I’m eating turkey with Trump voters tomorrow, and this is what’s on my mind.
I am finding it increasingly difficult to read white liberal thinkpieces on American politics. I’m presently in the midst of paying a visit to my family in Kentucky, and my time here has been a sharp reminder that only liberals read the kind of articles I generally read — articles that feel like transmissions from another planet now that I’ve been in Trumpland for a month. (And just to clarify: “white liberal thinkpiece” is absolutely the category that this post falls into, in case you want to backbutton and do better things with your time than read it.)
Spending time with my family has reminded me of something I knew extremely well as a teenager, but have since forgotten — which is, how little all my cleverness, and cleverness in general, matters to conservatives like my relatives. Facility of language, global political perspectives, knowledge of history, all the tools that we lefties consider vital to making sense of the world around us, are inherently suspicious to Trump voters like them. Yes, I’m smarter than they are. They know that; they don’t care. They (quite rightly) hold that wisdom isn’t bequeathed by book learning. But trying to explain to them the wisdom that I do possess, the wisdom that comes from drawing connections between the past and the present, feels just as impossible as getting them up to speed with everything I’ve learned about Federalist politics in the early republic.
When my aunt declares that America was founded as a Christian nation, I can’t argue otherwise without exposing her ignorance of American history. And making people feel ignorant is one of the least effective ways of changing their minds that I can imagine. When I reply that it isn’t Christian to put Muslims on a registry, or to cheer along while the president-elect appoints a blatant anti-Semite as his chief of staff, she insists that the liberal media has either invented those things or blown them all out of proportion. People she trusts have explained to her that Steve Bannon is a good man, not the sort of person he’s being made out to be in the newspapers. I don’t fall into the category of “people she trusts”, not where politics are concerned. She doesn’t look up sources and fact-check the sound bites that sway her opinions. She knows she isn’t sophisticated and that someone who possesses a certain kind of verbal cleverness (like me) can run circles around her if she tries to properly argue with them. So she does what she’s always done: she relies on authority. She definitely doesn’t rely on the media. “Why do you think the media has a liberal bias?” I asked her the other day. “Because the country is going to hell,” she shot back immediately. She can’t filter mainstream media through a filter of acquired knowledge the way I can; she can only accept or reject the authority of the media wholesale. Her preachers and Bible study leaders tell her to listen to Fox News. They are her authorities. And if I tried to argue that she’s relying on misguided authorities, or God forbid that she not be reliant on authority in the first place, I would be challenging the entire foundation of her life. Again, not a way to get people to change their minds.
When people like my aunt, and my mother, and all the rest of my family, see headlines and counter-headlines that label Trump and his transition team as Nazis, they laugh and dismiss it as liberal hysteria. Remember the way liberals laughed at birthers? That’s how risible my family considers the charges of Nazism and fascism being laid at Trump’s doorstep. They don’t have a sophisticated understanding of what right wing politics have ever looked like outside of America, or in any other historical era. Once, when I was 16 or so, I tried to explain to my mother that I thought socialism was more in line with Christianity than capitalism. She got strangely furious with me, and eventually I realized that she thought Hitler and the Nazis were socialists. Most of my family are no more racist than most white Democrats who are still struggling with the concept of privilege. My family doesn’t possess the context they would need in order to make sense of the implied chain of reasoning that begins with recognizing codes and dogwhistles and ends with identifying the “alt right” as neo-Nazis. It sounds so extreme and unbelievable that they chalk it all up to yellow journalism — just smear politics operating as usual.
God knows, I very rarely find reasons to defend my family’s politics, but they raised me, and I grew up thinking more or less like them, so I understand where they’re coming from. My family are fairly compassionate people. They give generously to people in need. In the past decade, I’ve even seen them make a genuine effort to get to know and understand people who aren’t like them, people of color, people from different cultures and religions. So I feel like there must be a way for them to grasp that the real live human beings they’ve met and grown to love are going to be hurt and dehumanized and even destroyed by the policies and politicians they’ve thrown their voting power behind.
But I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how to forge that link in their understanding. Where my family is concerned, I don’t know if I can ever build that bridge, because I find it so difficult to keep my cool when people I love, people who purport to love me, say things like “Steve Bannon is a great man.” The rage pathways in my lizard brain get activated, and I walk away to protect myself and keep the peace. But walking away isn’t satisfying to me; it’s not good enough. Because my family, in their ignorance, are a powerful tool in the hands of extremely dangerous people.
God knows, there are plenty of genuinely malicious, petty, hateful people who voted for Trump, but people like my family members are the majority that got him elected. They are people who possess compassion, who are genuinely willing to grapple with their prejudices when faced with real live human beings. But they are also people who lack understanding and perspective, people who are easily led, who want to be led because they know they don’t possess the tools to make genuinely independent decisions.
During the election cycle, reading five or six white liberal thinkpieces a day made me think that I was staying informed. But at this point, I’m pretty sure I was just entertaining myself with increasingly eloquent reiterations of opinions I already held. Because I think I might be better at talking to my family about these things if I hadn’t spent the last election cycle (and to a certain extent, the last fifteen years) protecting my peace of mind by listening only to people I already agreed with. I don’t want it to be my duty to engage with my Trump-voting family members, to hold them accountable or try to counter their assertions with research. That is an exhausting and thankless job at best. But I’m pretty sure I’m the only person on the planet who has any chance at all of succeeding in swaying their opinions. So I probably owe it to everybody to try.