A handwritten note on festive stationery arrived in my work mail recently.
The message was framed with a border of silver and gold curlicue ribbons:
“You are a (expletive) (slur) from hell,” the letter began. “It’s obvious you do not like the United States and it’s obvious you hate Donald Trump. I’m so grateful he won, because Hillary, like you, is a (expletive) (slur). Please move to a muslim country where you will be forced to wear a Burka and your husband has the right to beat you. Have a nice day, you (expletive) (slur)!”
Well, that’s not very festive.
A less profane interaction recently kicked off a national discussion on civility. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a Lexington, Virginia, restaurant by its owner because of her public role in defending President Donald Trump. Prior to that, late night comedian Samantha Bee apologized after calling Ivanka Trump a “feckless” version of the slur my dear reader used.
Having written publically for a couple of decades, I’m used to readers who angrily disagree with things I’ve published. Very angrily. It’s part of the territory for most journalists, especially those who write columns.
But there’s been a shift in the angriest responses during the past two years.
The tenor and tone of my hate mail changed with the rise of Trump. I began to notice a turn during his candidacy. His supporters sent vitriolic messages that were also divorced from reality. They did not believe a single mainstream news report about his actions or words, regardless of the evidence, if it revealed something negative.
For the first time in my 20 years of journalism, some news readers were saying that journalists should not be protected by the First Amendment. Perhaps this level of hostility toward a free press existed prior to Trump’s chants of “fake news,” but I had never before heard Americans calling for a repeal of our most foundational freedom.
After his election, whenever I’ve criticized a policy or action of this administration, the rebuttal from some of his supporters inevitably includes a dose of bigotry, attacking my religion or ethnicity.
To be sure, insults and threats from a minority of readers have always been part of my inbox. But this added flourish of bigotry is new. Perhaps those who always felt that way are more comfortable expressing it now. Surprisingly, it’s not limited to the “economically anxious” or “poorly educated,” as Trump has described some of his voters. I’ve received racist emails from an attorney, who initially shared such views from a work account.
I do wonder if these letter writers got worked up about Sanders being asked to leave a restaurant.
I showed my teenage daughter this recent note. I’ve never shared my hate mail with her before, but she’s old enough to know the depth to which public discourse has sunk. On one level, I wanted to prepare her for what I hope she never encounters in the world, but very well might. More importantly, I wanted her to see I was unaffected by this person’s hate.
These words didn’t hurt me, nor would they stop me from speaking about what I feel is important. If anything, I felt sorry for anyone walking around with that kind of toxic anger and no better way to express or deal with it.
My daughter read the letter silently.
“Cowards,” she said, finally. People who send anonymous messages like that are just cowards, she told me.
That’s true, I agreed. I’ve told my children that you should always be able to sign your name to whatever you write.
It’s how civilized people behave.