In my politically diverse extended family, Thanksgiving was always a happy version of “Crossfire” or “Firing Line,” the occasion for raucous debates over the future of our country. My childhood and early teen years coincided with the 1960s, so the discussions sometimes got bitter.
Bitter, but never devoid of love and affection. Usually, we had Thanksgiving at the home of my godparents, Aunt Do and Uncle Emile. My aunt tried briefly to ban political conflagrations but gave up, realizing that the combatants enjoyed them. My family, particularly my dad and my Uncle Ray, trained me for what I would do for a living. They taught me how to argue, how to hold intellectual ground, and also how to break tense discord with laughter.
This Thanksgiving may be particularly tough for families that bear any resemblance to the one I grew up in. Donald Trump promises to be the most divisive president of my lifetime – and I still remember Richard Nixon’s tenure. Nixon made liberals like me angry. Trump scares us. I truly hope I’m wrong, but I can’t help but notice his authoritarian tendencies and his apparent inability to separate his new responsibilities from his business interests.
As for his supporters, they dismiss us as snobbish left-wing elitists completely out of touch with what’s happening in the “real America.”
Hoping to help divided families maintain their solidarity, I have tried to imagine how screaming matches might coexist with moments of dialogue.
Playing my own role (I won’t pretend I can channel Trump supporters), I could see beginning with some words about what those of us who voted for Hillary Clinton – proudly so, in my case – might learn from the election outcome. This, of course, would come after pointing out that she will end up ahead by something like 2.5 million popular votes, which in every other kind of election would just be called “votes.”
After the Electoral College argument died down, I would acknowledge that a great many of our fellow Americans are hurting. Our economy looks very different in the old industrial areas flattened by technological change and the offshoring of jobs than it does in the wealthier parts of our country.
I would concede that Democrats and liberals did not do a good job of addressing the estrangement of white working-class voters and that it’s not hard to understand why many of these voters felt that every suffering group of Americans had been lifted up by liberals – except for them.
I’d also take to task liberals inclined to condemn those “uneducated” voters who cast ballots against their interests for a con man. I do believe they made a mistake they’ll come to regret, but it shouldn’t be hard to empathize with their desire to hurl a wrench into the gears of politics. I am in the camp that believes James Comey, the FBI director, tilted the election to Trump. Verbal commotion would no doubt follow this assertion. Nonetheless, I would accept the criticism that the Clinton campaign didn’t devote enough attention to offering a clear economic vision that, I would insist, was inherent in her long list of policies.
But as I pass the turkey, I’d ask Trump supporters to look at the election from the other side. Kimberly Moffitt, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, called my attention to Charles Gaba’s powerful tweet: “Not all Trump supporters are racist, but all of them decided that racism isn’t a deal-breaker.” I’d invite everyone at our Thanksgiving table to think hard about this.
I’d also ask my conservative dinner mates to consider the embarrassment and potential corruption that could befall our country if Trump is not required to sell off his businesses. Surely no friend of the free market wants a president who could use his power and influence to push others, including foreign governments, to make decisions that would enrich him.
And I’d ask them to join us in being prepared to stand up if Trump’s inclination to punish his opponents and isolate a critical media leads him to misuse government’s power toward these ends. A reverence for freedom should unite us.
I can hear my Aunt Do’s voice warning me that the plan I just laid out will only result in warring relatives throwing cranberry sauce and drumsticks at each other. But if it came to that, I’d still hope we could at least agree that the liberty to disagree is precious – and, yes, the apple pie is wonderful.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.