Ryann Perlstein, a 16-year-old high school sophomore, learned a tough lesson in adult politics when she interviewed a parent for her school paper. The parent turned out to be celebrity Republican Scott Baio. And the experience made her realize how critical it is to take action to make a difference.
The morning after this year’s election, I felt my world crumble. Tears streamed down my face as my parents told me the news. Even though it’s devastating, they said, America has made it through other difficult times, and they emphasized that Trump does not represent our family’s values.
Despite my strong feelings about the election, I am a student journalist, so I am naturally curious. I know I have classmates who don’t share my politics, and I want to understand them. During the election, the school held an assembly about respectful political discussion.
My first encounter with a Trump supporter had already happened a few weeks earlier on campus. I’d read that Scott Baio, the actor who played “Chachi” on “Happy Days,” was one of the few celebrity supporters of Trump, often tweeting his backing of the Republican nominee. Mr. Baio also happens to be a parent at my school. When I found out that he spoke at the Republican National Convention in July, I quickly pitched the idea for an interview to the editors of my school paper.
Fast-forward to late October when I was sitting in the conference room at school with Mr. Baio and my journalism advisor, an Indian-American woman who is also the mom of two young daughters. Staying focused on my article topic, I asked him questions about his experience speaking at the convention and what it was like to take center stage in front of thousands of people. He answered my questions and we kept talking.
Then, Mr. Baio stopped talking about the convention and started asking me questions. First, he asked me whether I’m politically inclined. As a journalist, I’m supposed to be objective. But, as a person, I’m a Democrat, a fan of Bernie Sanders before jumping to the now-sunken ship that was Hillary for America.
He wanted to know what two issues I cared about most. I stalled for a moment, trying to think of an issue that wouldn’t be too controversial … the environment? But guess what I chose? Two of the most controversial issues facing America today: gun control and abortion rights.
He seemed surprised by my concerns. We briefly debated, with Mr. Baio defending his opinions, which were the polar opposite of mine. When I said guns, he asked me if I knew what the Second Amendment was and whether or not I was familiar with its purpose. When I said abortion, he shot back, “To the ninth month?”
Let me remind you that this was my first long, serious conversation with a Trump supporter. I knew going into the interview that I would disagree with Mr. Baio’s views, but I was taken aback by the extent to which he actually believed in what he was saying, and, as he put it, believed in “the man.”
When I asked him about the “Access Hollywood” video of Trump and Billy Bush, like many other Trump supporters and surrogates, he chalked up their offensive comments to “locker room talk,” and went on to say that my male friends talk about me behind my back in the same way that Trump talked about the women in that video.
In the moment, I did not know how to react. While I stared at him in shock, he continued, “I don’t know about 18-year-olds or 17-year-olds, but I can tell you guys my age do.” Eww. I was absolutely revolted. It was clear he did not think anything of it, or how this could possibly be inappropriate or violating to say to a young woman.
I tried to redirect my questions and complete my interview. My teacher intervened, letting him know we had two final questions for him. He concluded by saying he would be voting for Trump for his 8-year-old daughter, and with him questioning me again: “Really, to the ninth month?”
When the interview was done, I needed to decompress. I practically ran out of the room, desperate to talk to my liberal friends and digest what had happened. I’d just debated a parent at the school — and a celebrity, too — over abortion in the ninth month, whether or not there were too many guns in the United States and how the “Access Hollywood” video was no big deal because most guys talk about women that way. My friends’ responses were all the same: jaws dropped, eyes bulged, appalled and speechless.
Like me, my friends were hoping that the awful man we call the “scary carrot” would not become our president. And we took comfort in the fact that Clinton seemed to be ahead.
But we all know what happened instead. As a mixed-race person who is African-American and Jewish, I’m having a hard time coping with the election results. I’m afraid for our country. I’m terrified Trump and Pence will destroy what is good about the United States, our diversity, our tolerance for differences, our willingness to question authority. I know that hate crimes have already increased.
After my interview with Scott Baio, I realized that if we don’t like what we’re hearing (racist, sexist, xenophobic, remarks), we must actually do something to help those who won’t be helped by, or are being harmed by, people like the “scary carrot” and his followers.
In January, I’m going to the Million Women March in Washington, D.C., with two friends, our moms and my grandmother. We will march to let Trump know that girls and women won’t accept a sexist president who talks about grabbing women’s private parts. If Mr. Baio attends the inauguration, I hope I can interview him again. How sad that he might be inside the event and I’ll be outside.
This time, I might ask him about what happened last week, when he was involved in an altercation over his political views with another parent (Nancy Mack, the wife of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer, Chad Smith) at my school’s elementary holiday concert. None of my friends were shocked to hear the news that night.
For now, I will increase my volunteer hours at SOVA, a food pantry in Van Nuys, where I help package and hand out groceries to people who need food. I’ve come to know our regular customers and even their pets. I’ve learned that they are an interesting, diverse group of people just trying to get through their days.
To be social justice warriors we must donate, volunteer, go to a march — SOMETHING to make a difference — besides sitting in our rooms and writing rants on social media. Because tweeting at 3 a.m. will get you nowhere.
Image: Actor Scott Baio addresses the delegates during the opening day of the Republican National Convention at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 18, 2016. (Photo by Anthony Behar)
Editors’ note: Due to its sensitive nature, this essay was thoroughly fact-checked and all quotes were verified on tape.