Talking Trump: A Thanksgiving Field Guide
Many of you reading this might be sharing a Thanksgiving table with some of the 61 million people who voted for Donald Trump. Chances are if you clicked on this, you are left-leaning, politically active, and mindful enough to try to make a strategy for Operation: T-Day. Perhaps you want to feel a bit more prepared. Maybe you want the strength to not decline your RSVP to Aunt Cheryl’s dinner. Most likely, you just want to feel like you are not alone.
Here at Civic Hall, a group of members including myself hosted a workshop for family and friends of Trump supporters before the election. We shared some of our goals, experiences, successes and and failures in talking to relatives on the Trump Train. Many participants expressed the challenges of “left-field” arguments and personal attacks, emotional intensity, and cognitive dissonance. Some found success in rhetoric that placed love, faith, and community before Trump. Some of the best practices in this piece are derived from that meeting, shared articles from seasoned professionals, and the ensuing conversations online.
This piece will not give you surefire ways of getting your Trump-voting dad to start feeling the Bern. It does not pretend to strengthen your arguments; it wants to help strengthen you. The intention here is to give you some tools to cope with this holiday season with grace, integrity, and conviction. No single best practice will save all of us. As Tolstoy kind of said, happy same-candidate families are all alike; unhappy multi-candidate families are unhappy in very different ways.
First, Acknowledge “Family” is Different from “America”
Speaking truth to your own dad, uncle, or grandma is often harder than speaking truth to Power, with a capital P. Someone who your political club might call “homophobic,” you might call “Grandpa.” As much as you may be dedicated to social justice, solving inequality, and standing up against racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, sexism, and homophobia in the public sphere or in institutions, sometimes domestic battles are more complex. The “personal as political” takes on a whole new meaning when it’s inside the family setting. Calling dad “racist” can quickly get mixed up with “why have you always been such a hypocrite? Do you even know me? Do you love me?” (Studies show that calling dad racist won’t help him be less racist anyway; discussion will.)
Acknowledge that you are not a failure in fighting “the man” and tearing down the patriarchy if you don’t change mom’s mind about climate change. As much as we have a serious responsibility to strategically sway the hearts and minds of our country, strategy and tact can often go out the window after two glasses of scotch while watching Fox News with Uncle Bob. We have to come at conversation with integrity, conviction, and love, and so soon after this election, we might not have the strength to effectively and meaningfully engage. That is okay because there will be other chances. Like it or not, we will be stuck with our family if we are lucky—they show up to key life events, share DNA, have the same cell phone area code, and celebrate kindred family lore.
We have a long road ahead to tactfully heal the country via our kin. If we want to commit to that healing we might also want to avoid someone storming out and starting up the car in the middle of dinner. That is going to take some serious intention setting.
Set Some Intentions…and Boundaries
In our workshop group, we set some intentions for the evening’s conversation. Setting intentions can also keep you close to them. Get your partner, sister, or brother to hold you accountable to those. If your intention is to “heal the divide” or to “get dad to understand racism” could be pretty ambitious only two weeks after the election. What does “healing” look like? What does “understanding” feel like? Thinking about what these concepts mean for you, in your reality, and in your family will help you set your own expectations. Setting more modest intentions is equally admirable; maybe you just want to listen to why your aunt loves Trump without snapping. Stay close to those intentions, but also set and understand your boundaries. If someone crosses a red line that triggers you—maybe it is an unwarranted personal insult or denying the Holocaust—think about what you will do to maintain integrity and self-care. That might mean telling the offender you love them but they need to respect your boundaries and you need space…then go play at the kids table with your nieces. Playing GI Joe never felt so good. Bottom line: better to have a plan and someone to hold you to it than going off the rails.
Mind the time, method, and inebriation: Texting about Trump with a Trump supporter is about as good of an idea as drunk-talking about Trump, i.e. they are bad ideas. Talking politics at the end of dinner when everyone is tipsy, tired, or cranky is a recipe for disaster. Everyone wants to change their mind just as much as they would like to have a fifth helping of mashed potatoes. While we would like to think the pilgrims and Indians worked it all out after dinner, history says they didn’t. Be tactful on timing.
Give them an out: Some Trump supporters might already be retiring their red and white hats after learning about Trump’s early appointees or seeing his family business conflicts of interest that are emerging in the transition. A few weeks before the election, Harvard Business Review published a piece on how to build Trump supporters an “off ramp,” and a lot of the advice in there is still applicable. This includes letting them join your side without guilt, not blaming them as flip-floppers, helping them save face, and not forcing them to defend their change of belief. As much as some of us would like to live in the schadenfreude of seeing them suffer the realization that this vote is not going to help America, we must give them an opportunity to exit the Trump train and find another one to get on without shame.
Listen: Calling out Aunt Cheryl as “Xenophobic,” (however gratifying in that moment it may be) might not actually get you anywhere. If we want to win, we have to practice certain acts of self-restraint. In the heat of the election cycle, we all might have been so caught up in being right during a debate, that we forgot to listen to why a family member voted for Trump in the first place. Without making assumptions, genuinely ask. This is will be incredibly important information later if you want to invite them into a coalition that will actually fulfill or at least effectively speak to their needs, goals, and desires—both rational and emotional.
Give time and credit for baby steps: Given the horrible inequality we see in the world, many of us have an all-or-nothing mentality about equal rights. This might be a good motivation for social movements, but it is not as effective in helping people go from thinking sodomy is a sin, to gay marriage should be legal, to “Can’t wait to go to your best friend’s gay wedding!” Encouraging a relative who maybe now beginning to harboring some uncomfortable feelings about Trump should not be like potty-training a dog—you don’t have to shower them with praise and give extra treats when they show signs of defecting. However, acknowledging when they think “Hey, Ivanka shouldn’t have plugged her bracelets on 60 Minutes! That’s nepotism!” and then taking a break from the conversation can be a good tactic. Giving someone time to sit with a personal realization is more effective than making the point to them over and over…they don’t want to hear it from you.
Don’t sugar coat your own party: Clearly Democrats did not have the ground game to win this year. There was some ugly stuff happening in the DNC. Trying to make your conversations about issues, not parties, is much more effective. Most likely, Cousin Jake is not so keen that many Republicans, particularly Senator Sessions, want to keep marijuana illegal. In the meantime, Democrats have a lot of work to do.
If your relative is a Republican, use Republican arguments against Trump: Sometimes the best arguments against Trump are from Glenn Beck’s mouth—not yours. Beck speaks to conservatives on their terms, “We have, as a culture, embraced the bad guys. I love Tony Soprano. But, when a Tony Soprano shows up in your life, you don’t love him so much.” Trump is like Tony Soprano, but using the White House instead of a waste management facility as a front for “the family business” is less than entertaining. Other respected conservative voices (particularly TV personalities) have simple critiques and arguments against Trump, particularly around spending, military relations, or taxation, that don’t also make your relatives give up their NRA membership.
Don’t force someone to be something their whole life trained them not to be: Grandma from Appalachia might not be Ruth Bader Ginsburg. However, even she can slowly come to see that Trump is not going to bring back coal without starting to go to climate change rallies.
Defending Hillary to someone who hates her is a fool’s errand: This Thanksgiving might not be the time to defend Hillary Clinton. She lost. Now is the time to arm ourselves with historical arguments that will help us win the future, not the past.
Go for the “fruit”: This idea came out of our workshop from a participant who identified as very Christian. Instead of trying to make a case for why Trump is bad, try to reinforce the religious values, or “fruit of the spirit,” your mother or uncle might have: patience, humility, compassion, love, grace, and charity—to name a few. Ask how a president can live these values and how we can get a president to live up to these values. It might take some stern critique on our part to encourage Trump to live up to Christian and other faith-based values.
Say you love them: Fear of not being loved by your children and kin can get people to do crazy things. Starting from a place of affirming love is going to help get through some very hard and sometimes utter failures of conversations. Love gets us to do and believe dark and twisted things—let us try to stay on the bright side of love.
It is okay to just not talk yet: Sometimes boundaries and space are critical to building up the integrity and strength you will need to have a meaningful conversation with a loved one who disagrees with you on something as fundamental to identity as politics were in 2016. Agreeing to not talk politics or not talk at all is not a loss. It is not cowardice. It does not mean you let politics divide you or tear your family apart irreparably. That said, set a time to talk that might give you ample time to work on strengthening yourself (not merely your arguments).
Do you have best practices? Stories? Reflections on how these tips did or did not work? We would love to hear. Please share your stories, in confidence, with firstname.lastname@example.org. This is hopefully the beginning of an ongoing effort to find the best ways to communicate across political, generational, and social divisions.