November 1, 2022
Video: Zoe Adlersberg
Article & Transcript: Camille Bavera
The Covid 19 pandemic has taken an insurmountable toll on billions of people from every corner of the globe. It was the people of the United States, however, that had to watch their capital under attack on January 6th, 2020, while their president did little to quell the rioters who were causing chaos in his name. It has been called an insurrection, but it is only now - more than two years later - that former president Donald Trump is being put under a giant magnifying glass and directly investigated for potentially trying to interfere with the workings of democracy.
With Trump again dominating the New York Times headlines, it seems a perfect time to welcome to the Brownstone Cowboy space Kara Swisher and Gillian Laub, both of whom contend with family members that double as pro-Trumpers on a daily basis. I say ‘contend with’ here, not ‘struggle with’ because I do not believe they struggle. They are individuals who stand strong in their personal, professional and political beliefs even while clashing with their closest family members. Both women are not afraid to educate their loved ones, often taking a diametrically opposite stance to how they were raised but doing so in the name of freedom, acceptance, and the United States while maintaining their conviction and determination. They remain dead set on trying to change the minds of those that are still malleable.
Kara Swisher has been a New York Times contributor since 2018 and is known for her readiness to go head to head with the most discussed media figures including Elon Musk and Barack Obama, and has followed the rise of the tech industry since humble Silicon Valley beginnings, interviewing Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg in her quest to provide true coverage of the ever-changing tech dynasty. Staunchly liberal and doggedly anti-Trump, Swisher honed in on her mother’s pro-Trump tendancies during the Covid-19 pandemic, producing a NYT piece that gave hope to cooped up families with differing political views, all forced to watch the 2020 insurrection together on television.
But if Kara Swisher is the voice, then Gillian Laub is the creative director when it comes to families not seeing eye to political eye. Laub is a photographer whose typically New York jewish family has wound up in much of her work. But while living in a trying pandemic situation, she used their increasingly pro-Trump views as subjects for her new book and subsequently, her book as therapy and a way to cope with her aforementioned family members. Her book, ‘Family Matters’, received much media attention from publications like Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, while showcasing both Laub’s love and contempt for those in her life so politically askew.
Please welcome to the virtual stage (after all, COVID is still a thing, isn’t it?) Kara Swisher and Gillian Laub.
Gillian Laub: They asked me if I wanted to be in conversation with somebody and I said in regards to my work, and the project that I just did that you were one of the people who really was, I guess…
When I bring myself back to March 2020, besides what the world was going through, I was pretty devastated about my family. And it wasn't something I could really go to anyone about, because I didn't feel like there were that many people I knew that had parents that were Trump supporters. I'm such a fan of yours in general but then when I read your piece, and I listened to you talk, but very matter of factly. You seemed very accepting of it, but like, ‘Okay, I have to do something’. So I learned from you in a way because it didn't seem like you had the type of anger that I had.
Kara Swisher: Not really accepting. It's just you can't do anything about it. That's different.
GL: But I felt like, I don't know. I was just like, okay, she's going through this too and this is how she's dealing with it. At that moment I thought, I wish I had a way to get in touch with her; I was seeking out people who I could talk to for advice. But anyway, we're long past that but I just think it's fascinating when I meet somebody who has dealt with the same thing.
KS: Well, you know, I don't think I didn't not accept it, I think this is just something that's happening throughout society and so I just accept it for what it is. And there's a lot of ways there's nothing you can do about it. This ‘heavy duty propaganda’, we will call it, all kinds of things. But I think that you can see it now in Russia, what's happening, and everyone's not surprised by that and so I don't think we should be particularly surprised by what's happening. People that are constantly getting their news from one place, it isn't very good information, and so they're sort of ‘information deprived’. If people were getting bad nutrition, they would be possibly obese or unhealthy. As far as I'm concerned, it's the same. This is the same problem: if you get bad food, you have bad health. And if you get bad information, you're warped in the way you look at things.
“If people were getting bad nutrition, they would be possibly obese or unhealthy. As far as I'm concerned, it's the same. This is the same problem: if you get bad food, you have bad health. And if you get bad information, you're warped in the way you look at things.”
GL: But having a daughter yourself, you weren’t surprised that your mother wasn’t looking to you for information?
KS: No, I'm not. I mean, this stuff is very powerful. I studied propaganda in college, I was at the Foreign Service school at Georgetown. And so it's very easy, especially when it's repetitive. The propaganda is not hard. You just repeat things over and over again and give people the reality that they want to believe in. An expression I remember (from college) is ‘too often people see what they believe, rather than believe what they see’, which I think is really quite normal. It's not inhuman to do that and it's not weird. It's happened time and again, over history whether it's the German people during Hitler, or here, or the Salem witch trials or McCarthyism - people tend to believe things as they're coming in when other information sources don't step up in the same way. And because of the way our information systems are organized, you have a bunch of people who are very information deprived, that are getting information in a different way.
“The distrust and the hatred of the media is there in my family and their community… they'd send me these crazy, manufactured emails with data that is all wrong, and they're taken with such truth.”
It relates to when I did an interview with Hillary Clinton about two years ago. My mom called me and said, “Can you believe what Hillary Clinton said?” And I said, “What are you talking about?” And she repeated my interview in a very warped and twisted way. And it wasn't what she said, it was the Fox News version of what (Hillary) said to me. And it was completely inaccurate. It was a really weird and strange moment to have your own parent tell you what your work was. So I was sort of taken aback and I realized the depth of the propaganda. I made her listen to (my interview) and of course, she said, “Okay, actually, what she said is what you said but let me tell you what's really wrong with her;” she was still focused on the Hillary Clinton narrative that she had been fed by Fox News. So it was really, really eye opening to watch that.
“People that are constantly getting their news from one place… they're sort of ‘information deprived’”. - Kara Swisher
GL: Yeah, the distrust and the hatred of the media is there in my family and their community. But then they'd send me these crazy, manufactured emails with data that is all wrong, and they're taken with such truth. Then they send off to all members of their community from - I think it originates on Facebook - but they take that with such certainty of truth. It's just, these are educated people and it still blows my mind.
KS: Really, why? In a lot of ways it makes sense that they would believe this because it fits into their worldview. I was thinking today about something I wrote for the French elections, which by any measure is a blowout for Macron, you know, but all the coverage is, ‘wow, she got really close’. Well, she didn't get really close. - she just didn't. She got more than she got before but what was interesting is the relentless coverage that she got more than her father did many years ago. I'm like, ‘well, it's a different world,’ and there were only two choices here. And, you know, it’s an and, and, and kind of thing. I was making the observation that like progressives, when they win they act like losers and the right wing when they lose act like winners, or just declare themselves winners., You know, the election was ‘stolen’, ‘we didn't lose, it was stolen’, you know what I mean? So this is what happens. And so it's a really interesting thing, how quickly people can fall into their camps, so it's not surprising that your family would. I was at my mom's house once when there was a snowstorm and she was watching Fox News and I was in the other room working and I felt murderous by the evening! Because I felt like you could see they're always in an outrage, not unlike local news, by the way. And I have a friend who does promotions for local news and the formula is, ‘it could happen to you.’ Whatever it is ‘COVID’, ‘mold’, ‘killer bees’, you know, ‘aging’, ‘death’, it could happen to you. It's never gonna happen to you, you're probably not going to get molded, and so it's this relentless sort of spinning of engagement that leads to engagement.
“It's this relentless sort of spinning of engagement that leads to engagement.”
GL: And did your mother's view-points - I'm just curious - what's her background?
KS: It’s interesting. I have a video I played her the other day of (her) insulting Trump, and then she swayed towards Trump! Because it's like watching a soap opera. Right? So the one thing Fox does very well is keeping a narrative of the same thing. Hillary Clinton, evil witch of the north, or whatever it happens to be: ‘she's always wrong,’ ‘she's always there,’ and it’s the same thing with George Soros, or what are they doing now? They take little bits of things and then narrate it. You know she was telling the story like it's a soap opera; she's like, now I don't like that person. So that's all it was - just the ginning up of propaganda.
GL: But did you ever feel like ‘It's my mission to change her mind and let her see a different narrative?’
KS: It's too late. It's like Russia, it's too late. And if you start to insult them, they feel like you think they're stupid, which you do. I do. I think she's stupid. Like, you know what I mean, and I can't even hide it. What a lot of people should say, ‘Oh, be understanding, walk them through it.’ I'm like,’Why should I? They're so dumb as to fall for that bullshit.’ You know what I mean? That's where I wrote that piece about COVID, which she was saying was the flu, and that’s because of FoxNews.
GL: Your brother's a doctor, so she wasn't..?
KS: No, not moved by it. No. The propaganda is stronger. Again, what's happening in Russia should come as no surprise. These people are being presented with facts and are decided that the Ukrainians have been made into sub-humans, and therefore whatever's happening is deserved. ‘They are all Nazis and they're all you know, this isn't happening, they're making it up.’ They live in this weird, false narrative that just doesn't let itself go because they have to believe it, right? Because if they don't, boy are they fucked on some level and so on.
I've been on Alex Jones's tail for a long time with the social media companies. And when they finally removed him, of course, all these sites had popped up about the Sandy Hook hoax. He has a number of things (against him), but that was his most egregious, I find.
And so I interviewed a father of one of the murdered children, and one of the things that was fascinating wre the group's that were attracted. Besides people who just like conspiracy theories and are lonely or want to belong to a group so they can all agree and play games with little kids murderers, you know, thinking it's a murder mystery, which is sick in the head. A lot of mothers, young mothers, who used all of the hoax sites because if it happened, and it was real, then their children were at risk. And so (the sites) couldn't be real. They were trying to find any way that it wasn't real. And that was really interesting to me, because he managed to turn those people to the truth, because they were embarrassed. But think about that mentality: taking advantage of people who are worried about their own children to fit them into a fear zone about their own children - so they have to believe that this did not happen.
“But you're being gamed by politicians on all sides on this issue.” - Gillian Laub
GL: Well, anyway, I just want to say thank you for all the work you do. And for, I don't know, you're a voice of reason. And you're out there. And so I'm grateful and so in awe of all you do.
KS: Yeah, sorry about your mom.
GL: Yeah, both my parents, my sister and her children as well.
KS: Oh, hard. So it's hard at the holidays. Right? Well, just don’t see them. I'm sorry to tell you. I mean, I have to say my relationship with my mother has been irreparably damaged. We had already had issues, but it's really almost impossible to talk to her. It's unpleasant, and it's unpleasant for my kids. I wish she would stop. And at some point, it's her responsibility, right? She did some number of anti gay things, many years ago - it has changed considerably, let me just say, let me give her that credit. But I used to just not let her see the kids. I was like, ‘they're my children. You're not doing this to them.’ And it worked. You might not speak to my children negatively about Gay people, it's not gonna happen. One of the things I used to tell her when she was being anti-gay, was I don't negotiate with terrorists. You know, I'm sorry, I don't. And if you want to to talk about gay people in the way you're doing, we won't be speaking. That's all. Sorry. And so it worked. But it's hard for a lot of people who are close to their family, right?
GL: I'm incredibly, incredibly close to my family. And I know that they're good people. I don't believe they believe what they're… right? I'm still in a different place, I'm still in disbelief, because I know that they're such good people. And I guess it's not fair to put a moral judgment on it.
GL: I'm curious about what your thoughts are on social media and how, well, it was different when your older kids were growing up because it was less pervasive versus now with younger kids.
KS: Well, it’s pervasive. Gen Z, or whatever the ‘Gen’ it is are quite smart compared to millennials about it. They don't get quite so sucked up Because they've grown up with it.
GL: So it hasn't been a struggle in your home with social media?
KS: No they're not - they get it. They're good. I give them a lot of room to look at stuff because I don't think they're stupid. They're critical thinkers. And I think that keeping them away from that stuff is a mistake.
GL: Yeah. Well I would love to hear your thoughts about legislation and social media vs free speech.
KS: Well, I think we should stop talking about free speech, because none of this has anything to do with free speech. Actually, it's just being used as a cover for what’s really about privacy and data and so I think we should have a discussion about privacy and the rights of privacy of people and the amount of information they're uploading to these companies without their consent. Real consent, or knowing what is being done with this information. I think what happens is they try to pull us into these free speech debates, which other countries don't have to have because they don't have a First Amendment. And they mix it up, you know what I mean? Because let me just be clear for anyone who hasn’t read the first amendment, because it's real short. The government shall make no law, not Twitter, not Facebook. They can do whatever they want. They have free speech. And so there's not going to be legislation to shut it down - there can't be. The First Amendment is not like the fourth, it's the first. And there will not be any law where the government quashes this speech, there just won't be, because it will be overturned by the Supreme Court and should be. So that's one.
Two, we need legislation around privacy and data use. And then once you do that, free speech issues are… you know everyone will pick the social media site they like. The other thing is, I just saw Jon Stewart last night, (I did a great interview with him recently) he won the Mark Twain award. And one of the things he said, which I think is 100% on point, was that “the problem isn't the fragility of the audience. It's the fragility of our leaders”. The audience can take a lot of stuff, excess blame, cancel culture, ‘woke’, and everything else. It's because our leaders are also engaging in this enraged debate over free speech when what they're talking about is wanting to act badly. We really want to say bad words anytime we want.
And like, really? That's what you want? We want to not be constrained by anything. People have rules in society and civility, for one. And so it's not about free speech. It's about civility, it's about behavior, it's about respecting people. Sure, you can say anything you want but you don't in real life. Maybe a lot of people do these days, but they've learned it from social media. But if we have laws around privacy, marketplace, and power instead of about consolidation around these companies, we will have a much fresher society and we will not be discussing these issues.
But you're being gamed by politicians on all sides on this issue.
All Photos Courtesy of Kara Swisher and Gillian Laub.