In my household, when the holidays come, the usual family members plus a friend or two gather. We have three generations at the table: two female 80-year-olds, some 50-year-olds and the millennials. Only one of us is a Trump supporter. This is, after all, a family of professionals in a Northeastern coastal city.
But it takes only one Trumper to turn a genial dinner into an emotional contest of wills. It doesn’t matter that the holidays call for love and gratitude. We may try to talk about other things—our lives, our jobs, the weather—but Trump won’t go unmentioned. The feelings he arouses are too stormy. This week, we should expect lots of politics along with our turkey and stuffing.
Last year at Thanksgiving, two weeks after the Big Surprise, it wasn’t so bad. Hillary Clinton’s supporters were still in shock. President Barack Obama had two months to go. Some on the left believed that, surely, something would emerge between then and the inauguration that would keep the unthinkable from happening. And there were outlets for liberal dismay and fear, too, marches to join and websites on which to vent. I stepped out to Manhattan’s Second Avenue around that time and watched a small parade heading north, I presume, to one of Trump’s East Side towers. They were softly singing “We Shall Overcome.”
The mood at the 2016 holiday table, then, was disbelief, not outrage. A year later, though, he’s still there. Roe is in trouble, and so are trans soldiers, and public schools, and the environment … and white supremacists are emboldened.
I’m the inexplicable presence in the room, a specimen of something that shouldn’t be. How in the world can an educated person—a teacher, for goodness’ sake—back such a stupid, bigoted, alpha-male blowhard? That’s the question that won’t go away. My mother will talk about his macho manner. My sister will recount the latest fumbles by his Cabinet. My nephew and his wife will fret over what he’ll do to science. Everything runs smoothly until I say, “Didn’t you love Trump’s speech in Warsaw? Isn’t it great to have a leader willing to praise Western civilization?”
That does it. The communal spell is broken. I’ve ruined Thanksgiving. Forget the Warsaw speech—it’s the bare fact of dissent that counts. My mother will wrinkle her brow and mutter, “Oh, gawd.” The millennials at the table will go blank (Western civilization was dropped as a school subject before they were born). My sister shall return to Trump pulling back on environmental regulation, which she regards as abominable.
I imagine similar scenes at holiday tables all across America. According to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll released earlier this month, nearly a third of American adults will try to avoid political topics during the holidays this year. My family is just one window into understanding why. Any career woman, especially a single one, who entered the workforce in 1970 is never, ever going to look at Donald Trump as anything but a sexist bully. She remembers too many ill-mannered bosses and co-workers, condescending males who, when they didn’t hit on her, dismissed or exploited her. My mother made a go of it and put up with a lot. Those humiliations don’t fade.
This is not something to dispute. I spent last New Year’s Eve at a faculty party in Massachusetts, where a woman who was about 70 described that fateful morning when she woke up to find that Hillary had lost. (It is important that she and Hillary were the same age—here, for once, was a candidate who knew what it was like to be an ambitious young woman in 1970.) Astonishment led to disappointment, and then to fright. Her horror reminded me of Yeats’ lines, “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last . . .?” But, she told us, she sauntered down to the beach, sat on the sand, marked the sea and sky, and mumbled, “It’s going to be OK, it’s going to be OK, it’s going to be OK.” Clearly, her reaction had a genesis that started long before November 2016. I never once showed my political sympathies during that particular dinner.
The young ones at the holiday table have a different experience, but it’s no less foreign to me. You see, a 25-year-old has no real memory of any president except Barack Obama. George W. Bush is just a name. They cast their first votes for Obama, and their second (millennials tend to skip the midterms). Obama was not a politician to them: He was the realization of everything millennials believed about the world and about themselves. They are the first generation to have brought tolerance and inclusivity down to Earth (they’ll tell you so).They will not stand for racism. Patriotism is a minor concern, because they think it wrong to favor the poor farmer upstate over the poor farmer in Africa. Everyone deserves to be happy.
Barack Obama in the White House was vindication of their faith. In 2008, the youth vote (18-to-29-year-olds) favored him over McCain 66 percent to 31 percent! This was hero worship. The first black president, a guy who listens to rap and shoots hoops, likes Mad Men and knows how to deliver a punchline, who stops discrimination and frustrates haters, who frees the harassed and victimized … this was what American leadership should always be.
Donald Trump can impress them only as a throwback, a mean, atavistic clod. They don’t care for Hillary, especially. It’s the loss of Obama that distresses them. Set the orange-haired tweeter alongside the cool, composed law professor and a mighty void hits home. The millennials had a charmed political youth for eight years. Now, as they see it, they enter their thirties with a guy who likes walls, guns and threats.
To my fellow Trump supporters, a word of advice: Think about the experiences that lie behind the rancor you might face as you dine and relax with your loved ones this season. Arguments will not end well. Everyone has a life story, a wellspring of pain and triumph that won’t yield easily to debate. Trump has violated them too deeply.
But you have a life story, too, one that led you toward Trump, not away from him. When I first saw identity politics at work, I was a graduate student in English at UCLA in the 1980s. These were the years when the heritage of genius and beauty was recast as a bunch of Dead White Males. Western civilization slipped from a lineage of reason and talent, free inquiry and unsuppressed creativity, into “Eurocentrism,” one group’s advance at the expense of others, women and people of color. Art for art’s sake gave way to art for politics’ sake, for identity’s sake. I spent my 20s in a grimy room reading Dante, Wordsworth and Nietzsche—only to find when I went to campus that my intellectual giants had become objects of suspicion and derision.
When Donald Trump stood in that square in Warsaw and unapologetically hailed Western civilization, I felt a 30-year discouragement lift ever so slightly. That’s my experience, and I’m happy to share it this season.
But I want to hear about the personal circumstances behind my relatives’ politics, too. I can ask the younger ones next to me, “What did Obama’s 2008 campaign mean to you?” and we don’t need to fight about it. I can say to my mother, “What was it like to be the first female real estate agent in the company?” and avoid the disagreements of the present entirely.
These questions are not an avoidance of politics; they get to the foundation of politics. And if conversations run in that deeper direction, instead of to today’s controversies, then this year’s gatherings may, in fact, prove more meaningful and intimate than ever.
So, talk about Trump all you want at your Thanksgiving dinner. Just be sure to listen to what your crazy uncle/father-in-law/niece/cousin is really saying.
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