As the holidays approach, many of us are headed home to eat at tables where there the political divide is deep and wide. Some of us are refusing to go home altogether. And yet many more of us are still facing down that crossroads, unsure which way to turn - to dissolve relationships with our loved ones because of their political leanings, or grin and bear the discomfort of our differences for the sake of maintaining connection.
I can’t tell you which path to choose, every family is different and your boundaries are your own. But I can say that I’ve found ways to stay true to my moral compass and feminist underpinnings without having to end my relationships with all the Trump supporters whom share my genetics. The following essay is a chronicle of my experience - how I raised the price of admission into my life and learned to compromise without becoming an apologist for the right. In this era of unprecedented division in our homes and in our country, it is my hope that we can begin leaning into the tough conversations that bring us closer together rather than farther apart.
I Think I’m At The Wrong Church Picnic
Some of you who follow me on social media might remember a series of posts from a few months ago about politically diverse families. At the time, I was visiting my brother and cousin in northern Minnesota when Trump came to town, and I got inside a MAGA rally undetected. My rationale for attending the rally was simple, my leftist peers and I were totally ignorant of what one of these events is really like. So I wanted to take a look for myself and chronicle the experience, not as a counter-protester but as an observer.
For context, both my brother and my cousin got tickets early and were excited to see Trump speak. Despite getting a ticket myself (they were free) the turnout was so large that the event was completely oversold. So when Donald gets on the mic, complaining about how the press doesn’t accurately portray the size of the crowds that turn up for his events - he has a point. I say this having only attended one rally, but it was definitely the case in Duluth, MN.
Unable to get inside the venue, I was left to stand in line with others who were hoping to get a glimpse of the POTUS and wander the grounds. There were a few things that surprised me right away, namely that the people I was surrounded by in line were so friendly and upbeat. I assumed that the overall vibe would have been more ominous and angry, but the gleeful excitement was electric. Yes, there were some “build the wall” chants, but if you were further away you could have easily mistaken these chants for a high school homecoming cheer. It was an odd experience, like a midwestern church picnic with terrifying carnival games.
Once the rally began and the line dissipated I decided to start talking to counter-protestors. My intention was to find out if they, like me, perhaps had family members whose politics differed from their own. I figured that since these people and I were more likely to have some common ground, that they might be open to talking about their experiences.
But I was dead wrong.
As I approached various groups holding signs with plenty of love your neighbor-type messaging, I politely introduced myself, let them know I had family on the inside of the rally, and asked how they were handling the political divide in their own families. I wasn’t there to talk about Trump. I wanted to discover how my peers were keeping their families intact within our divisive climate. But the responses I got ranged from angry shouting to tears. I was accused of being “just as bad as Trump” for maintaining ties with his supporters and had more than one person storm off before I could finish explaining my position. The misdirected rage and total unwillingness to discuss ways to bridge the gap surprised me, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. This is part of the problem that many on the left are contributing to, the slamming of doors and facebook unfriending that eliminates any chance of building a new alliance.
Somewhat defeated, I made my way downtown and into a sports bar on the shore of Lake Superior that had their TVs turned to live coverage of the rally. I sat by myself, drank, and listened to Trump ad lib his usual routine, subbing in words like “mining” and “great lakes” as he pandered. I could feel the people seated at the next table watching me as I scribbled notes, and I could tell they were curious about the tattooed woman sitting alone. Between moments of applause, one of them, a flannel-clad man with a thick northern Minnesota accent and a stout beard to match, approached me. He asked if I’d been inside the rally, and I told him no, and explained why I was there. It turned out that he was there with his family, all Trump supporters. He expressed what seemed like a sincere interest in what I wanted to accomplish and a genuine curiosity about my perspective. Finding more ways to reach across the aisle within our own families seemed totally reasonable to him, a man who voted for Trump.
As the crowds receded I headed back to my brother’s house where he, my cousin, and I talked about the day, their perspective from inside, mine from the outside. I expressed the discomfort and frustration that came up as they described how Trump had mocked a protestor getting removed from the rally saying “is that a man or a woman?” because he had long hair. In spite of that, when I described what had happened with the counter-protesters and at the sports bar my family listened respectfully because they support what I was there to do.
What America Do You Live In?
We all know that middle Americans are tired of getting their necks stepped on by what they perceive as Washington elites and ivory tower liberals. Trump’s sarcasm and irreverence makes them feel like finally, someone is speaking up for them. However misguided this perspective may be, the underlying feelings of exploitation and fear are very very real.
Unlike many of my friends, I wasn’t surprised whatsoever that Trump was elected and I was not afraid to attend his rally. It seems like those with the most disbelief around Trump’s rise to power are those who are very insulated from working class people. I’m not sure what America they live in, but the one I inhabit is full of people who don’t always think like I do, but they are my friends, family, and neighbors. In other words, I don’t feel a sense of otherness when I talk to Trump supporters because in my life I interact with them all the time.
We don’t share the same perspective because unlike me, many of these people never had the opportunity to travel abroad or get a bachelors degree let alone a masters degree. They don’t know what I mean when I talk about white privilege, internalized misogyny, or rape culture. As a cis, white, hetero-passing female I am dripping with privilege. So I believe the onus is on me to adopt the posture of the humilitant learner when I encounter someone who thinks differently than I do. Because the fact is, I’ll never understand the lived experience of someone outside my political circle if I don’t maintain a sense of genuine curiosity while I allow them to tell me about it.
Influence Requires Embracing Discomfort
In staying the course through difficult conversations with my brother, we have influenced each other and have built a relationship that has lead to immense growth and understanding. Neither of us are changing party affiliation, but we have built a bridge of empathy between us that makes it impossible to view each other as the liberal or alt right caricatures from the nightly news.
My little brother with the big heart voted for Trump. He is not a racist or a bigot, but I won’t excuse the fact that he voted for one and therefore there is blood on his hands. But he also has shown profound respect for his mouthy older feminist sister who writes about sex, money, and women’s rights on the internet. Through our relationship I’ve increased his awareness of my experience as a woman in the #metoo era and encouraged him to reconsider some of his assumptions. In turn, he’s given me hope for healing the divide.
When I feel defeated (like when I read how many women just voted for Marsha Blackburn), I’m reminded that seeing the person underneath their politics matters. I can listen and validate a person’s experience even when it’s in sharp contrast to mine, and in doing so strengthen the relationship that is ultimately the strongest tool I have to create meaningful change.
For more photos and videos of the rally I attended in Duluth, MN follow me on Instagram @immaculate.confessions and send me your thoughts on navigating family and politics this holiday season!