverse racism.” Stone agrees that gender privilege and race privilege exist but argues that concerns about them are overblown. “It’s class. To me, it’s all class,” he says, sounding like an old-school Marxist. “And it just so happens that the majority of the wealthy people in the world are white. In fact, they’re Jews.” Oh shit, I think. Stone is completely wrong, but he goes on to tell me that the top banks and the top media companies are all run by Jews. My eyebrows arch, and Stone explains that he doesn’t think it’s a nefarious conspiracy but rather a consequence of centuries of persecution against Jewish people, such as when we were denied the right to own real estate. “You can be a social-justice warrior who stands for equality, and you can talk shit about white people until you’re blue in the face, but then as soon as somebody points out that no, actually, the top dogs in the world are all Jews—yes they’re white, but they’re Jews—then now all of a sudden you’re a racist,” Stone says.
Hearing a right-wing guy spout these old, incorrect anti-Semitic tropes makes me uncomfortable—hatred directed toward Jews is on the rise, and the Anti-Defamation League found that the number of reported incidents of anti-Semitism in the US was approximately 60 percent higher in 2017 compared to 2016. But, even so, I don’t feel right assuming that Stone is being malicious.
Stone and I spend the following day together. We go for breakfast and then wander through the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. Throughout these activities, we never stop discussing politics. I disagree with almost all of Stone’s opinions on feminism and trans rights and Indigenous issues and the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. But something happens that I find distressing. Some of his arguments contain kernels of opinion that I can’t immediately dismiss—such as when he points out that he thinks that identity politics divide us by race and privilege into “the oppressor and the oppressed” and laments how this can affect his sense of shared community. I understand his stated desire for connection, and a new thought enters my mind: What if my political opposite isn’t motivated purely by hate? What if I think that he has some fair points after all?
When I told friends that I was setting out to find my right-wing doppelgängers, they didn’t approve. Xenophobic politics in Canada may not have reached the levels seen in the US and Europe, but their arrival seems imminent.
Stephen Jones of Georgetown, Ontario, describes the message he receives from contemporary Canadian society this way: “What side are you on? The side of good, cool, smart, sophisticated, understanding, sensitive progressives? Or are you a backwards, neo-con, so-con, bigoted, evangelical, hate-fuelled conservative?”
I spent nine months in email correspondence with Jones, a forty-year-old Conservative-voting born-again Christian who works in marketing. I was surprised to discover that Jones doesn’t actually like the US president, because he doesn’t think that he embodies Christian values. Jones, however, tells me that he can understand why Trump has been so successful. He says that many people—himself included—find the imposition of politically correct values aggressive. “Many conservatives have tried to have an elevated debate about these emotional issues and have been screamed down at campuses and political rallies,” Jones says. But then, he says, Trump came along and outscreamed the liberals.
Jones thinks that Trump-style politics are coming to Canada for this very reason. “Many folks are fine with trying to keep up with the latest cultural evolution,” he says. But he argues that it’s difficult to stay on top of changing terminologies, such as switching from “gay” to acronyms such as “LGBTQ.” Jones also complains that he went from being asked to accept same-sex marriage to being asked to acknowledge trans youth in quick succession. “Most people on any side of the spectrum don’t have an issue with accepting people or how they want to be referred to,” he tells me. “They just sometimes legitimately get lost in the speed of the changes. And as soon as that happens, they are treated like they are evil for not knowing any better.”
No one should have to wait to get equal rights, but I feel some sympathy for Jones’s confusion. I also find it interesting that his concern is one I’ve heard before: Stone also said he thinks that liberals are quick to dismiss the right by labelling right wingers evil. Both men also describe feeling that, if they question or disagree with certain social positions, they will be excommunicated by some groups. They may sound paranoid, but they aren’t entirely wrong: as early as 2015, the Washington Post reported on services and websites that advised people on how to detect and unfriend all Trump supporters on Facebook, “so you can expel them from your social circles more efficiently.”
This kind of unwillingness to communicate across the political divide is something that danah boyd (whose name is spelled in all lower case letters), principal researcher at Microsoft, advocates against. “You can love someone and disagree with their world view,” says boyd, who is also a visiting professor at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program and has written about how self-segregation and political polarization are harming democracies. I ask her if there’s any point in talking to people who are set in their beliefs if we can’t change each other’s opinions. She says that rather than proselytizing, people need to seek out common ground—where it does exist—and identify where differences come from. Actions like these, she says, help create a healthy society in which disagreements can be expressed respectfully rather than adversarially. “It’s the love that builds the social fabric, not the shared world view,” she says.
Jones and I, unsurprisingly, disagree on most issues. He believes that a person’s gender is only biologically determined, and he is against same-sex marriage, and I think the opposite. But, to his credit, he never dismisses me or my opinions. “If I avoided everyone I have a fundamental moral difference with, I would be pretty lonely,” he admits. I appreciate his willingness to talk politics, but I can’t help but wonder if I’d be as receptive if I were a member of the LGBTQ community, a woman, or both. It’s not my life he’s judging or my rights that he’s questioning.
The inconsistency of Jones’s ethics comes into clearer focus when he tells me about his relationship with two of his friends, who are a same-sex couple. While he believes they are living in sin, he adds that “they are our friends, and we watch each other’s pets, have each other over for dinner, and include each other in parties. My wife and I love them.” Even though he disagrees with their relationship, Jones also tells me that “judging is not something the Bible calls anyone to do.” I find myself struck by his perspective, which comes down to recognizing that “we are all sinners,” himself included. Ultimately, Jones hopes to convert these friends, spread the gospel, and save their souls. Then another thought hits me: a similar kind of evangelization could be said to exist on the left. We hope to convert those on the right to the religion of liberalism.
Despite Jones’s professed love for his gay friends, he mentions that he isn’t sure what he’d do if they were to get married. He doesn’t think he could attend the ceremony because that could qualify as “leading them into sin.” His theoretical problem becomes real when he receives an invitation to their wedding. A few weeks later, Jones tells me that he’d been stalling to send back his RSVP because he is unsure which is more loving: writing a letter telling his friends that he believes marriage should be between a man and a woman or declining the invitation and letting them “enjoy their day.”
In the end, Jones didn’t go to the wedding because he was on vacation. Instead, he sent a gift and a card that quoted from 1 Corinthians. It read, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
David Burns suspects that I, a member of the so-called liberal media, am not to be trusted. There is, he tells me over the phone, a specific reason for this: those on the left are quick to dismiss people on the right as racist. “[If] you accuse somebody of being a racist, you no longer have to listen to that person. You no longer have to take their opinions into consideration,” he says. I connected with Burns, who lives in Calgary and works in the oil-and-gas industry, through a mutual friend. Burns is well-educated, with a degree in history and English, and he worked as a journalist for a couple of years after university. “I always tell my kids, ‘When you’re watching the news, don’t just look at the information they’re telling you,’” he says. “‘Ask yourself why they’re telling you this story in this way.’”
Burns seems angry. He talks about how the “globalist forces” are “trying to erode nation states,” and he believes that the so-called global 1 percent is in cahoots with governments and is getting insanely wealthy by screwing over regular people. Burns likes Trump because, he says, the US president has articulated an opposition to globalization. But Burns is distrustful of all political parties. He tells me that Canada’s Liberals and Conservatives form “interchangeable governments” that provide the “illusion of choice.” I’m glad to finally be on the same page—this is exactly the sort of thing that I discuss with my left-wing friends.
I ask Burns about all the negatives that have come with Trump’s presidency, such as the discrimination that intensified across the US. His response: “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women are players.” I find this answer to be confusing. After all, there have been ongoing reports of alleged crimes directed at racialized people—in October 2016, for instance, three men were arrested for allegedly planning to set explosives targeting Somali immigrants in Kansas. I send Burns a link to “Ten Days After,” a report on post-election hate crimes compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC found that there were 867 reported cases of harassment and intimidation within ten days following the 2016 presidential election and that “many harassers invoked Trump’s name during assaults.” The report also described a historically black church in Mississippi that was set on fire and graffitied with the words “vote Trump” prior to the election. Burns pounces and declares the story to be false. Weeks after the arson (and after the SPLC published its report, which was later corrected), police discovered that a member of the church, not a Trump supporter, had actually done the damage. Burns immediately goes on the attack and uses the inclusion of the arson anecdote to dismiss not only the report but also the SPLC itself. “Educators, as you evidenced yourself, are by-enlarge [sic] rabid lefties,” he writes in an email. “It is the only way to advance your careers, it seems.”
Burns sends me another link, this one to a Fox News story. It discusses how a hoax, which involved a woman who claimed that she was attacked and had her hijab ripped off her head, was widely reported in the media. I start investigating other examples of fake news that have circulated on the left. Snopes reported that a frequently shared image of the KKK marching in North Carolina—one that I’d seen previously on Facebook—was false. Another picture that I recognize, of a Nazi flag flying on someone’s property, turned out to be not the work of a fascist but someone’s opaque critical comment on Trump. But even though mainstream media have reported some inaccuracies and hoaxes about discriminatory acts that had been attributed to Trump supporters, it’s a fact that, overall, hate crimes in the US are on the rise. The FBI reported that there were 6,121 reported hate crimes in 2016, and those numbers were up 5 percent from the year prior.
In my email response to Burns, I tell him that I can see the point he was trying to make. But, rather than using the moment to be conciliatory, Burns keeps pushing. “In terms of race, do you consider yourself Jewish rather than white?” he writes in a long email to me. “Is that why it is so easy for you to demonize white people?”
After a week of back and forth, Burns tells me that I have to show him concrete proof of how Trump supporters promote violence or else he’ll terminate our dialogue. “Should be a piece of cake for a crack reporter like you,” he challenges. I take my time and find three videos. The first, from CNN, shows middle-school children shouting “build a wall” in the presence of Latino kids. Burns responds: “Children chanting is not violence. Plus, sorry, this is CNN, the Clinton News Network.” Another video depicts a white driver hurling racist abuse at a person of colour. “Road rage comes in many forms,” Burns said. “But again, this wasn’t violence.” The third is of an older white man punching a black protester at a Trump rally. “Many of the agitators at Trump rallies were paid agitators wearing Bernie shirts to discredit both Trump and Bernie. They went there to provoke,” Burns retorts, offering an explanation that has been thoroughly debunked.
I feel as though I am up against an insurmountable wall—Burns has his facts, I have mine. What’s more, while I recognize that mainstream media might not be correct all of the time, it is, by and large, concerned with the truth. The same cannot be said about Burns’s oft-cited media organizations, which include biased far-right websites and publications that veer into the realm of conspiracy theories.
Jayson Harsin, a professor in global communications at the American University in Paris, is researching the phenomenon of “post-truth politics,” which describes how media is causing our democratic polarization. He says that many people no longer believe politicians, experts, journalists, or each other, and amidst all this cynicism, they instead are more likely to believe whatever is “emotional, out of control, angry, and highly uncivil.” In other words, “the truth” is whatever causes them rage. Harsin adds that compounding this is the dissolution of the old media ecosystem, where most people read, watched, and listened to the same sources. Now media has fragmented into hundreds of channels and created disparate audiences that receive different information. My feeling that Burns and I live in separate realities is underscored by the fact that, in a way, we do.
When I ask Burns how we might bridge the gap between our media echo chambers, his answer surprises me. “Empathy. If you truly want to understand where I am coming from, you will listen honestly and put yourself in my shoes,” he says. “If you are so locked into your position that you cannot listen and reply honestly, we can’t get anywhere.” Burns then brings up what seems to be his main concern: “The current mainstream tone leaves me feeling that the world seems to think it is okay to commit violence against whites,” he tells me. But rather than heed his advice, I remain irritated—how could he ask for an empathetic ear when he doesn’t listen to proof of how violence is routinely being committed against racialized people and other minorities? I ask Burns if he has personally experienced any kind of violence on account of his being white. He dodges the question and instead responds with a link to a video that shows people harming a Trump supporter. Burns’s battles, and his wounds, appear to exist only online.
I decide to visit Burns in his home province. A 2017 study from the University of California at Berkeley reported that encountering different ideas through text makes people more prone to “dehumanize” the communicator and view them as “having a diminished capacity to either think or feel.” I hope that an in-person interaction might help us understand one another.
Before I can book my flight, though, my tenuous relationship with Burns falls apart. It starts when I weigh in on a friend’s Facebook debate on whether punching neo-Nazis is defensible. Burns jumps in with a long stream of comments, accusing left wingers of justifying their violence by calling everyone they disagree with “Nazis.” He posts a link to a website where I find a claim that Jews invented communism and murdered 60 million Russian Christians. When I point out to Burns that this is false and anti-Semitic, he has none of it: “When you cry Hitler all the time, eventually it has no impact.” On my own page, Burns suggests that I should get my testosterone checked. One comment says, “I’ll be the first to cheer when the police kick your ass.” I can’t help but chuckle: the government-hating conservative wants to outsource his beating of me to the state. But I stop laughing when he writes about “poor migrants” raping my daughter.
The ordeal leaves me furious. I fantasize about flying to Calgary, meeting Burns in a bar, and punching him in the face. It feels like that is the only way left to communicate. But the rage passes—and I’m not particularly tough—so, instead, I cut off all contact with him. (Burns later told my editors that he stopped using Facebook because he found it a poor platform for sharing ideas. He also said that he found my online attitude toward Trump supporters to have been “hostile.”)
After my break with Burns, I feel a mixture of relief and despair. The experience offers me justification that my original paranoia concerning the right was warranted: Burns appears to be proof that the people on the other side are, in fact, my enemies. But time passes, and I cool off and come to another conclusion: self-righteous rage—on the left as much as the right—is only fuelling polarization. Besides, Burns doesn’t represent the whole right—he only speaks for himself. I’ll never find out why he’s at war, but despising him can’t be my way forward.
I spent the year following Donald Trump’s inauguration talking to men on the right, reading their websites, and watching their YouTube videos. After immersing myself in their world, I feel as though I can finally see society from their point of view. Yes, some people are fuelled by hate, but the values that others act on are often not that different from my own. Some are against economic disparity; others want to repair a sense of community that feels diminished. What stands out to me, though, is how much these white, middle-class men feel threatened by others. These feelings do not always appear to be justified, though, occasionally, they do. I think about the times I’ve disparaged and mocked people on the right, often without knowing anything of their motivations or experiences. I’ve realized that I am often selective about who I listen to and with whom I empathize. I still disagree with their social politics, but I can see how I’ve turned right wingers into bogeymen—created to affirm that my ideological allies and I are the good guys.
One night, out at a bar with two friends, I try to explain my changing views. I talk about how I think that people on the left have to stop demonizing the right and instead start acknowledging when comments or criticisms from right wingers are valid. As an example, I bring up a current debate on gender. A common belief on the left is that gender is a social construct—in other words, differences between men and women are entirely determined by their social conditioning. While I still mostly agree, I mention that there might be some truth to the argument favoured by the right, which says that behaviour is a product of biology. When my friends try to argue with me, I feel judged and get irrationally frustrated. I want to yell, Why won’t you listen to me? I’m a good person!
I go outside for a quick walk to calm down. Out of nowhere, a thought pops into my head: What if I’ve spent too much time on the other side and have become one of them? People on the far right have a term for this moment: taking the red pill. The phrase, which comes from the first Matrix film, describes the moment a person “wakes up” and finally sees our society for how it really is—supposedly full of incorrect liberal ideologies that we aren’t allowed to question. I feel a new sense of self-righteous anger: I am the lone truth teller, beset by groupthink. I can feel the appeal of this rebel identity.
This feeling of understanding my political doppelgängers was what I wanted when I started this experiment. But rather than feeling enlightened, I feel alone. I can no longer hate right wingers as a hard-and-fast practice, and because of that, I worry that I’ll no longer fit in with my left-wing team. I’ve pulled back the curtain, and instead of seeing enemies motivated purely by hatred and bigotry, I see scared people trying to convince themselves that they are good. Now when I look at left wingers, I believe that what drives us isn’t so different. The flaws that I’d previously attributed to the right, such as self-righteousness and non-empathetic judgmentalism, aren’t inherent to a particular ideology. They are traits that come with being human.
In August, I fly to Kelowna, where forest fires rage, to see Curtis Stone one final time. I walk into his backyard and am greeted by radishes, basil, and the best cherry tomatoes I’ve eaten all summer. I am on this trip with a specific purpose: I am under the impression that anger is fuelling Stone’s rants, and I want to find out where that emotion is coming from. If I understand that, maybe I can convince him to step away from his brand of antagonistic politics and bring his thinking in line with my own.
When we were together in Montreal, Stone had rambled about a bad breakup and his ex’s “feminist lawyer.” When I bring the conversation around to gender this time, Stone tells me that though he now identifies as an “alpha male,” this hasn’t always been the case. “I had always been a self-hating male,” he confesses. Self-hatred comes pretty naturally to me too—as does questioning my own masculinity—and I wonder how dealing with the same problems has led us to such different politics.
I decide to ask him outright where he thinks his anger comes from. “I was bullied by white feminists in university,” is his response. Stone says that, when living in Montreal, some feminists responded to his opinions by telling him to check his white male privilege. “What do I do with that? Don’t talk?” he asks me. He says that he kept quiet for a bit but eventually rejected political correctness outright. “That’s the whole birth of the alt-right!” he exclaims. “People have had enough of being told to shut up because they’re white men.” I try to explain to Stone that those women might have just been asking him to start listening to them and their perspective (in my experience, listening is not his strength). I’m not sure that he hears my point.
I move the conversation along and ask Stone about his infant daughter. When we discuss our shared love of parenting, Stone shifts the conversation to his own father. “All the things I critique myself for are things I saw in my dad and thought, Okay, I’ve got to change that,” he tells me. Stone describes his dad as a hard-ass—arrogant, hard to talk to, terrible at listening. His grandfather was the same way. “My family kind of had this no-love thing,” he says. Stone tells me that he was always a contrarian—he sees his switch from punk and anti-capitalism to the libertarian right as a continuation of his counter-cultural roots. I admit that I, too, had a difficult relationship with my father, and that’s what predisposed me to anti-authoritarianism.
These parallels don’t go unnoticed for Stone either. He tells me that he finds us to be similar—not just in regards to our lives but also in our politics. “You’re a classical liberal like me,” he says. “You believe in free speech, individual rights.” This leaves me deflated. I like Stone, and I’ve come to understand his positions, but it seems like he is no closer to comprehending mine. He doesn’t seem to get why I find his beliefs so concerning. We may be two oppositional white guys with buried anger, but that’s where the similarities end. Maybe, if a few things had happened differently, he’d have had my politics, or I his. But even so, there remains a gulf between us that understanding can’t bridge.
On our final night together, we attach Stone’s canoe to the back of his bike and cycle down to Okanagan Lake. The sun is beginning to set, a deep, smoky red caused by the nearby fires. It feels apocalyptic. It looks gorgeous. We canoe through glasslike water for forty-five minutes until we reach a small beach. We get out and smoke a joint, drink local cider, and jump into the lake as the sun drops behind a mountain.
We canoe back when the sky turns purple. “So in order to write your article,” Stone says between strokes, “to make it a good story, I guess you have to find something about me—some detail or secret— that explains why I’m wrong and you’re right.” I pause for a minute and think about what he said. Then the wind picks up and the water becomes choppy. We paddle on, and dusk turns to darkness just as we reach shore.