Struggling with my mail in the age of Trump

Matt Bai
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images

I get that this will make me sound like somebody’s grandfather, but I’ll tell the story anyway.

About 18 years ago, when I was a young correspondent covering Bill Bradley’s ill-fated presidential campaign for a magazine called Newsweek, I received a letter from a teenager who lived somewhere in New Jersey. At that time, Newsweek, like other magazines, still had an entire department devoted to sorting and responding to reader mail, and every so often a small stack of it would land on my desk.

This kid castigated me for writing so much about Bradley’s tactical failures and so little time writing about his policy ideas. The letter stung me because it was undeniably true. Swept up in the shallow theater of politics, I had been spending an awful lot of time on Bradley’s shortcomings as a performer (which were notable, but still).

I got out my personalized letterhead — I swear, the magazine actually gave you that stuff — and typed out a reply, which was probably more defensive than I’d like to admit. Soon after, I got a call from the boy’s mother, who wanted to thank me; her son was bright but didn’t always have confidence, she told me, and my reply had meant a lot to him.

The exchange meant a lot to me, too. I remembered it not only because I really didn’t want to become the kind of myopic journalist who cared more about the game than about the stakes involved, but also because it underscored for me the value of hearing from readers, even when it hurt.

In all the years after, most of which I spent as a magazine writer and columnist at the New York Times, I always made myself easily reachable by email. I never set up the kind of decoy account that a lot of reporters used to keep readers out of their everyday inboxes.

If you wrote me a note, chances are I read it instantaneously wherever I was, and if it wasn’t spam offering to increase my Web traffic or a form letter laying out the evidence for alien abduction, you could count on getting a quick reply.

(Actually, I’ve answered plenty of notes about alien abduction and that kind of thing, too. They are almost always written in all capital letters. I have never known why.)

I recall all this now, on a slow holiday week in Washington, because recently I’ve found myself wrestling mightily with what to do about reader mail. We’ve changed the way we talk to each other, you and I. And I think it gets to something foreboding about the moment.

There are plenty of inferior ways for readers to be heard now, of course. Social media is crass and impulsive; any writer will tell you that most nasty tweeters haven’t read past the headline, anyway. Trying to have a meaningful exchange with a Twitter troll is like walking into a dive bar and trying to reason with the drunkest guy in the joint.

Comments sections are most often forums for tortured moans and screams, like a portal beckoning to the underworld. People who tell me I should really read the comments on my column, so I can find out just how wrong and unpopular it was, are like me telling my kids: “You should listen to that bully at school! He might be onto something!”

But when people sit down and write you a thoughtful note, there’s something urgent they want you to understand, and often it’s something you hadn’t fully considered. A lot of times, if you’re truthful with the reader and with yourself, that conversation can change perspectives.

It used to be very common for readers, after initially firing off a furious note and then getting an actual reply, to answer with some version of: “I’m sorry about the language, but I just didn’t think you’d actually read this.” They’d thought of a byline as belonging to some kind of cardboard cutout, rather than a person who might consider the argument.

Sometimes, when a note was especially harsh, I’d respond simply by asking if the reader might reflect on whether he was proud to have written it. As often as not, the reader wrote back to express the same view in a calmer tone.

I’ve come away from a lot of those exchanges wishing I’d written something more carefully than I did. I’ve had many readers admit that their assumptions about me were maybe too facile.

If it’s a stretch to say I forged real friendships in some cases, then it’s not by much. There are readers who started out shouting at me who’ve been reliable correspondents for years now. We’ve traveled at least part of this journey together.

In the past six months or so, though, something’s different in my inbox — it’s as if the weathered levees of sanity and civility have at last been breached. It’s not just the occasional physical threat or the ratcheting up of hateful language — this stuff about not belonging in America, or not deserving to live, or not being truly loved by anyone. (Some dude actually wrote that.)

No, it’s the hardening up of factions and the choosing of sides, a kind of cultural finality that precludes any kind of nuance or accommodation.

It’s no longer possible to be a searching, independent voice, rejecting the reflexive talking points of both parties. Judgment day is here. To be neither a Trump conservative nor reliably liberal is to be considered morally deficient by all but a few itinerant stragglers.

The rhetoric now, most prominently on the right, is of revolution and resistance. Each week I get emails from readers, incensed by my criticism of the president, who speak of overthrowing the powerful elites, as if we all lived in some postcolonial outpost in Africa or Latin America. These notes are drenched in a kerosene of class resentment and nativism and anti-intellectualism, all waiting for some kind of static spark.

An all too familiar, if admirably succinct, note I got this week read simply: “You are a fool and a traitor.” Another typical correspondent told me: “When someone caves in your skull, you can blame us neocons, but really you will be in a world of your own creation.”

He’s got a point there. It would be easy to lay this all on President Trump, whose coarse language and nationalist appeal have so infused the moment. But Trump himself is probably the logical end to a progression of politicians I’ve covered over the years — Howard Dean, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich — who’ve described our politics in increasingly Armageddonish terms, and who’ve cast the entire media as the venal enemies of truth and democracy.

The practiced and reckless exploitation of rage in the society didn’t begin with Trump. He just does it better and with more abandon.

And this is what I find profoundly depressing about the mail these days, more than the meanness or the insinuations of violence. It’s the fact that you can’t exchange ideas or perspectives anymore. No one cares if you’re cardboard or real.

Now, when I write back graciously, I’m likely to get an even angrier shower of venom in response. The time for listening is over. The age of relative reason is at an end.

So last week, I made what was, for me, a difficult decision, if not a drastic one. For the first time, I established a separate email account for readers, which I’ll see only when I choose to deal with it.

You can still reach me, but your mail won’t show up automatically on my desktop when I log in in the morning, or on my phone when I’m strolling through the mall or sitting on a plane. It won’t sucker-punch me before I go to sleep at night, leaving me to lie awake contemplating where all of this is heading, and what kind of society we’re creating for our kids.

It’s a small concession to reality — I know this. But if I said it didn’t feel like surrender, I wouldn’t be telling you the truth.

_____

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