Honolulu, HI – July, 2022

I reconnected with Pat this summer over the phone after several failed attempts. He had moved from Texas to Hawaii to continue working as a civilian for the US military. Back in 2012 he’d been concerned with the United States’ reputation on the world stage during the Obama years. He thought that Obama’s approach to foreign policy had caused the US to be seen as a waning super power, and that our country was less safe because of that. 

I started our follow-up call by asking Pat how he thought America’s reputation had changed in the last ten years, and how the Trump and Biden presidencies had played into that. 

“There’s no question,” he said. “It’s weaker than it was in 2012.” He told me he had initially felt good about Trump’s approach to foreign policy. He said, “I was really impressed by Trump. I was very impressed by his efforts to engage North Korea. The sanctions he put in place on China–I thought those were favorable. I think that he was right with respect to NATO, that they hadn’t committed to putting enough money into defense systems.”

I listened a little bit stunned, as it was my perception that these actions were exactly what had made the US look foolish in the eyes of the world and lose allies. While we agreed that the US’s position in the world had weakened since we last talked, we had near opposite interpretations of what had caused that to happen.

His tone changed a bit. He said that too much had hampered Trump’s ability to continue these foreign policy dialogues. To start with,Trump’s personality was too abrasive, the US media was out to get him, the impeachments undermined his authority, and then the COVID pandemic finished him off. He said, “I don’t think he really had an opportunity to complete his goals, and some of them would have been really really really good…but anyways, it’s over now.”

I asked him to say more about how he saw the changes in the world’s perception of the US over the last decade. He identified racial strife as “probably one of the biggest problems that resulted during Trump’s four years.”  “In the view of the world, this country doesn’t stand for justice, it doesn’t stand for freedom. Although that’s certainly not caused by President Trump, his personality fired up a lot of the racial rioting in the summer of 2020.”

He went on: “I think it’s brought into focus the tremendous racial inequality that exists in the United States. The difficulties that are percolating underneath the surface – that is unquestionably a weakness for the country. Part of the problem is the inequality and part of it is the perception of white people all being racist, which I don’t think is the case.”  Pat continued, “It’s been portrayed by the media that we’re in a country where you have these elite capitalists at the top, and everybody else, all the masses of people of color are treated unfairly and unjustly. That’s the way it’s portrayed. I don’t think that’s the case, but there are racial problems.” 

I appreciated that Pat was speaking so directly about racism and capitalism because they can be subjects that some of the people I’ve talked with downplay – like Angel had – whereas Pat was driving straight towards them. And yet he was framing the issues as if pointing out structural advantages and disadvantages was an unfair and hurtful form of domestic attack that was tearing our country apart. I couldn’t tell whether he was saying that the media’s portrayal of this issue was making the US look bad or that the racial and economic disparities themselves had weakened us. I asked in a backwards way, “So you don’t feel like that inequality is necessarily the problem, but that the perception and the conflict around that inequality is the problem?”

He replied firmly, “No, I think the biggest problem is inequality: the disparity in money and wealth, education. It’s just tremendous.” And then he looped back to the media and painted their role even more starkly.  “But you know, I don’t think the media helps when it comes to explaining that and discussing it. It’s so slanted that white people are cast as capitalists and racist.”  He sounded like he felt personally unfairly maligned, but even more pained by the country being seen as prejudiced or unjust.

He wondered how to address problems that go back as far as slavery and acknowledged they would take a lot of money to begin to remedy. He said he would be in favor of investing money to decrease the disparity in our country, even though he recognized many conservatives don’t believe that is an appropriate role for government. For him, the issue wasn’t whether we should do something to relieve inequities, but how to accomplish that, and how to get the money to do so. He was very hesitant about where the funds would come from or what we should invest in to make the necessary changes. He suggested investing in early childhood education as a possible option, but worried that the government couldn’t find the money for that. 

I asked whether we could consider reprioritizing some of the military’s budget towards domestic social programs that could help lift people out of poverty and improve living conditions for people of color. It seemed to me that he was saying that a major factor in our global reputation, and therefore our security, was the gaping racialized divide in wealth and all other metrics of success in US society, so I imagined he would have ideas about how we might reorient our budget priorities to overcome that. 

But he was concerned that any decrease to the military budget would make us even less safe. He believed  social assistance programs were rife with fraud, so giving them more money didn’t seem promising. I couldn’t find anything that he thought might be effective and possible.

We circled back around to how divided things have become in the country. He said, “the media creates so much animosity between people. I’m a Christian and I don’t think Christians stand for that. The media is just so divided, it is postured in such a way as to create the image that people are, everybody’s in this divisive mindset.”

While I absolutely agree with Pat that the media bears much responsibility for escalating the divisions between people across our country, our conversation brought into focus an underlying difference in the way we make sense of those impacts that tends to fall along right/left political lines: the question of whether calling out racism causes increased divisions or whether revealing real, existing problems it makes it possible for us to better face and remedy them. 

The intense polarization of our society feels dangerous – in terms of how we create a functioning democratic future together when so many of us utterly mistrust each other. At the same time, I guess I believe that creating the kind of equitable society both Pat and I want requires acknowledging what holds structural disparity in place generation after generation. Hopefully by recognizing our role in that, we can identify our agency to make change. That said, it is much easier to state that relating with our conflicts is necessary than to actually do it. I am haunted by the places in this conversation where I unintentionally avoided calling out our differences of perspective because it felt risky to our rapport.

Link to 2012 Conversation

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