Sunday, November 20, 2016

Thanksgiving 2016.

The Tweet: Friends who are fearing Thanksgiving with relatives across the political divide should embrace the opportunity, however difficult, to begin conversations we all need to have. 

Over the past week, I have had three conversations with friends, each bemoaning the upcoming holiday. Each have families that are split between those who supported Hillary and those who supported Trump. Unlike a normal year, when family members might find themselves supporting different candidates, and such disagreements would not be grounds for family discord, this time, those splits reflect the deep polarization dividing the nation. All of these friends are dreading any discussion of politics. In one case, the most vociferous Trump supporter was opting out of the holiday celebration altogether. In another case, my friends are desperately hoping that the normal discussion of Thanksgiving recipes and usual gossip about family members who are not in attendance will get them through the night unscathed.

In the wake of this election, however, it is more important than ever that people seek to understand the point of view of others. It is important to bringing a divided nation closer to some degree of reconciliation, and it is important to each of us--whatever side of the schism we might be on--to develop a deeper understanding of the perspectives, fears and concerns of our compatriots. And what could be a more appropriate moment for people to engage with each other about their differing world views than with family members over a holiday that celebrates our shared values and experiences. Unlike friends--with whom a political disagreement can destroy a relationship--siblings and cousins are there for life, and even when you have a violent disagreement, the bonds of family cannot be easily severed.

The aftermath of Election Day has cast our country in a harsh light. The most deplorable of Donald Trump's supporters have relished his election as an opportunity to declare their victory and to lash out, while the President-elect has done little to assuage the anxieties and fears that have come in the wake of his triumph, and the prospect that his caustic campaign rhetoric threatens to become public policy. As one friend wrote, "My feeling of being the outsider/the other has never been stronger, though raised in this country since 1967. I see or impose Trumpism on most white people I see in stores and restaurants, maybe unfairly. This is how my family in England felt leading up to and after Brexit, no doubt."

Another friend expanded on observations in my last piece about the economic and psychological depression facing many rural communities that the problem was much deeper than simply the economic challenges facing the rural working class. It reflects the wholesale destruction of the American Dream as a result of "the successful and rapacious behavior of the elites," which provides no path forward for them or for their children. But even worse, he noted, is that no genuinely populist voice is permitted in the public forum, and to hold a view contrary view [to that of the elites] is to be deemed morally inferior.  

This election leapt past the normal range of political and even moral debate to become intensely personal. Somehow, issues of war and peace, and even the Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice debates of past elections, seemed to be less fraught than where we found ourselves this year. The candidates castigated each other as morally unfit to lead, and the followers of each responded in kind. Trump supporters were deplorable, women hating bigots. Hillary supporters were craven elites who love the undocumented more than they love their country.

While Election Day may be past, the damage to our national fabric is apparent. On the one hand, as the first writer above suggests, Trump's rhetoric attacked not just the views but the fundamental legitimacy of many in our society, who now find themselves as strangers in a strange land, vilified as outsiders and fearful that a return to "normal" may take a long, long time. 

On the other hand, as the second writer suggests, there is a deeply-felt rage among Trump supporters that a large swath of the country has not simply been ignored, but has been systematically driven to the precipice of despair by coastal elites whose New World Order has no place for them or for their children. For them, the norms of politically correct public discourse left them with no voice, and dismissed them as morally inferior if they did speak out. For them, the election has only validated their anger, but however cathartic the last week may have been, in truth it has done nothing to solve the objective conditions that gave rise to the anger in the first place.

My sister was distraught the day after the election. But a few days later, after glancing through an online piece entitled Reaching Across the Red/Blue Divide, she had a conversation about the election with a neighbor who voted for Donald Trump. (She lives in Berkeley, so the odds of that were pretty slim.) They had a very good conversation that centered around the values that they hold in common, rather than the vilification of each other's candidate that came to characterize political discourse over the course of the presidential campaign. Her neighbor was able to explain her views, and how the things that were important to her overwhelmed her distaste for other aspects of Donald Trump. It was a difficult conversation for each of them. Her neighbor said my sister was the first person who listened to her and didn't yell at her, and my sister, in turn, felt for the first time that she at least could understand and appreciate a different perspective.

A few days after the election, in an op-ed in the Washington Post, I’m a Muslim, a woman and an immigrant. I voted for TrumpAsra Nomani sought to explain her vote for Trump, and started by insisting that she was neither a bigot, a racist nor a white supremacist, and that she was pro-choice, and believed in both gay marriage and climate change. For her, the single most important issue was radical Islam, and in her view the tendency of Obama and Hillary Clinton to dance around the issue of Qatari and Saudi support for ISIS and radical Islamists. She feared the influence that those dictatorships would in a Clinton White House in the wake of their multimillion-dollar donations to the Clinton Foundation.

Most Trump supporters are not bigoted lunatics--even Hillary conceded that her 50% estimate was probably too high. Just as an extreme point of reference, former David Duke--Donald Trump's most vocal KKK supporter--only won 3% of the vote in his race for the U.S. Senate seat in Louisiana. I know little else about that race, but that result would suggest that the extreme right wing share of the electorate is fairly small, however vocal it might be.

As difficult as the prospect of talking politics this year over Thanksgiving dinner might be for my friends, they each have more to gain than they have to lose by engaging in an open-minded conversation with their Trumpian family members this week. This does not mean agreeing with anything they say, but starting a conversation with an agreement on both sides to set aside the campaign talking points and moral judgements. Don't start by asking why they voted for a man who is a racist, just tone it down start with something more neutral, "Help me understand your thinking behind your vote..." And then just try to listen to your siblings and cousins who have a different point of view. It will likely be hard for each side not to fall back to the moral judgements of the campaign rhetoric, but it will be important to try, and most likely rewarding in the end.

It is a starting point, but for both sides it is an important one. We have a long journey ahead, but if we cannot start those conversations within our families, it is hard to imagine as a divided nation how we will even be able to take the first step forward.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

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