The case for arguing with your Trump-supporting relatives this Thanksgiving
In 1993, following Bill Clinton’s presidential election victory over George H.W. Bush, I had my first political Thanksgiving meltdown.
I was 15, and at the time we used to have Thanksgiving dinner with distant family members — my three second cousins and their parents — but since most of our family lived in India, we grew up with them and they were as close as siblings. These relatives were politically conservative, avowed Christians, anti-abortion and always voted Republican. At the time, I was already identifying as a feminist, thanks to the riot grrrl movement and early exposure to feminist issues.
They spoke openly about their anti-abortion position that year in light of the shooting of Dr. George Tiller, 15 years before he was shot to death in his Kansas church. They, of course, didn’t support the violence, but they did double down on why they were anti-abortion. This caused me to abandon my dinner and my family at the table because I started crying.
This is not a particularly good example of how to deal with family members who have different political opinions, but it’s more to say that when you don’t agree with your family, it can feel like a deep betrayal and as though they fundamentally don’t see you or respect you for who you are. And in today’s political climate, this difference has intensified. The election of Donald Trump was, for many families, a dividing point where many had to grapple with profound differences across the political spectrum with people they grew up with, people they love.
Speaking with people who disagree with you requires more than talking points. It requires courage, confidence and comfort with knowing you might argue and they might get mad at you. Nicole Chung wrote about this topic for Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance and Revolution in Trump’s America (an anthology I edited). She reflected on her life as a transracial adoptee and having to grapple with her white relatives’ support for Trump.
On Election Day 2016, Chung realized what many of us considered: “White people hadn’t done enough to prevent this,” she wrote in her essay.
If 63% of white men and 53% of white women voted for Trump, that meant “white people had once again put their social comfort before the survival of everyone else.”
When she realized her relative privilege and proximity to the source of the issue, she knew she had to act. “I have a measure of privilege that comes with being East Asian-American — a more ‘acceptable’ minority, nowadays, though who knows how long it will last. I have still more privilege as a transracial adoptee with even closer proximity to whiteness, and this is a proximity I must use,” Chung wrote.
At an event on the Nasty Women book tour, Chung expanded on this with a sentiment I have often come back to. An audience member asked her how to confront a Trump-voting uncle, and she responded by saying this particular relative should feel the consequences of his action — and that one of those consequences was the audience member’s dissatisfaction with their uncle’s decision. It’s not a morally neutral time, Chung said, and that’s all the more reason to double down on who you are and how you feel. The fear of being impolite or hurting our relationships can prevent us from coming forward and speaking our minds. But sometimes the very act of disapproval is powerful. It lets someone you love know what they have done is hurtful.
In fact, Chung herself had to overcome a decades-long pressure in her family to never speak about whom you voted for, because her mother said it was a “private” decision. “But this election felt different. I knew I had to try and convince them not to vote for Trump, even if they resented me for it,” she wrote in her essay.
Of course, having to go home to face your Trump-voting family is not everyone’s experience. It is no longer mine (thanks, Mom), and there are many families that actually agree on political views. But there are other instances where you may have to break bread or break tension-filled silences with family or friends who don’t share your politics.
When we talk about resistance, it’s about more than just what happens in the streets or in the tweets (sorry). Trump’s election revealed deep fissures in how Americans see this country, who we think belongs in it and what our fundamental values even are. Our interpersonal relationships have also suddenly become political, but the good news is they are generally rooted in love — and when people love you, there is a better chance they will listen to you. And even when it feels like they are not listening, they will remember how you felt. It is in those spaces, with family and friends and with partners and lovers, that we have the opportunity to truly change minds by using our own experience and our shared empathy for each other.
After sending emails upon emails explaining the implications of Trump’s day-to- day decisions on her, her family, her community and what she could do, Chung heard from her mother. Chung had just come back from the Women’s March and saw a new email from her mother.
Chung shared how her mother “called her representative to ask him to support the education of ‘our special needs children,’” as she puts it, and make sure their rights are protected.
“It’s the first time in years my mother has contacted one of her elected officials,” Chung wrote. “She didn’t do it because she relished the opportunity to take action or call a stranger, I am sure of it — she must have called for me. For my kids.”
I asked Chung about whether she was going home for the holidays. She isn’t this year, but she did tell me her family has become more understanding about her fear and frustrations about the Trump administration. That’s not quite enough for her, however, and when asked if she thinks we should confront our Trump-supporting relatives this holiday, she told me over email:
“I really do, and I’d go a step beyond and say they should even if they don’t feel 100% comfortable, so long as the conversation and confrontation would not put them in any kind of danger.”
Nov. 22, 2017, 3:38 p.m.: This article has been updated.