You know a friendship is in trouble when you consult a social psychologist to help figure it out.
Two days after President Trump reportedly made his remarks about immigrants from “shithole countries,” and one day after we learned that one of his lawyers paid a porn star $130,000 in hush money to keep secret an alleged, consensual tryst she’d had with Trump, my wife and I dined with an old, dear friend.
We hadn’t seen him in a while. Our friendship has frayed these last 18 months, over Trump, and his policies and style.
The evening didn’t go well. We had agreed to lay off politics, which, pre-Trump, had never been a focus for us. But then I opened my mouth. I just couldn’t help it. What is the value of a friendship, after all, if so much is off limits, all the way down to Colin Kaepernick and the NFL?
I steered clear of Trump’s legislative agenda. But what about Trump the man?
“Can we at least agree on that?” I asked. “That the things he’s said and done — the race-baiting, the name-calling, the womanizing, the divisive attacks on immigrants and refugees and everyone who opposes him — doesn’t that make you question his character?”
Our friend, a retired attorney, responded as if he were a hostile witness and I was challenging his testimony. “I don’t judge people,” he said firmly.
I didn’t buy it. I decided to make it personal. “Look, suppose you learned that your son had cheated on his wife” — a woman my friend adores. “How would you feel?”
“I wouldn’t judge him,” he insisted.
We stared at one another, both of us aware that he was lying.
Somehow we soldiered through the rest of the meal, each of us unrecognizable to the other. We parted without making future plans.
The drive home was painful. I’m 68, an age when I should be holding onto my friends, not shedding them. This man was important to me. He had been to my wedding. I’d been to the wedding of his son. Our political differences, while significant, had never before clouded our deep feeling for one another. How, then, to explain this chasm that had developed between us? I turned first to Linda Skitka, a University of Illinois at Chicago psychology professor who studies the psychology of political divisiveness. She doesn’t hold much hope that we’ll recapture the closeness we shared.
Skitka told me about a study she and two other academic psychologists conducted in 2015, in which they examined people’s willingness to listen to those on the opposite political side. Each of their 202 subjects, some conservative, some liberal, was offered a choice regarding the issue of same-sex marriage: They could read and respond to eight statements that argued against their personal viewpoint, and be eligible to win $10 in a drawing. Or they could read and respond to eight that affirmed their worldview and qualify for $7. Nearly two-thirds opted for the belief-confirming $7 choice.
“The idea of actually entertaining the other’s point of view is about as adverse as going to the dentist,” Skitka said. “We’re at a point in history in which it’s not so much about politics. It’s about our hatred of the other side.”
I hung up the phone and brooded. Reflexively, I turned on the TV. Nicole Wallace was anchoring on MSNBC. Chuck Todd would follow. I realized I could name the station’s news hosts as readily as I could the Dodgers starting lineup. I couldn’t do the same with the Fox News personalities. Feeling less than righteous, I sought a second opinion.
Albert Bandura is an emeritus professor of psychology at Stanford and the author of the book “Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves.”
“Why,” I asked him, “will a person go to irrational lengths to defend an act that he or she knows is indefensible?”
“There has to be a lot of self-deception in this,” Bandura said. “I’m quite sure that your friend is maintaining a good deal of self by not examining in great detail what reality is really like.”
“But,” I countered, “he would say the same of me.”
“Yes, but in the case of Trump, he has a conflict. He wants what Trump preaches,” Bandura said, meaning the Supreme Court, immigration, healthcare, all the rest. “But at the same time, he has to put up with a guy who is immoral and has no values whatsoever. His defense is, ‘It’s not my business to judge him.’”
Bandura left me feeling morally cleansed. But I was still minus a friend. I made one final call, to Christopher Federico, a University of Minnesota professor of psychology and political science whose expertise is public opinion and political psychology.
“What is the likelihood,” I asked him, “that my friend will return to rational thought?”
Federico cautioned me not to look upon Trump’s election as a tipping point of national disjunction. “If you look at the longer sweep of history, a lot of political scientists would say we’re just returning to a state of polarization that was common in the 19th century,” he said. He pointed to the Civil War, but could have added battles over women’s suffrage and decades of labor and racial strife.
Then he warned me not to get my hopes up. “Your friend’s group affiliations are not going to change. In general, we find that partisanship — the party you identify with — is incredibly stable over a lifetime. It gets set between ages 18 and 25 for most people, and doesn’t change.”
Federico offered one sliver of hope. “Norms are set by party leaders,” he said. “If Republican leaders dial things back, then we might see people in the general public dial back, as well.”
“What are the chances?” I asked, sensing I already knew the answer.
“I don’t personally see anything that is going to cause that to happen anytime soon,” he said.
A grim prognosis, to be sure. The thing is, I don’t want to write off our friendship. My friend has decided to take up golf. He’s had lessons, but has yet to actually play a round. I have not had lessons, and play in a manner that few would describe as golf. It would mean five hours sequestered together. Hopefully, we will find something of value to talk about.
Ron Berler is the author of “Raising the Curve: Teachers, Students — a True Portrayal of Classroom Life.” Twitter: @ronberler