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Column: As Trump leaves office, we talk about ‘bridging divides.’ Is that really possible?

A person with a megaphone talks to people behind a metal barrier
A supporter of President Trump, left, argues with protesters gathered at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia as votes are counted Nov. 5.
(John Minchillo / Associated Press )

When concentrations of hydrogen sulfide in the Salton Sea exceed 30 parts per billion, toxic compounds from agricultural and manufacturing runoff sometimes interact to produce a chemical reaction that is best described as a fart.

The flatulence of the inland sea smells like rotten eggs and rancid water, and winds can carry it all across the Southland, causing widespread chaos, confusion and disgust. Scientists and air quality officials run around testing dumpsters, landfills and cleanup sites until everyone realizes that, well, it’s just the Salton Sea farting again.

For these last four years, every Trump news cycle has reminded me of the Salton Sea’s flatulence: confusing, disgusting, and I can’t think of much else to say besides, “This smells absolutely awful.”

I haven’t said much about Trump these past four years. Not on Twitter, not in person, not even after becoming a columnist whose job was to weigh in on the day’s news.

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My silence was less of an attempt at objective restraint and more a distaste for crowds. I felt like everything that could be said had been said, posted, hashtagged and perhaps even screen-printed onto T-shirts and tote bags.

Trump hate was its own entire industry, with its own podcasts, talk shows and commentators. Entire careers were made out of coming up with the most viral reply to Trump’s latest tweet. I, too, believed that Trump was destroying much of what I find valuable about this country, but I had no desire to line up and pour water into the ocean.

And as a journalist, I also knew that I regularly interview Trump supporters and I needed them to feel like I’d hear them out. It’s a tradition that newspapers see themselves as a public square for different ideas, and it was in that tradition that our editorial page devoted an entire section to Trump supporters last week.

In their letters, Trump supporters criticized charged leftist rhetoric, scolded journalists for not being objective, bemoaned a general overemphasis on race and even pointed the finger at Los Angeles Times columnists like myself.

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Online, many liberal readers castigated us for publishing veiled defenses of white supremacy, noted that newspapers have endlessly profiled Trump supporters and complained that the letters revealed nothing new.

As a journalist, I deeply believe in the principle that hearing out all sides is important before rendering judgement on any issue. But as an Asian American, I have to point out the reality: Newspapers have never come close to truly being a public square, especially for people of color and immigrants in Los Angeles. Our task is not to regain that status, but to earn it in the first place.

I balk at the idea of “reaching out to the other side” because it means conceding that there is only one other side. And having observed various political disagreements up close, I don’t believe that we will reform our ideological opponents by beaming our good intentions, Care Bear-style, at people who live vastly different lives from us and thus make different choices.

And frankly, as an Asian American who has seen Trump’s rhetoric revive a strain of anti-Asian xenophobia this past year, I don’t see myself ever agreeing with those who think we’ve talked about racism too much. It wasn’t lost on me that nearly every Trump letter we printed was from a white person.

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I spend a lot of time thinking about why people think the things they think. Divisive political rhetoric is the norm for me as a 32-year-old who came of voting age after 9/11, not the exception. I don’t see this changing unless we radically change the stories we tell ourselves about elections.

Elections are not simply lively exchanges of ideas and reasoned debate — they are no-holds-barred battles of interests, ideology, technology and wealth. Division in society is not a rhetorical failure by one political party, or a mysterious disease in the public discourse to diagnose. It is a technological feature of the commercial information platforms we now rely on to shape our worldviews. An algorithm is not a fence you can reach over or an aisle you can cross.

By looking at Trump supporters as wayward apples who just happened to fall far from the tree, we fail to see that there are many trees, a whole forest even. We need to stop blaming the leaves and the branches for being so far apart and look at where the roots took hold.

So although Trump’s enduring support has sparked something of an identity crisis among some in the Democratic Party, I wasn’t surprised by the results. A commercial conservative media, run by billionaires with specific self-interests, created a different factual reality, and people voted according to that reality. And reporting on immigrant communities, I run into Trump supporters more often than you would think.

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The most recent was Mou Anitema, a cab driver with a booming laugh I met at LAX last month. Mou, a Tongan immigrant who came to the country with his uncle in 1997, was a proud Trump supporter because he believed that Trump would do a good job at running the economy.

I asked Mou how he felt about Trump’s cruelty at the border, his botching of the pandemic, how he encouraged and supported the rise of white supremacist groups. Mou was against those things, but they were distant to him. Mou thought of himself as a shareholder in America, and the president as his CEO. He needed to vote his wallet. Voting on ideals and principles, for Mou and a lot of other immigrants, is seen as naive.

I liked Mou a lot. He made me laugh several times, offered me some of his beans and rice and introduced me to other cab drivers. We left on good terms, after a pleasant conversation, neither having convinced the other of a single thing.


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