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A Sister’s Quest for Truth in the Era of Trump

(And, the companion piece to Trump’s List of Accomplishments)

I haven’t spoken with my younger brother since early March of this year. Before that, it was a cardboard phone call at Christmas on speaker phone with my husband. Before that, it was a late-night call almost a year earlier where he berated and lectured me for over an hour about a heated Facebook exchange we had just had.

I held the phone away from my ear as he shouted into it. HE was not out of line with his behavior, I was. HE was right and I was wrong and here’s why and why and why. Through the litany, I sat shaking with anger, smoking a cigarette into my fireplace wondering when the call would finally end.

When my brother called me this past March, the states were just starting to lock down for the Covid-19 Pandemic. I live in Washington where the first hotspot was already national news. He lives in Utah.

I had just gotten home from a work trip. 7 times in an airport in the span of 14 days in the middle of what we were coming to know as a global pandemic. I was scared, monitoring my body for symptoms and nervously sheltering in place.

When I saw his name on my caller ID, I hesitated to answer. That late night call still stung and I was inclined to ignore him. But we were in the middle of a pandemic and I was scared and he’s my brother and I love him and… I was scared. So, I lowered the drawbridge and answered the phone.

It was awkward at first but, that was to be expected. As the conversation started to unfold, I realized he wasn’t exactly concerned about my health, he was looking for information. Digging for data from his sister who was living in a hotspot, as a journalist would reach out to someone in a war zone.

Is it really that bad? What’s going on with this virus? Are people really getting sick? He wasn’t asking if I had any symptoms or if my husband was ok or our older parents. He wanted evidence. Of course.

I told him that I had just been in NYC less than a week earlier and there was panic in the air when I left. People were flying out of New York but not in. The final flight home, I got a first-class upgrade in a near-empty plane. I told him what we were getting on local news and press conferences from the Governor. I told him that I was scared and that, yes this was very real.

That seemed to satisfy. To his credit, he called my parents later that day, the first time in who knows how long. He called our older brother for the first time since Christmas. As the quiet panic was unfolding, families everywhere were putting aside old wounds, holding up white flags and checking in, including mine. A tiny silver lining to a global pandemic.

I like to be right. I like to be right all the time, every time. The only girl sandwiched between two raucous boys, I would regularly get ganged up on, sometimes playfully and sometimes not- as siblings do.

Since I couldn’t win wrestling matches or games that were physical competitions, I sought to outwit and out-argue anyone who dared come to battle. My strength came in winning arguments against my brothers, with my mom and then with boyfriends and husband. My combative nature in arguments won me gold medals I gave to myself constantly.

Enter Facebook, the grandest championship ring for arguing ever known to mankind. I took to it like an Olympian. I would leave a heated conversation with a sense of dominance and mental superiority only to wake up to 24 new messages, each a novella of its own to pore through and build your next case. It was thrilling.

About 10 years ago, Facebook was starting to lose its luster. Annoyingly, the only person I was consistently sparring with was my younger brother. Over the years, his politics had been taking a slow U-turn from where we used to align. Once Obama got elected, he stepped up his game and fought my liberal views like a champion.

We became expert journalists with only one target story: The Other One Was Wrong. He would share a sensational article about a van full of Muslims being bussed in to swing an election. I would find an article that disproved that, sources cited meticulously. He would argue that Obama was in the pocket of Big Government and I would send him stats on campaign contributions of the conservative candidates.

I delighted in poking holes in all his arguments, his anger and frustration only served as fuel. It was a game, a sport I was good at and I was out for blood. And, according to me I was winning at every turn. Each article or “proof” was a mic drop moment that I stole from him every time.

See, my brother likes to be right too. All the time, every time. Since we were young, he desperately wanted to be the smartest one in the room. I knew this because I did too. Now on Facebook, he approached each of our interactions with that same fervor. The deluge of data meant to drown me in stats proving he was right and I was wrong.

At the time, I genuinely thought he enjoyed the mental sparring that we both did online with each other. I know I did. Looking back now, I’m sure he felt attacked at every turn. Empathy gets lost when you’re an Olympic arguer.

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My connection with my brother got strained and then, something broke. This was beyond politics now. His anger toward me became palpable. Heated phone calls and texts, long emails detailed my every wrong doing done to him. Periodically, he would block me on social media leaving me in the dark, the ultimate insult. Our ability to communicate had broken and every new attempt would explode into another thousand pieces.

My little hobby was affecting another relationship too. My new husband was tired of listening to the laundry list of illogical points my brother made or the play by play of how swiftly I won a comment battle. Every small argument with my husband would turn into a vicious debate instead of healthy discourse. Our worst fights were in those first few years and I finally saw why.

I needed to win. Every time, all the time. My imaginary medals had become a yoke, weighing down my relationships, stunting me and I knew it.

To curb this trend, my husband and I started exploring the art of communicating effectively and how to bring respect into debate. It helped that he has a master’s degree in Conflict Resolution and had practical knowledge in the subject. Dedicated to this new frontier, I turned off my notifications from Facebook.

After a while, my delight shifted from forcing my perspective on others to learning about those different than my own. “Agree to disagree” wasn’t a failure, it was an opportunity. Not-Being-Right was a new strength that I (surprise!) hadn’t known about before.

Added bonus: my husband and I discovered that debates can be light, an exploration of ideas and even fun! I had to earn his trust that not every argument will turn into a fight. Eventually, I discovered I didn’t even want one.

A month before the 2016 election, my phone lit up. It was a text from my younger brother. Over the years, our relationship had drastically improved with cautious conversations and respectful boundaries set. We were in touch frequently now, the sibling love mostly restored. I eagerly opened my phone.

“I’m generally nervous and anxious for this election.” He had texted.

“Me too. This is terrifying.” My response didn’t reflect my shock.

Although we had successfully steered clear of politics for years, I generally knew where he stood. I had no idea that this election would make him as nervous as my liberal husband and I were. Maybe we had more common ground than I had originally thought?

He was worried about the state of the country and was seeking our perspectives. He said it was becoming increasingly important to have an “understanding of each other’s views on politics, the election, the government and the media”. In the spirit of unifying optimism, I cautiously agreed.

A few days later, he sent an email asking my husband and I to be prepared to link & cite sources to back up our thoughts and opinions on each subject we discuss. This was needed so he could research for himself the materials we provide.

Was he asking us for a deposition on our political views? Cite our sources to back up opinion? That sounded more like a court case than a conversation, I thought. I was wary.

Reading further, my brother told us that he was voting for Donald Trump. He detailed his reasons why in a thick no-breaks paragraph that was hard to read and hard for me to grasp. The admission read like a confession or a secret he had been keeping from us, possibly a show of faith to get me to open up and that it was safe. It didn’t seem safe.

To be fair, I knew my brother was sincere in this. His outstretched hand was there for me to take it. I wanted to believe that this wasn’t a trap to get me back into the ring but, what if it was? We had worked too hard on our relationship to gamble like this. He challenged me to trust him. Reluctantly, I agreed.

In the response, he thanked me for pushing onward despite my reluctance. My heart swelled for my old childhood brother/friend. Maybe we can do this! We can prove the divided American politics wrong and be a shining example of how to reach across the chasm. Together, we could find a way to restore dignity and respect in political discussions.

My optimism dipped as I read his rules of engagement:

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Reading that list of rigid rules, my heart rate jumped and my neck got hot. I knew this wouldn’t go well. Our track record was dismal and this felt dangerous somehow. Despite our cordial but loving relationship by that time, the landmines between my brother and I were still deeply buried. I wasn’t sure where they were but, I sensed them lurking.

I did not want to sacrifice the work that we’d done to walk into a mine field without any gear on. So, I punted and asked him what his kids wanted for Christmas.

My family started a Slack channel that January. Instead of fractal text threads, we could share news, our thoughts and have discussions about current events all in one place. We could take the time to read and ponder a response at our own pace.

I downloaded the app on my phone with eagerness. This idea seemed a way to have round table discussions and possibly a way to diffuse the lurking land mines with my younger brother.

The experiment was short-lived but, at least we tried. Some family members refused to engage with anything political while for some of us that was the only thing TO talk about.

My younger brother jumped in feet first, created a #politics channel, hungry to cite ALL his sources and provide data for every subject. Looking back at those threads, we all seemed so hopeful, vibrant and eager for discussion. And, then we got stuck in the mud.

One half-brother called all the Republicans Nazi’s and my mom gently suggested a level of decorum would be a better tactic. My younger brother posted the full PDF of the 2016 budget and expected us all to read it in full and report back to him with our breakdowns. He made new threads to dissect any subject into oblivion, our family channel becoming a maze of incoherence.

My husband posted a video of Sen. Rubio’s speech on the Senate floor saying “We are becoming a society incapable of having debate” and then promptly deleted the app off his phone.

At every turn, I watched as my younger brother was dominating the subjects, steering conversations and enforcing his personal debate rules, wearing down anyone who would challenge them. In response, several family members bowed out of any discussion and would only share inspirational quotes and pictures of kids. We were the microcosm of America playing out on a Slack board.

I still had faith that my brother and I could break through the madness of our old habits. I could use the tools I had learned for respectful discourse and maybe we would find an equilibrium. Instead, we dug our own rabbit holes and the rapid fire from my brother was dizzying.

Soon it became obvious to me that he didn’t want to listen to others’ opinions, he just wanted more ammo to launch new attacks. I recognized this because I knew his tactics intimately. They used to be mine. Instead of exploring ideas and perspectives, his only goal was to prove He Was Right.

Before long the only people left were myself, my younger brother and our mom (God love her patience). By March, my brother’s clinical writing style and surgical debate tactics overrode the system and people just stopped responding, including me.

After the Slack experiment was quietly abandoned, conversations with my brother resumed on Facebook. It seemed easier somehow. Safer even. The platform is designed to dole out smaller bites, we are spoon fed subjects to comment on. It also fosters short attention spans that curbs the desire to fully delve or discuss data points. The simplification was irresistible.

At first it was civil. I watched my brother’s comments and posts get more angry, searing and well… lazy. Sharing posts from people in the fringe political sphere he previously would never have given the time-of-day to, given his penchant for facts and citing sources.

Discussing false data as imminent fact, he was leaning into realms of conspiracy that defied logic to those who really knew him.

As 2018 ramped up with something new every day to get enraged about, we Americans started digging deeper in our respective trenches. We all picked our side and then brought our chains, brass knuckles and clubs to the brawl. Conversations devolved into yelling matches and no one was listening anymore. Memes became the language of debate and there was no room for compromise and no turning back.

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I observed my brother, like many Americans at this point, blatantly disregarding facts, friendships and family to hammer his point until it got bloody. My brother, who previously would not accept anything without citing multiple verifiable sources was now endorsing Alex Jones’ opinion as fact. Conspiracies without proof were being leveraged as data points.

I couldn’t just stand by. So, I decided to engage in a new battle against his chosen path to Truth.

I commented on all of his posts, pointing out the bias and misinformation- the very thing he was railing about. I provided articles and links to support an alternate view to his with verifiable, cold hard facts. I used his own tactics against him but, nothing worked. My offerings were deemed “liberal propaganda” and I obviously didn’t want to know “The Real Truth”.

DO YOUR RESEARCH! he would yell in all-caps. But, I was. And, because of our history, it was backfiring.

I was glaringly one of the only “liberal” voices in a stream of regurgitated Trump talking points and tired Tea-Party conspiracies. When folks in his sphere attacked my intelligence, call me stupid or a troll, he started siding with them. Without a pause to consider, my brother was lacing his boxing gloves back on and stepping back into the ring. It was clear he wanted a TKO.

It all finally came to a head, as it was destined to do. In one particular comment battle, I forcefully called out his false data and his bullying. By doing so, apparently I had crossed a line. During that phone call as I smoked into my fireplace, he made it clear that I was the child to be scolded, punished for my ignorance.

He unleashed his anger at me and I let him and it was ugly. His desperate need for dominance and the Need-to-be-Right overrode my voice, my feelings, my place in his life. I felt the scaffolding that my brother and I had constructed tremble and then collapse in in a plume of smoke and debris.

After that call, the friendly “Hey, how are you” phone calls, texts about comedy specials and news about his kids dropped off abruptly. I didn’t engage and neither did he and that was that. By 2019, it was only Christmas and birthdays.

Most of my liberal friends by then had blocked or un-friended their conservative Trump supporting community and I imagine Trump supporters did the same to the liberal folks in their life. I resisted that urge somehow.

Maybe because it was the only line left to my brother and cutting it would feel more permanent. Maybe I wanted to see how he is doing, parse out what he is thinking by silently studying his posts and comments, my last little window into his life.

Enter 2020, a pandemic and election year. After my brother called in March, we resumed tentative Facebook likes and comments again. Somehow it didn’t seem that strange when the world was even stranger.

His posts and comments had become another kind of litany filled with rage against the “Deep State”, pedophile rings and long paragraphs about how the Mainstream Media is lying to us daily.

Poorly made memes that hyped up the latest cover-ups and felonies against the American People. Un-ironically, he was detailing the media’s war on facts using falsehoods. He would urge everyone to WAKE UP! FOLLOW THE MONEY! And of course, DO YOUR RESEARCH!

By then, it was already clear to me that my brother had espoused the conspiratorial headlines that were being spoon-fed to him by Trump’s tweets and the right-wing propaganda machine. This was maddening but, not shocking.

I had seen his suspicions grow during the Obama administration, using false data to prop up weak arguments. He had been mentioning a mysterious “Deep State” and rampant voter fraud for years now. I had been watching it in slow motion for years and now I was seeing it blossom in real time.

I couldn’t just stand by, could I?

How could I reach him when he doesn’t want to be reached? My fear of losing him wasn’t holding me hostage anymore because it felt like I already had. This realization gave me confidence.

The only thing I knew about him for sure was that he still desperately wanted to be Right. That was my only opening. So, I decided to engage, this time quietly and calmly.

Sporadically, I would point out fallacies in his arguments, gently flag the fake news and share a link to actual research challenging his claims. He would respond with a text shout of DO YOUR RESEARCH and I would shrug it off.

Sometimes after a little back and forth, he would drop his argument and off the comments. Or, I would. So far, it’s still a friendly arrangement.

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In August, my brother shared a post called: The List of Trump’s Accomplishments. I had seen this float around from the other Trump-supporting folks in my Facebook feed. Having seen it almost a dozen times by now, I finally clicked into it. It was a very, very long list.

Having read the first few lines, even on first glance I knew that some of these were wrong or at the very least exaggerated. Had he even read this list entirely before sharing? Had he gone through to meticulously vet it the way he did all my posts and Slack comments in the past? I kept reading.

To my ultimate horror and confusion, at the very bottom it stated, “No links provided to remove bias as Google search is easy.” That was way off-brand for my brother.

After seeing that, I immediately wanted to DO THE RESEARCH and document my findings even if he never would read it. I had just been laid off and we were in the middle of a pandemic. I had the time so, I did.

Here is the link to that exhaustive list: Trump’s List of Accomplishments

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As I was researching, it was like my younger brother was in the room with me. Sitting on my shoulder as I pored through news articles, FBI graphs and Bureau of Labor Statistic charts, he made sure that I wasn’t veering toward “Liberal biases” that would obviously discount all of my research.

Don’t link to anything from The New York Times or MSM! They obviously can’t be trusted! Instead, I chose Reuters, AP and local news where I could find it to satisfy his imaginary requests.

I imagined him scrutinizing everything I wrote, every chart I included, how I worded the summaries to each section. It was energizing. Because, I knew if he ever read MY piece, he would check ALL of my sources, click ALL of the links and probably take notes to argue.

And, that drove me to be even more careful to curb my bias and strive to simply present the facts. I didn’t want him to find any holes in my research. I took it as a personal challenge.

My greatest revelation from writing it was that there isn’t any competition when it comes to facts and data. They can be gloriously neutral in such an explosive, divisive time. And, I found comfort in that.

I wanted to do this research, not to prove him wrong or provoke an argument but to show him that it is still possible to present “un-biased” data and provide context to every subject. It just takes time and patience and you have to report what you find, even if you don’t like it.

He is a self-proclaimed “Seeker of Truth”. And, although he might never read it, I wanted to show him that I can be one too. One that finds solid footing in data, official records, cross-referencing and facts.

I think about my brother’s conspiratorial beliefs in his “War on Truth and Reality” and how severely that contradicts his devotion to data and proofs. For someone like my brother, this takes Olympic-level mental gymnastics to support these theories. But he’s been practicing for years.

I do worry about him and the path his Search for Truth has taken him. I worry that we may never be able to have a productive debate or even worse, be true friends again.

But my brother and I will always have a shared language that is hardwired into each of us, that NEED-to-be-Right. That insatiable desire might have been our undoing but, it could be what unites us again someday.

To a person who reveres Truth above all else, bending truths to meet your narrative of the world will get exhausting. Settling for weak data that is easily disproved will eventually become embarrassing. Having arguments that are fallible and disregarding new information will get claustrophobic. And, not responding to challenges will ultimately become unsatisfying.

That supreme feeling when you have a well-formed argument that is infallible from every angle is better than any drug. And he knows it.

Seeker of Beauty, Truth and Lover of Cats.

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