Joy Reid wants to give Republicans an off-ramp
Welcome to the first issue of The.Ink
Welcome to the first official issue of The.Ink, a newsletter by me, Anand Giridharadas. To mark this beginning, please join me today at 12:30 p.m. ET for a live video chat on Twitter: @AnandWrites.
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It’s never too late to see the light.
Or is it?
That’s a question I’ve been thinking about in recent days, especially after I started eating carbs again, before realizing, again, I needed to stop.
Let me spill some tea, in case you haven’t had your morning cup. Last summer, a representative of James Murdoch, scion of the right-wing media empire, contacted me. Days earlier, I had spoken to a reporter from The Intercept about the young Murdoch’s effort to wipe the stink of Fox News off of himself, by donating to Unite America, a group with the lofty mission of healing a nation “more divided and dysfunctional with each election cycle.” Donating to solve a problem you’re still helping to cause is quite something, but it’s also very common. I told the reporter:
“We have to be very clear about the nature of the transaction. The Murdochs are trying to buy mercy on the cheap and it is being willingly sold to them by people who should know better.”
“I think there could be ways, if they are trying to give away their money, that they can atone for breaking America apart. But it would begin with them standing before a bunch of microphones and saying they recognize they created the problem.”
After these comments were published, the Murdoch emissary reached out. They wanted, I figured, to change my thinking about James. But the emissary proposed to do the lobbying themselves. I suggested that I meet James Murdoch directly. That killed the conversation.
But the memory came back to me when, in recent days, James Murdoch actually resigned from News Corp, citing fundamental differences with his family.
What would it take for someone like James Murdoch to go beyond resigning and donating and actually atone for helping to ravage the country?
And how should the rest of us greet his conversion, should it come and should it seem genuine?
How do we treat people when they see the light? It is an eternal question, but one with particular salience in the Trump era. Trumpism is a sadomasochistic death cult-cum-irreligious tent revival. It has ensnared a great many people. And the rest of us beg for some of them to see the light, stand up and be counted, go against the grain, think for themselves, be brave, put country over political S&M. And then, when a small number of people sort of seem to do just that, we’re not sure what to do.
Is it too little, too late? Were they first profiting from the problem and now defecting to be able to profit from the solution to what they enabled? Does seeing the light allow them to position themselves suddenly as leaders of a movement where they should be, at best, apologetic followers?
Do you get a cookie for ceasing to be awful?
And, on the other hand, if we don’t accept the defectors when they see the light, what exactly were we urging them to do all this while, and why?
A few days ago, Steven G. Calabresi, a law professor and a co-founder of the Federalist Society, which has done as much as any organization to ensure the right-wing takeover of the courts, wrote a stunning Op-Ed in The New York Times. Declaring his Republican bona fides up front (“I have voted Republican in every presidential election since 1980, including voting for Donald Trump in 2016”), he spoke of a political awakening: “Until recently, I had taken as political hyperbole the Democrats’ assertion that President Trump is a fascist. But this latest tweet is fascistic and is itself grounds for the president’s immediate impeachment again.” The tweet he was referring to (because there are many tweets) was the chickenshit one suggesting that the November election be delayed.
Like a lot of people, I felt two things at once. I felt: This guy is doing the right thing, and maybe it will give others permission! And: Screw this guy!
New York Times reader comments were vicious: “Your op-ed is a little late.” “I got there by the summer of 2016. Thanks for catching up, though.” “How did the author not know that this is what he was voting for?” “The only reason you're penning this now is because you realize the gop is going to get thrown out.”
This comment is what passed for gratitude: “Well, Mr. Calabresi, welcome to the club. The bar's getting pretty crowded, but I'll try to make room for you.” Relatedly or not, it came from Canada.
The same question has arisen with the veteran Republicans behind the Lincoln Project ads. One of them, Stuart Stevens, has just published a book called “It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump.” A testimony of seeing the light. And a great many opponents of Trump welcome their emotive, patriotic, cutting ads. And many others give them the Calabresi Side Eye: Where were you when the groundwork was being laid? Where were you on Iraq and the Bush tax cuts and Sarah Palin and post-9/11 torture? There is a particular worry that a Biden presidency will, owing the effectiveness of these ads, come under the heavy influence of these longtime Republicans.
It was the same when Mitt Romney declared that Black Lives Matter. Was it too little, too late, or a triumph for that movement to begin to be bipartisan?
And it’s not just with the right and Republicans. Joe Biden is now the standard-bearer for the Democratic Party, running on an agenda that, almost despite himself, is more progressive than would have been imaginable a decade ago. Yet he is a man whose record on race has been problematic at best. For some, it is enough that he seems to have seen the light. For other, otherwise loyal Democrats, it isn’t enough. There is a desire to see him own up to his time in the dark.
One of the reasons I’m launching this newsletter is that I worry that, in so many of our discussions now, we don’t give each other space to change. We want people to agree with us, but we don’t actually reward people who come around. Yet I’m also sympathetic to a lot of the reasons why we don’t. I wrote a whole book about people who break things and then cosplay as fix-it saviors.
This week, for the opening issue of The.Ink, I’m publishing an interview with the MSNBC television anchor and author Joy-Ann Reid, who recently took over the 7 p.m. hour on the network with her new show “The Reidout.” The question of what to do with those who see the light is all over our conversation. Joy talks about giving people an “off-ramp.” Millions of white people need an off-ramp from an America centered on them. Biden needs an off-ramp, a way to “explain the past in a way that doesn't force him to feel beaten up about the past, but that allows him to grow from it.” She is more sympathetic than some on the left to the Republicans defecting from Trump — you gotta give them an off-ramp. And she says all this as someone who was given such a ramp herself, and gratefully took it, when she was confronted with homophobic comments on an old blog of hers.
It is a meaty, meandering, and highly engaging conversation, beginning with her own origin story and getting into Trumpism, white supremacy, and the hopeful case for America as jazz music. It is almost certainly too long for a well-thought-through newsletter. But this isn’t a well-thought-through newsletter. This is The.Ink.
“America is eaten away on the inside by the knowledge of what we've been”: a conversation with Joy-Ann Reid
It seems to me in a lot of the phases and institutions you’ve passed through, you're a fish out of water. Can you talk about how that's informed your politics and your journalism?
I'm looking back, and I'm doing a life regression. It's true. I always have been a bit of a fish out of water. I was born in New York. My mom was from British Guiana. She and my father, who was Congolese, they split up. Well, back and forth. They split up a couple of times when I was a kid, but we eventually moved to Denver.
Did they split up at an age when you were aware that that was happening, or not really?
I just remember my father being around when I was around six and then not being around from then on. Intermittently, he would pop up. Every couple of years, he would show up again.
He went to the Colorado School of Mines and got his Ph.D. in geology, and then, once he graduated, he pretty much left and didn't come back. We were a family with a single mom, three kids — my older sister, myself, and my younger brother. We were the only West Indian family in the entire town of Montbello. No one ate the food we ate. My mother had an accent that people thought was British. No one had heard an accent like that before. People found my accent weird.
Most of the people I grew up around were African-Americans. They had a very strong African-American-sounding accent and I didn't, so I definitely stuck out. I was also super nerdy, so that's not fun. To be the nerdy kid with glasses in a town where people are like, Why are you reading books all the time? I kind of leaned into that. I literally walked around with War and Peace my junior year, just me. I was both reading it and also trying to make a statement.
Then I went to Harvard, where of course there were 6 percent Black students. All the rich people were white and even the Black people were rich, and I was not rich. I went to public school. My mom passed away right before I started college. I was kind of an orphan, and I really actually hated it. I was miserable in college.
Tell me about that first year.
My first year was horrible. My mother actually passed away days before school started, of breast cancer. We didn't know she had cancer. We just knew she had been in the hospital and then she got back in the hospital again, because it came back. West Indian moms don't tell you things.
I remember one time we kind of figured out that we were broke. We didn't have any money, and my sister, my brother, and I, we wrote a bill. We sat there and we wrote a bill. This was probably tenth grade. We wrote my father a bill and we counted up everything — food, mortgage. We just guessed what everything was and we sent it to him in the Congo. He never wrote back.
I'm not surprised.
The summer before Harvard was great, and then the fall was horrible. I had to be there on the 22nd. She passed away on the 3rd. I didn't want to go because my brother was only 11 going on 12. My sister was already at Brown. I just didn't want to go, or, if anything, I wanted to go to Brown so I could be with my sister, but our family was like, No, you gotta go. This is what your mother dreamed of. So I went.
It was a weird thing because I was in this world where it was all white. There was only one other Black person in the whole dorm. It was me and one guy. It was just weird being in an environment where I used to be the majority and now I was deeply the minority where people were trying to touch my hair — the whole thing, the whole nine of being Black around white people.
What's the rest of the whole nine, beyond touching your hair?
They want to touch your hair. They want to know how does your hair stand up like that? I'm sure people ask you the same thing. How does it do that? That's amazing.
In my case, it's wax, not heritage.
I had braids when I went in there. They were just fascinated by what they would call a “haircut.” It's not a haircut! Just trying to find somewhere to get your hair done was crazy, and the food was weird. I was used to Caribbean food. There was nothing to eat, and I had actually gone vegetarian.
You were like, Where is the flavor? Did someone ban flavor?
There's barely anything but salt in anything. So freshman year was hard. I spent a lot of time at Brown with my sister and failing classes and getting on academic probation. Almost getting kicked out and then I decided, you know what? I need to take a break.
I took a year off just to get myself together. Moved back to New York, moved in with my auntie back where we had been born, in East Flatbush, and spent a year working temp jobs and trying to save money, because of course my mother's bill was passed on to me, so I had to figure how to pay that bill.
That Harvard experience, how much do you feel that's been a prism for you in understanding how the American power structure works?
What you learn at a place like Harvard is how many doors privilege opens up. That you don't have to be the smartest or the most capable if you're rich. That you get that access to your whole future just by getting the Harvard brand on you, once you go through that door, even if you fail your classes. There were people who got Is, incompletes. It didn't matter. At the end of the experience, all that mattered was the networks that they had created, and these were very closed, often very male, white-male networks, and the very few men of color who could get in with them. That finals club world, the equivalent at Harvard of the fraternity world, was a very closed network.
I understand, having gone there, why so many presidents and corporate titans went to Harvard and Yale and these schools, because it is a network. Those of us who were public-school kids, I don't think we really understood it at the time.
We just saw it as we're in school, we have to get good grades. I wasn't thinking about it as a network. The other people who already had been there and done that throughout their lives, they understood that is how power is built in America. It's generational. It's very race-based, and it's very exclusionary.
A lot of people who think of themselves as part of the resistance to Trump don't understand his appeal at all and therefore are not very effective in resisting him. There's an attitude of “How could this work for anybody?” But the reality is it does work for a lot of people. You've been very insightful about what it is. Can you explain his appeal in as sympathetic a way as you understand it?
Because I have an African father, we talked a lot about South Africa growing up in our conversations. His whole career was spent in South Africa because he was in the mining industry. If you think about South Africa, which to me is the country that's the most like America, what white South Africans feared was that their minority status would actually become operative. They were already physically the minority, but they feared they would lose control of the majority and that they would then be treated the way they treated the majority, and that was always their fear. That they would be treated as poorly as they knew damn well they were treating Black Africans. In America, the terror is becoming the minority. The terror is becoming subject to the rule of Black and brown peoples.
Who you fear might treat you the way you treated them.
Correct, and that the only thing these people would have on their minds is revenge. It's part of the reason there's such a resistance to talking about slavery. Part of the reason there's such a resistance to talking about the brutality of American history is because in the minds of a lot of Americans, revenge is on the ticket if they ever become subject to the rule of non-white people.
There's probably psychologists who could help us with this, but it’s as if there's this bile in our national body politic about how the white majority has treated various other people, particularly Black people, from the beginning of this country, and people anticipate an inversion of that. They anticipate a turning of the tables where they are going to be ruled by others the way their ancestors ruled others.
One hundred percent, and I think there's also a pernicious sense among a lot of people, and even some non-white people, that countries ruled by non-white people are poorly ruled and immediately descend into the third world.
There's that, and then I've read a lot of psychology of the slaveholding era, and the reality is that holding other human beings as slaves and then going to church and then going to work and then pretending that you are a good person and still wanting to feel like a good person, wanting to feel like you are moral and Christian and having all those things happen at the same time, it actually not just diminishes the people you oppress, it diminishes you. It actually eats away somehow at you.
I think, historically, America is eaten away on the inside by the knowledge of what we've been. This is a country created in extreme violence against native people, against African people, against every brown group of people who were dragged over here to do the work because there was always a desire to have some other people do the work, but then not wanting those people to stay, not wanting them to have families, not wanting them to grow as a population in numbers, wanting to limit them but still wanting their labor, and that's just the history of our country. I don't think we’ve reconciled ourselves to the violence of that, and not just the violence it's done to brown and Black people, but the violence it's done to white people, to their sense of self.
If you've lived a kind of violent history, of course you assume that when you're on the bottom, violence will ensue against you. I think there is a terror that this country will become a Black and brown country, that it has to be stopped. I think Donald Trump represents somebody who's not afraid to just say that because there's also a self-censorship that people feel has been forced on them, that they can't say that, they can't say the things they feel about brown and Black people. They're stopped from speaking out at work. They're stopped from doing comedy they think is funny but that people think is racist.
So there's a sense that Trump is liberation. He's human liberation. He can say whatever he wants. He can do whatever he wants. He can touch women by the crotches and say: I can do that. I'm allowed to touch women anywhere I want. I can call them any name I want. I can call them fat. I can call them ugly. I can do the things that your limbic brain wants to do, but that you're not supposed to do. He is permission. I understand how people find him liberating.
I wonder how you relate to pieces of that. Do you feel analogs between anger you've felt about certain things and the anger that people supporting the white nationalist cause today feel?
Oh, 100 percent. Take gentrification. Gentrification is the inverse of what built my community in Denver. It was reverse gentrification. It was that Black people are moving in, so we got to go. Now we inherit this beautiful community of middle-class homes with big lawns because white people didn't want to live near us. We were like, OK, bye. You can leave, but for them they lost Montbello. In their mind, we all came in and kind of chased them away.
Now, you have very affluent white people coming in, and they're buying up all the property. They're opening up kale shops and snack shops and, as a Black person, you're like, Wait a minute, they've stolen our neighborhood.
White America has been bred on a myth about America as this heroic country, and the heroism of America is built into the way our public schools are built. They're built to teach you to be a good civic citizen, not to be that knowledgeable about American history. You cut out the bad parts about slavery, all but the singing. Slavery becomes just about singing and farming.
Basically a musical.
It becomes a musical. What then happens is that Black and brown people say, Oh, excuse me, church finger up. It was actually brutal and horrible. Let me tell you about it, and then white people feel beat up. They feel beaten down. Suddenly I can't love this history. I can't love this plantation. I can't love my own country because you're telling me my country is evil. And so I think there is a sense of assault that some, not all, but some white people feel that suddenly they have to reverse their whole belief system about America in order to fit into this new America where they have to be politically correct and they have to speak properly and do all the right pronouns, and it's so much being put upon them.
I want to ask you about something that I feel happening to me that I lament. There’s a quality in President Trump that causes people who dislike him to become like him. He'll do a tweet. His tweets are hasty and not thought through, and the behavior it elicits in me and a million other people is the instantaneous quote-tweet with the most obvious put-down possible that a million people are also typing at the exact same time.
In fighting that kind of abuser, one risks adopting his manner of being — if not to his extreme. I wonder, do you find yourself getting dragged into the orange black hole and how do you fight that?
Absolutely. It's the hardest thing to fight — becoming Trump by covering Trump. The way that I look at the presidency is that, in and of itself, in the constitution it's not tremendously powerful. The Congress as a whole writ large is more powerful than the president if they use their power. They're not using it right now, but the president is the one elected official who in theory represents everyone and they're our avatar. They're our little avatar in a game, and so the country tends to become like the president.
Trump's vibe is just mean and kind of Illmatic nasty, and so I think it's making everyone nastier. I see it in stories about kids that are meaner to other kids, couples breaking up fighting over politics who'd been married all the way through these other presidents. He makes people angry. He makes people unsettled.
How do you feel this happening to you?
I have to really stop myself from reacting to him. I used to read his tweets in a Trump voice to mock him. I thought it was hilarious to kind of put him down because, in my mind, this is ridiculous what he's writing, and so I'm going to read it with all of the dripping sense of how ridiculous it is. And then I realized that this is not actually educating people. We're laughing at him rather than taking seriously the pain he's causing, and we're also spreading his propaganda. We stopped doing that. I actually stopped playing Trump. To the greatest extent possible, we don't play him for a lot of the same reasons Rachel Maddow doesn’t. We just agree that playing him puts him in our head.
As far as Twitter is concerned, it's been a big issue of me having to rein myself in from immediately clapping back at every person. I'm ready to clap back immediately, and I've definitely had to rein that in because, to your point, you find yourself becoming kind of harder. You're not able to take that deep breath and think about it before you snap back at someone. It's been hard for me to discipline myself to not do that anymore.
You and I had an interesting conversation about Joe Biden on your air where I felt very strongly that Joe Biden is a good man from another time whose steeping in the racial and gender worldview of that time is just inadequate to what we're in.
At the heart of that question is the question of, How do people evolve and grow? I wanted to ask you about the episode you had with your blog posts a while ago, the old posts that had homophobic comments that you were embarrassed by. And some of them, you said, didn't feel like they were yours. I wonder how you have grown from that episode and what insight that gives you into what's happening with white people and with men and others needing to adapt to new realities.
Well, not to get into a whole soliloquy on that whole blog thing. It was a terrible time. It was a learning experience, because you're absolutely right. If you take us all back ten, fifteen years, the world was so very different and things that would have seemed mundane are very outrageous in retrospect. One of the things that I definitely learned out of that whole experience was that communities that are the victims of being ostracized or being made to feel less than tend to be the most generous about allowing people to come back.
The most generous community to me really was the LGBTQ community. For some reason, they tend to have a bigger capacity for acceptance and inclusion, even for people whom they have every right to be really angry at.
What did you say to elicit that from them? Half of it is them being forgiving, but you have to show up in a certain way and take responsibility.
I have a lot of really good friends that I've had for a really long time in the community. And I said, what do you need me to do? I didn't want to impose my own kind of reaction on them or my own freakout on them. It was really a horrible time, but I had a lot of people that I could go to and say, What do you think that I should say? What do you think that I should include?
It was really about just saying I'm open to talking in any way that this community needs me to, and I'm open to talking about myself and open to talking about my own history and my own growth as a person. I agree with you that it is analogous to Joe Biden. He has to figure out how does he explain the past in a way that doesn't force him to feel beaten up about the past, but that allows him to grow from it.
In the same way you grew up with certain ideas about the LGBTQ community in the church and then grew beyond them, it seems to me we're going to have to psychologically migrate a lot of white people away from what they grew up thinking or not thinking about whiteness as the default of Americanness.
Having yourself been someone who needed to go on such a migration, what hope do you have for the country that we can do this? You have what some call “cancel culture” on the left, and we can talk about that term, and then you have on the right this view that, no, we don't even need to change at all. How do we actually make a hundred million people think differently?
The word I think of is an off-ramp. At a certain point, you have to take the off-ramp that's offered to you, but in order for people to take it, you have to offer it. If there's no way out of thinking the way you've thought forever, then you're just going to stay that way. You'll stay with people who still think that way. You'll get hardened in your beliefs because no one's offering you any way out. While I don't believe in political conversion — politics is now tribal; it’s become your tribe, and I don't really believe in spending a lot of money on a political end game of trying to convert Republicans to be Democrats — when people see an off-ramp, if they want off, you have to let them off.
There's been a whole debate about whether the very few instances of Republicans standing up to Trump should be admired and should be praised or we should just say, Not enough, not enough, not enough. I'm in the camp of saying praise it to a certain extent, because if people don't think there's any way off the highway, they'll never get off the highway. I have a friend who grew up in the South, who’s now a good pal and who’s very liberal on race, but had to really be brought off of that train by Black people. If Black people hadn't been willing to go to him and say, No, you can get off that ramp, then he wouldn't have.
But I think what's so hard is that Black people shouldn't have to do that. I think that is in some ways the logjam, that what it is going to take to achieve the psychological migrations, luring in tens of millions of people, is something that's almost too much to ask the people who are going to be asked to do it.
And that's assuming Black people have to do it, and I think that's the point.
I don’t think it's anybody's obligation to do it.
And it's not. The idea that Barack Obama could do it, I think, was the greatest misreading in American history. The idea that a Black president could be the one to lead people off that highway is ridiculous, because it's not Black people's job. Black people are the victims, and victims tend to have the most magnanimity.
There is a reaction among a lot of Black folks who say, You know what? We're done with amazing grace. We've done amazing grace. You kill us in church: amazing grace. You kill us while we're at work: amazing grace. You kill us in a regular routine police stop, no more. It really doesn't have to necessarily be Black people's job to do that.
There are wide-awake white folks who should take up the charge and do it. Which is why, in a sense, I think the job is not going to be the Black community’s job. It's going to be the white community’s job. There are people in white America who understand this, who get it and who need to. They need to find white people who can speak with moral authority to other white people. To say it's time to move forward. That, yes, we're going to become the minority, but it's not the end of the world. It's not going to kill us.
If we have a brown president or a Black president or an LGBT president or a woman president, it's not the end of the world. It's not the end of the world for you, Christian white man. That message, I don't think it needs to come from a marginalized community. I think it needs to come from the white community.
What's the thing that needs to be said to those folks that can be as seductive as whatever Donald Trump is saying to them?
I've come to the conclusion, after writing a book on Trump, that what America needs is a new narrative. A narrative to replace the current false narrative, because the false narrative is that we're this heroic country that was risen out of the dust by the great pilgrims. That isn't true. None of that's true. This is a country that was stolen out from under native Americans, that was built by slave labor, followed by imported brown and Asian labor from all over the world. It's a tough history.
But you could replace that narrative with one that says the following: No nation on earth has ever built a truly functioning, truly multiracial democracy. No one has done it.
You can't imagine a British Barack Obama or a French Barack Obama. It's unimaginable in Europe. This is the only place on earth that has a real shot at building something truly revolutionary. If we can build a multiracial democracy that's functioning, that has every race, creed, class, and religion and sexual orientation operationally equal, we will have built something so amazing the world will never have seen anything like it. That will be American exceptionalism.
We've already kind of done it. We did it with jazz. The same way we built a completely unique musical form that was multiracial, multi-class, multi-regional, and we built that from nothing. We can build a country the way we built a culture, and American culture is unique.
If we can figure out a way for everyone to buy into that new narrative of a great multiracial democracy, I think people will feel less scared. They'll feel less marginalized. They'll feel less like they won't be included because everyone can be included, but you have to be willing to include as well.
Joy-Ann Reid is the author of, most recently, “The Man Who Sold America: Trump and the Unraveling of the American Story.” Watch her new show “The Reidout” on MSNBC, weeknights at 7 p.m. ET.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
I recently got to talk with the former presidential candidate Andrew Yang on his podcast, Yang Speaks. I discussed changing my mind on universal basic income (somewhat). We compared notes on our cultural identities and the need for a messaging revolution on the left. [Yang Speaks]
“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance”: advice on writing from James Baldwin, born 96 years ago this week. [Brain Pickings]
“We are failing, and what’s worse, we have enshrined that failure in our policies.” Important reporting on Facebook employees grappling with the damage the world’s largest social network has caused. [Buzzfeed News / Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman]
An investigative masterpiece: How Donald Trump helped one of his top donors, a chicken tycoon, exploit the pandemic. [The New Yorker / Jane Mayer]
When you’ve read enough about poultry plants for one day, try making David Chang’s fish sauce vinaigrette — the sauce that has defined my summer — with roasted Brussels sprouts or, frankly, with anything. [Food52]
“1 year of life = 1 minute of color.” Brooklyn-based artist Adrian Brandon’s “Stolen” series creates incomplete portraits for Black people killed by police. [Adrian Brandon]
Until next week!
Photo credit: Theo Wargo/Getty