This is a story I read on line. Are there similar stores on the left? Certainly. Can we ever accept each other again or is this what our future looks like?
It all started when I came home last Christmas. My mother and I were having a conversations about all the normal things: her new job, the holidays, politics, and so on.
She was very upset about the recent election of Donald Trump.
“I can’t believe that man is going to be president!”
“Yeah, well at least he’s not Hillary,” I replied.
I could sense the air getting sucked out of the room.
“Are you telling me you voted for Donald Trump?”
I thought about deflecting or giving some wishy-washy answer, but if I had enough conviction to vote in November, then I could certainly give her an honest answer now.
“Of course I did. I’d do it again.”
It was true. It’s still true.
I explained that even though I’m not a Trump supporter, I also thought Hillary was totally unacceptable.
What followed was probably the most stereotypical post-2016 election debate ever.
“But Trump did ….”
“But Trump said…”
“I understand how you feel, but there were two candidates in this election.”
“I agree, Trump shouldn’t have done that.”
“I actually think that’s a pretty reasonable idea.”
The remainder of my visit was awkward and tense. We didn’t say much, but I thought I departed on good terms. I was wrong.
It’s worth pausing to say that I’m not here to re-litigate the 2016 election, argue about “sides”, or score points about the political issues of the day.
But I do see a broader trend of politics driving people apart. Or, phrased properly, people allowing politics to drive them apart. That’s a lot less about who we elect and a lot more about how we conduct our personal lives. As Americans, we did this to ourselves.
I want to paint a (necessarily imperfect) picture of the real pain that’s causing.
I had tried calling my mom a couple times to no avail. But a few months later, we talked again. We caught up on the day-to-day, before getting to the elephant in the room.
“So, Mom, I haven’t heard from you in a while.”
She explained she was deeply upset that I had voted for Trump and couldn’t imagine why someone would vote for him. She made sure to add, “I know you may be happy now, but I hope someday you’ll see what a mistake you made.”
I certainly wasn’t happy that my mother was already making plans to hold Trump against me. I didn’t like Obama’s presidency, but was I suddenly supposed to hold that against her? (Her take: “Obama’s presidency was wonderful. I don’t see what all these right-wingers were complaining about. They just hated him for being black.”)
Needless to say, my mother’s mental model of conservatives is quite poor. Which isn’t totally surprising. She doesn’t know any conservatives. She’s broadly unfamiliar with conservative ideas. However, she’s very familiar with left-wing caricatures of conservative ideas, particularly those that are heavy on emotion and utopian “magical thinking”.
I once tried to explain my views on minimum wage laws and how they hurt the people they’re trying to help. Her response: “People don’t make enough money because greedy businessmen don’t pay them enough. If the government passed a minimum wage law, businesses would realize they can afford to pay their workers more by trimming CEO pay.”
The problem isn’t really that my mom holds left-wing views, nor is it that her left-wing views are particularly visceral and empty. The problem is that she has reduced disagreement to malice or stupidity, which over time has led her to act with increasing malice and stupidity.
There’s a big difference between a shallow statement like “I support universal health care, but I can see that we all want what’s best. It’s all love.” and a shallow statement like “I support universal health care and the reason we can’t have it is because Republicans want people to die on the streets.”
My mother, unfortunately, believes the latter on many political issues.
Mom’s view of me is quite strange. On the one hand, she clearly resents me for my political views. On the other, she apparently still respects me enough to have a conversation every now and again.
I’ve occasionally asked her: “Why do you think I believe the things I do? Do you think I’m hateful and bigoted too?”
Her response: “No, I don’t think you’re hateful, but I do think you’re probably ignorant and consumed by many extreme, right-wing ideologues.”
So, not evil. But stupid. And possessed by conservative demons.
Right. So there’s a lot to work to do.
The first thing I tried to do was to see if my mother was able to humanize Trump voters. I’ve asked her questions like “Are there any things you dislike about Hillary?” or “Can you think of any positive reason a someone might support Trump?”.
In the year since the election, my mother has been unable to name a single thing she dislikes about Hillary. The closest she’s been able to get are sentences like, “I can see why some people might think that Hillary lied about her e-mails, but that was really a fake scandal made up by the Republicans and believed by Trump’s sexist supporters”.
In the year since the election, my mother has been unable to ascribe any positive qualities to people who voted for Trump. The most common adjectives are bigoted, hateful, sexist, racist, xenophobic, and uneducated. The most charitable descriptor is afraid (typically used in a sentence like “they voted for Trump because they’re afraid of a country that has fewer white people in it” — in other words — “afraid, but still racist”).
I’ve often suggested something like “What about pro-life voters?” to which she’s able to admit “Yeah, I guess that would be a good reason” before forgetting the conversation altogether. I’m actually shocked she respects pro-life views enough to admit they’re legitimate. I’m also thrilled to report I haven’t heard the phrase “war on women” from her since 2012.
A more telling exchange goes like this:
“You’ve said all these things you don’t like about Trump, so why can’t you just admit that Hillary and the Democrats would have been better?”
To which I respond, “Because I’m a conservative and those ideas are bigger than Trump.”
This “logic” makes sense if your worldview is Red Team v.s. Blue Team. In that world, it sucks to be on the “wrong” team.
My relationship with my mom has largely devolved into the news cycle. When Trump dominates the headlines, our conversations are tense. When the news cycle is quiet, our conversations are more calm.
The calm is nice.
It certainly doesn’t help that so many voices, especially in the mainstream press, have been actively polarizing the country with slavish, unsophisticated, partisan coverage.
But the larger trajectory is worrying. As I’ve sought purpose and meaning in my own life through a career and religion, she’s identified more and more with politics.
She continues to struggle with humanizing me and continues to see me as an active participant in the battle of good and evil that plays out live on CNN every day. It’s tough to rebuild a relationship on that shaky foundation.
I hope we’re able to repair things sooner rather than later. I’m still optimistic. There are some promising signs. But if things don’t improve I fear that I may have to erect stronger boundaries between us, possibly at the risk of damaging our relationship even further.
I pray to God I don’t have to build a wall.
A conservative dedicated to making the world a better place.