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An old friend loses his mind in the era of Trump

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I think I lost a friend yesterday due to politics. He’s an old friend—we go back fifty years—and while we don’t see each other from year to year because he lives in Marin, we connect on the phone. I called him yesterday, after five or six months, just to say hi. And he blew my mind.

He began by talking about how he’s been reading conservative media and finding it refreshing to get a different perspective. Then he said something about “the media lies about Russia and the 2016 election.” He was about to go on to a different topic when I stopped him.

“Wait a minute. ‘Media lies about Russia and the 2016 election’? Did I hear you right?”

I had. Russia did nothing, according to my friend (whom I’ll call him Albert). He insisted that the Trump-Russia scandal was all a CNN fabrication.

I had one of those moments when you hear a friend say something so bizarre that you’re afraid he has had a stroke. But Albert was just getting started. He went on to talk about “Trump derangement syndrome” and how the left was suffering from it. I realized I needed to get this conversation back on track or else it was going off the rails, so I said, “Albert, let’s not talk about politics. How are you, old friend?” But Albert was having none of it. He ranted about how the Democratic National Committee had stolen the nomination in 2016 from Bernie Sanders.

Now, I remembered that Albert had been a Bernie bro four years ago, although he ended up voting for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for president in 2016. Well, much as I wanted to change the topic, this was something I could not let stand. I reminded him that it was “people like you” who voted for third party candidates in 2016 who, in effect, got Trump elected.

Albert was incensed. He said that, as a Californian, he’d had nothing to do with getting Trump elected, because California was always going to vote blue, so his vote for Stein had changed nothing. Yes, I replied, that’s true, “But I said ‘people like you,’ not you. Enough people voted third party, or stayed home, to throw the election to Trump.”

I used to have this same conversation four years ago, both before and after the election, with disgruntled Bernie bro’s just like Albert. I thought that issue was behind us, but for David, it was alive and well. He began a lecture about “that woman from Florida—what’s her name?—who was the DNC National Chair in 2016. “Debbie Wasserman Schultz,” I said. “Yes,” Albert replied. “Her. She stole the nomination from Bernie.”

With increasing despair, and, I admit, some anger, I tried once again to steer the conversation into rational territory. “Albert,” I said, “that was four years ago. I know the Bernie bro’s were really pissed off, and were looking for someone to blame. But it was a free and fair primary process. Democratic voters simply preferred Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders.”

Albert hit the roof. “Free and fair process? Well, let me tell you—” and he launched into a whole new round of websites he’d read, conspiracy theories, proof if I was brave enough to see it. He was happy to send me links so I could see for myself.

Dear reader, this was my state of mind at that moment: I wanted desperately to end the charade because I’m sick and tired of these wacko conspiracy theories. I pictured Albert—who’s been a recluse for decades—sitting in his apartment all day long, surfing the web, getting sucked deeper and deeper down into the rabbit hole. I just could not listen to him anymore. “Albert,” I said, “I love you. You’re one of my oldest friends, and I hope one day we’ll resume that friendship. But I can’t listen to you anymore. I have to go.”

“Well, thanks for calling,” Albert said, sarcastically, as we both hung up.

Now, I’m prepared never to see or hear from Albert again. And that’s okay. He’ll go his way and I’ll go mine. But I’m shocked. How could Albert, a super-smart New York Jew, have gone so off the deep end? How do you account for someone slipping from the moors of reality into these debunked conspiracy theories? I can’t even call them “rightwing conspiracy theories” because I don’t know where they fit into the political spectrum. We need something beyond the old left-right binary system to describe the phenomenon of people like Albert. I don’t pretend to understand. All I know is that it makes me very, very sad. A good mind has succumbed to something I can’t fathom. Maybe the election will provide some clarity. But I doubt it…

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