Is a Donald Trump supporter coming to my house for Thanksgiving dinner? Maybe. At this point, after the last two weeks, nothing much surprises me anymore. Being surprised about this election indicates a level of denial – about our country, our politics, our culture, and the myriad of divisions tearing at the fabric of an imperfect union.
That was me on Nov 8. I was in denial that Trump could win the presidency, given how even Paul Ryan, the Republican leader of the House of Representatives, described some Trump comments as “the definition of racism.” There were the many untruths Trump told on the campaign trail, such as when he said he opposed the Iraq War even though there are recordings of him saying the opposite.
What about Trump’s call for a ban on any and all Muslims traveling to the U.S.? His constant focus on a U.S.-Mexico border region that is not nearly the security threat he makes it out to be? To me, all of this – and so much more – was disqualifying. And that’s not to mention how Trump never previously held elective office or served in the military. Americans never have elected a president without those credentials, until now.
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So why did so many people vote for him? Why did so many people stay home on election day? And why is it entirely possible that someone will be sitting across from me on Thursday – eating my prime rib, drinking my wine – will want to give thanks for a Trump presidency? What happens then?
Thanksgiving is about bringing people together, but our politics right now are splitting us apart. Seemingly everyone wants to put everyone else in ideological boxes constructed by our own biases. Are we really just a nation of “racist” Trump voters or “crooked” Hillary Clinton supporters?
Personally, I’m sitting out narrow battles of name-calling and finger-pointing. Everyone at my table on Thursday will be welcomed with love, even though I won’t take back anything I’ve written or felt about Trump. I’m ready to disagree, push back, oppose or fight specific battles with the president-elect over specific policies and decisions. But that’s it.
If we abhor the type of identity politics that Trump played on the campaign trail, then how can we respond in kind by grouping all Trump supporters together in the category of “other” when truth is far more complicated? I’m still struggling with understanding how people could support Trump after all the divisive statements he made, but the only way to understand is by trying. There are undoubtedly some Trump supporters who responded to the racial animus he sowed on the campaign trail. But every time I start thinking that motivation applies to all, I’m reminded that it doesn’t.
The morning after Trump became president-elect of the United States, I discovered – much to my surprise – that my beloved cousin Juanita Acker was an ardent Trump supporter. She was raised in the Mexican town of Rio Bravo, which is at the northern tip of the border state of Tamaulipas. It’s the same town where my mother once lived and where I spent almost every Christmas from birth until 1986, the year I graduated from college.
My memories of those Christmases with Juanita and a small army of cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents, are of massive family dinners replete with homemade tamales. My dad and my uncles would always hire musicians to fill my grandfather’s house with the sounds of guitars, violins and accordions. Family members would dance together, heels clicking on tile floors late into the night. Neighborhood roosters would wake us in the morning.
Juanita has lived in Wisconsin since 1988, as have many members of the Martinez clan – my mother’s branch of our family. They’ve become Americanized to the point where every time the Green Bay Packers beat the 49ers, my phone blows up with loving taunts from my “cheese-head” relatives.
What happens when immigrants put down roots in the U.S.? They become Americans. My cousin votes, she participates, she cares. She lives in a county northeast of Milwaukee that went for Trump in a big way. Trump beat Clinton by more than 20 percentage points in Fond du Lac County, Wis. Most of my relatives live in Milwaukee, where Clinton won. But the farther you drove away from Wisconsin’s biggest city, the more the voting map turned red.
Wisconsin was a reliably blue state Clinton had to win but didn’t, losing by slightly more than 27,000 votes. This, coupled with narrow Trump wins in Michigan and Pennsylvania, lifted the New York real estate magnate to the presidency. My own flesh and blood played a role in this. Am I going to excoriate a person I’ve known and loved my entire life? No. Her faith and her pro-life beliefs were the reason she couldn’t support Clinton. She wasn’t thrilled with Trump, but he more closely represented an issue important to her.
We can dismiss this all we want as a culture, but I know my cousin is no bigot. We know from the data that Gary Johnson, a Libertarian, got more than 100,000 votes in Wisconsin. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, got nearly 31,000. So while the margins between Trump and Clinton were tight, a majority of the state did not vote for the candidate who in my mind should have won.
The New York Times this week published a revealing story about African Americans from Milwaukee who stayed home on Election Day. According to the Times, the decline in voting in Milwaukee’s five poorest council districts was far higherthan drops in wealthier neighborhoods.
“I don’t feel bad,” Cedric Fleming, an African American barber in Milwaukee, told The Times. “They (politicians) never do anything for us anyway.” He didn’t vote. One could argue this non-vote was as significant as the votes of people like my cousin. And what of people who voted for third-party candidates? In Florida, another key state that went red, Trump beat Clinton by nearly 120,000 votes. Johnson, the Libertarian, got just over 206,000 votes.
The numbers are the numbers but the deeper meaning of consequential elections is not learned in two weeks’ time. Instead of raging about the outcome, I’m trying to listen and understand. Some of us will never agree with certain voices, such as Richard Spencer of the National Policy Institute, who promotes “the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent” and whose followers cheered him in Washington, D.C., last week by chanting “Hail Trump” and flashing Nazi salutes.
I posted video of Spencer on my Facebook page and some Trump supporters asked me why I assumed they agreed with Spencer’s racist views. I didn’t suggest that. If you say you condemn Spencer, and some of my Trump-supporting FB friends did, then we’re OK. At least on my page, the discussion was civil and respectful – even if we disagreed about Trump.
There surely was a racial message within Trump’s campaign, but as President Barack Obama has said: We can’t crawl into a “fetal position” when confronted with attitudes that offend us. With racism, we have to confront it and talk about it and fight against it, especially if it’s being presented in a new guise.
What? There wasn’t racism before? There weren’t class divisions before? Several of America’s first presidents weren’t slave owners? Woodrow Wilson wasn’t a racist? Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t imprison Japanese Americans during World War II based on their race? Richard Nixon didn’t do what he did?
The promise of America is always about trying to do better and be better.
We can’t avoid contact with every person who doesn’t hew to our views. We can’t disavow family members we’ve loved because they chose a different candidate for president. And we can’t be afraid of Thanksgiving guests because of what they might say when the discussion turns to the election. The nation is like a dinner table. We’re seated next to each other whether we like it or not. I plan on making my side of the table a place that lives up to our values, even when they are hard to uphold.