I used to work for a conservative pundit. William (not his real name), a lifelong Republican, frequently appeared on right-wing talk shows as a financial analyst. Once a week a chauffeured car would take him to a TV studio where he would appear on Fox News. William also put out a series of conservative newsletters each week. I was hired to ghostwrite them. The only problems: I was a liberal and I was working with a chronic illness.
In retrospect, it’s surprising William hired me. I now suspect that he was unaware of my political views during the initial job interview. I certainly didn’t grasp the differences in our political leanings, or for that matter, what I was getting myself into by working for William.
It didn’t help that the job posting made no mention of conservative politics. Instead, William said the job focused on financial writing, which I had experience doing as a freelancer. However naively, the thought of financial writing crossing over into conservative politics never entered my mind. Even after William made his political views clear, it still didn’t quite register with me that I, a liberal millennial, would be working for a conservative baby boomer and writing right-wing ideology.
I’m not exactly sure when William learned of my liberalism and general contempt for conservative politics, but it was probably around the time he gave me the assignment of writing about The Strategic Defense Initiative, a program championed in the eighties by then-President Ronald Reagan to protect the US against ballistic nuclear missiles. Somewhere in the article’s introduction I wrote that President Reagan was “adamant” about the program’s efficacy. William didn’t like that and made sure to not-so-subtly point out that I wasn’t even alive when the program began in 1983.
While professionally I adopted some of William’s conservative views, our personal lives remained very different—William would often call me to brainstorm on his way to the gun range. He’d be driving a gas guzzler with his firearms and NRA membership card at the ready. Meanwhile, I would be outside harvesting rain water and charging my laptop from a portable solar panel.
On paper our relationship was rife with conflicts, but in actuality we worked well together. Though it certainly wasn’t easy, for me, anyway. Our constructive workflow was due in large part to the fact that I needed the work, badly. It was my only option in a recession-stricken job market.
Not surprisingly, the most awkward moments I had with William were on the left side of the political spectrum. One week he gave me the assignment of ghostwriting a piece on cannabis companies, perhaps thinking that, as a liberal, I would know a lot about marijuana. He even jokingly suggested that I go “downtown” and do some “research.”
Unbeknownst to him I didn’t smoke marijuana and was pretty apathetic when it came to anything related to cannabis. But I did my best to channel my inner liberal, though I never did the kind of research I think he had in mind.
There were times when I worked for William that I questioned what I was doing. Was I being true to my beliefs? No. Was I doing what I needed to do to earn a living? Yes. Walking the line between those two aspects of my life is one of the toughest moral dilemmas I’ve ever had to face.
Admittedly, I didn’t adequately consider how my work might influence people. Barack Obama was president, the Affordable Care Act had been passed, and in my view, the country was moving in the right direction. There was, however, a line of which I was unwilling to cross, and that included writing anything that was racist, misogynistic, homophobic or otherwise blatantly offensive to anyone.
I may have had an identity crisis or two while pretending to be a conservative, but I found reprieve from my guilt by voicing my beliefs away from work. And just when I felt like the differences I had with William ran too deep, we often found common ground.
Despite his fondness for oil and gas stocks, we both liked socially responsible companies like Tesla. Once William even arranged for us to test drive one of the early Tesla models, back when it first came on the market. I was excited about it, but something wasn’t right. I wasn’t feeling well and, much to my disappointment, I had to tell William I was too sick to do the test drive.
(Not) Working With a Chronic Illness
I had contracted two complex illnesses—myalgic encephalomyelitis and Lyme disease. Suddenly I was bedridden and lost my ability to speak and eat solid food. Driving a car was out of the question, and so was working with a chronic illness.
No matter how hard I tried to will my health back, I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t work for William anymore. But to my surprise, he tried to keep me employed, quoting the “no one left behind” motto.
William picked up my slack for awhile, but weeks went by and I didn’t get better. As my health continued to fail, I realized that his motto was unrealistic—sometimes you have to leave a person behind, or in my case, tell someone else to leave you behind.
Eventually William moved on, and it’s a good thing he did. That was six years ago and, while my health has improved, I still can’t walk on my own or speak without difficulty.
One of the first things I did when my health got better was write William an email. I told him how much I appreciated his gesture to keep me employed. His response: “I was worried we lost you from this world,” and “At least you’re still in the fight.”
How to Live With Chronic Illness
William and I have lost touch since that correspondence. I imagine he’s busy working with my replacement. Sometimes I wonder about William’s new ghostwriter: Does this person agree with William? Or do they have to pretend to, like I did?
These are the fairly innocuous questions that float around my mind when I think of William. But the more persistent question I have, the one with more moral weight is: What would it be like to work for William with Donald Trump as president?
I can’t imagine working for William, pretending to be a conservative minion, with Trump as president. The thought of having to praise Donald Trump makes me cringe, especially now that I’m part of a group of people that the president has publicly mocked.
Perhaps it’s belonging to this community of disabled people that has made me more aware of precisely how despicable the president is. In turn, my disability has made me aware of the privileges I had as an abled-body person, and those I still have today. I regret that it took a life-changing illness, and losing some of my privilege, for me to truly empathize with the struggles of less fortunate people. I wish I had come to this realization sooner, when I had more health and energy to help other people.
Similarly, I wonder whether William recognizes his privilege as a wealthy, white male, or if he blindly contributes to the conflict our country has fallen into. I wonder whether he supports Trump’s agenda. He must, but to what extent? I wonder if he gets in his chauffeured car, arrives at the TV studio, and tells the audience how the president is making America great again.
I hope he doesn’t say that. If he does, I’m not sure I can preserve my respect for him, mainly because I know there’s much more at stake in this country than just the relationship I have with my former boss. Some of the stakes affect me personally―such as legislation that would limit the healthcare and civil rights of people with disabilities. Some of the stakes do not, and many of those issues, like immigration and reproductive rights, are the ones that need the most attention.
Since my time working for William, I’ve learned that, when it comes to people with whom I disagree on fundamental political issues, keeping the relationship intact can sometimes, but not always, be worth more than the sum of our differences. The hard part is making that decision—deciding if the relationship is worth salvaging and whether the person is capable of realizing how damaging their political views can be to our country.
In that sense, I do believe that good people can change, or at least coexist with each other, and in today’s tempestuous political climate that’s something to strive for.
BEFORE YOU GO…
1. Thanks for reading about my time working with a chronic illness!
2. If you would like to donate to support this blog I would be so grateful.
3. I am fundraising to pay my medical bills and if you’d like to help out by buying a shirt or hoodie I’d be equally grateful. I get about $5 for every shirt sold.