If there’s one thing that Americans agree on it’s that we are living in a moment of great political polarization. The most common prescription is to venture outside of the bubble: follow some people you disagree with on Twitter; read what the other side is reading; if you live in Brooklyn, talk to your relatives from Kansas. This has especially been the mantra for liberals. Don’t assume every Trump supporter is a fool or a bigot, you elitist; try listening to one!
On television this usually becomes a Catch-22. There are intellectually diverse panels and cross-party interviews aplenty. But if you listen, you hear Trump’s backers spouting something really foolish and at the very least racially insensitive about, say, Trump not lying but speaking “Americanese” or about Trump’s birther claims having nothing to do with race.
The challenge for talk shows looking to give voice to Trump’s supporters is that defending the president on a nightly basis means seeing red where there is green — or seeing hundreds of thousands of people where there are none. Many of the most thoughtful conservatives left Train Trump back at the station — those remaining seem to be hanging on to the railing at the the back of the caboose, ready to jump.
This week, podcaster and former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett appeared on Brian Stelter’s “Reliable Sources” and criticized CNN’s Trump-supporting talking heads as “not intellectually honest people.” He added: “These are people building a brand, willing to say anything.” Beyond Lovett’s blanket critique, though, was a bigger point: that the form of these discussions is as much to blame as the characters. “Cable news speaks in a dead language” that is “inaccessible” and “alienating,” he said.
Lovett, of course, has a stake in shifting attention from what people can see and hear to what they can only hear. He’s in the podcasting business. But the idea that the conversations in long-form interviews are more substantive and honest than the ones in short cable news segments is one that should find wide resonance.
To understand why, we went back to an interview between two ideologues from opposing sides of the aisle who claimed to be seeking something called commutuality and examined how it broke down.
On the March 24 episode of “Real Time With Bill Maher,” Maher’s opening interview was with Matt Schlapp, who is the chairman of the American Conservative Union and a Donald Trump supporter. Maher thanked Schlapp for meeting him in hostile territory and then said, let’s “start with what we agree with. . . . I think we would agree, you’re not blind to why a lot of people are freaking out about [Trump], right?”
Schlapp was happy to begin in accord. He gave a simple, affirmative “no.” Afterward he would explain to me in a follow-up interview, “Something I tend to do in debates is try to find something to agree on. I’ll usually respond audibly, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘That’s right.’ Just to try to have a foundation and have a conversation.”
Maher’s show is taped live in front of a large studio audience, predominantly full of zealous liberal fans. The format of the show resembles a dinner party; conversation is free-form, unbeholden to the language and structural constraints of cable. It’s a daunting show for anyone to appear on, but can be especially daunting for conservatives. “I’m used to being in very hostile environments to defend conservatism,” Schlapp said, referring to his regular appearances on MSNBC and CNN and his speaking engagements at college campuses. “I’m not quite used to doing it in front of a crowd like that. I was a little nervous, in all candor.”
Before the show begins, the “Real Time” producers work vigorously to ensure that guests have a positive experience and that the conversations are engaging. They implore the audience to treat the guests courteously. And they thoroughly prep first-time guests. “One of the things they talked to me about is they’re not interested in a shouting match,” Schlapp said. “They want to have a real conversation, and that was really appealing to me.”
But cordiality was not why Schlapp agreed to appear on “Real Time.” “My motivation in doing this is that I’m a conservative activist,” he said. “I want more people to realize that we’re thoughtful and that we have the right answers and that there’s a rationale to the positions we take. My hope is that I leave some small segment of the audience thinking, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that’s what conservatives are about. That actually makes some sense.’”
“Real Time” is first and foremost a comedy show. But it’s not lost on Maher or the show’s producers that many people stay informed through talk shows like theirs rather than through newspapers or radio broadcasts. “We feel a level of responsibility,” “Real Time” executive producer Scott Carter said during a phone conversation. “We think we would be irresponsible not to be representing the opinions of half the electorate. . . . I also think the democracy progresses and the species progresses when people with differing viewpoints get together. I think that’s a benefit to all.”
Schlapp is on the reasonable end of the Trump supporter spectrum. He comes off as authentic. He will acknowledge that Trump is “full of a little bit of bullshit” and will not claim to have seen people who don’t exist. So how can he justify the lying and the irresponsible behavior? Why does he support Trump?
In Maher’s interview with Schlapp, it was hard to say. Maher was seeking common ground, but it was ground on his side of the divide. He did not ask “Why do you believe this?” so much as “How could you believe this?” Maher’s questions included, “Do you think [Trump] is a liar on a scale we haven’t seen before?”; “You would admit that he’s an egoist, right?” and, “What about a narcissist?”
Schlapp responded to what quickly became an interrogation with a mix of denial (“No. I think he ran against someone who was a liar on a scale we haven’t seen”), qualified agreement (“I think he has a healthy ego”) and evasion (“Everyone in politics is a narcissist”). In the 15-minute interview, the viewer learned that Schlapp thinks that Trump should be impeached if he commits treason and that he thinks the Republicans “can’t run around and just be against things.” Otherwise, the interview’s merit was as combat theater.
Afterward, Schlapp reflected that Maher’s questions were legitimate though tough. “The one thing that I did not appreciate is he tried to browbeat me into accepting his definitions,” he said. “I feel like when you’re being interviewed that that’s not fair — you’ve got the right to ask any question, but you’ve got to let me give the answer I want to give.”
To browbeat and battle is Maher’s modus operandi with conservative guests. But when a viewer changes the channel, what they see is rarely more illuminating. Panel discussions are sport. Rather than listen, it is natural for viewers to root for their side’s representative. And guests internalize this sense of competition. “When I do TV, I get myself into the mode of a machine gun, kind of spraying an answer with a certain rhythm,” Schlapp said. “It needs to be quick and to the point, don’t languish, sum up and get out. . . . You want to make good TV. TV is a business and it’s got to work or else they don’t want you back.”
And so it should be no surprise that the picture a liberal gets of Schlapp and his beliefs is more three-dimensional when the visual dimension is subtracted. To hear Schlapp on a podcast, such as CNN’s “Party People,” which is hosted by two conservatives who do not support Trump, is to gain real insight into the opposition. In the podcast, Schlapp acknowledges the problems he has with Trump and elaborates on why he’s able to look past those issues. He might come off as disillusioned, but he does not come off as a bigot or a blowhard.
Schlapp attributed the difference to the level of comfort a guest feels when participating in each medium. “I think everyone always feels more comfortable on a podcast,” Schlapp said. “You don’t feel comfortable when you’re on a TV set. You have makeup on, which is strange for a guy. You’re sitting up straight in your chair. And you’ve got wires hanging around everywhere.”
The result is that if television is combat, a long-form audio interview is diplomacy; it is more conducive to thoughtfulness. “It’s really annoying on podcasts or on long radio interviews, you get these moments where someone has asked a really good question and it stumps you,” Schlapp said. “It’s terrible because you’re like, ‘Wow! That’s a very revealing question and that makes me rethink some things.’ When that happens to you live, it’s a little bit unnerving. Where you’re used to being very glib and giving answers you’re used to giving, all of a sudden you can’t do it.”