Somewhere around 1:30 a.m. the morning after the election — an insurgency of white, rural Americans lacking college degrees having taken its revenge upon itself and the rest of us by granting power to a self-styled strongman with a long record of race-baiting, tax-dodging, creditor-stiffing, self-dealing, model-chasing, lie-disseminating and the hosting of rallies where journalists were confined to pens and subjected to taunts and promises of death printed on T-shirts (please, commenters, do tell us again about the Hillary Clinton e-mails) — I staged the only act of protest left in my immediate control.
I sent an e-mail to an in-law, telling him that his genial hockey buddy and Trump supporter friend Johnny was no longer welcome on Thanksgiving.
I’m not a hater. Johnny’s a good guy. He means well and has done nice things for me. I’ve known him 20 years. But I can’t feed him any more of my potatoes. And I encourage everyone reading these words to defenestrate all the Johnnys in their lives, if they feel so inclined. Or better yet, they could emulate what the comic and patriot Wanda Sykes did last week in Boston, which is to condemn the rise of the strongman, brooking no generosity or period of cooling — and to flip right off anyone who doesn’t want to hear it.
We are in new territory, but I have a feeling that people who follow demagogues will dislike getting flipped off by people who once took them into their homes in late fall, handed them a drink and told them about the new bird feeders. At the least, it will end the pretense that we share much in common. What, the Packers-Vikings rivalry?
Everyone had their moment when they knew something was wrong about the strongman. For me, it was the clip showing an aging veteran repeatedly shoving an African-American girl from Black Lives Matter, hounding her from one of the strongman’s recruitment rallies during a break in the strongman’s public recitation of his beautiful poll numbers, his promises to jail the opposition and his plans to round up the children of vegetable-pickers and bathroom-cleaners. The old veteran looked invigorated by the chance to push around a black girl in defense of the strongman. It ran on TV for weeks.
I know Johnny had to have seen it, because Johnny watches TV all day long. So while he may not personally be racist — this is the ubiquitous fig leaf now — if Johnny saw that and voted for Trump anyway, he sure did not care about stopping racists.
I made it to 3:30 the next afternoon before embarking on my next round of social housecleaning. By text, I put the question to a different relative, a note that read, let’s see, oh yes, here it is: “Please tell me you guys didn’t vote for that monster.”
Before the election, I had developed a vague inkling that this relative and her significant other — generous, warm, and good parents the both of them — might possibly have been considering a vote for the strongman. When six hours passed and she hadn’t replied, my forebodings only grew stronger — we trade texts about our kids in a heartbeat. At some point I sent over a curt follow-up: “I’ll take that as a ‘yes.’ ”
“Don’t get hostile,” she shot back. “I didn’t vote.”
Which is funny, because this relative lives on the coast and works in prenatal care for at-risk mothers. But the climate-change denier she didn’t show up to oppose at the polls will soon accelerate the flooding of her streets and just told a reporter he expects that pregnant women in crisis, women he flaunts as lovers and later discards like last year’s car, to travel to the next state in order to end a pregnancy. So, not voting at all, yeah — “I don’t understand that,” I replied.
And here came the grim capper of an explanation, a tragedy that will be studied for generations, the great American apathy of 2016:
“Don’t like her.”
Well. Maybe in light of 2016 we have all had enough questioning of our delicate consumer preferences for a lifetime. I replied: “O Boo Hoo, who does?” Which is probably the least I’ve ever done to conceal my contempt for the position of a close relative.
We exchanged a few more comments, but I can’t tell you where we stand at this point, because she concluded with an emoji, and I don’t speak emoji.
On the third and final night of this reckoning by text, it was time to engage with a young cousin by marriage:
“Did you vote for Trump?”
I had been primed for confrontation with the young man, whose head is harder for me to impale on a spike because I have known him since he was a child. But he’s 30 now. And more to the point, when he arrived in my home last year for Thanksgiving and began pelting me with Sean Hannity talking points on the subject of police shootings of unarmed motorists, a thought suddenly occurred to me: Why was I making this guy such delicious gravy?
Please don’t think this is about what you should and shouldn’t say in polite conversation, as if everything would have been better if the deluded Trumpers among us would have just piped down in mixed company. It’s actually about the feeling, as a woman put it in a recent New York Times piece on the defriending now underway over Trump, that “the mask has dropped” after this election. The election of 2016 was a referendum on cruelty and the abuse of power. Some of us can’t be present anymore among those who did not make the right choice.
Upon getting my text and apparently seeking cover, the young cousin, bless him, tried to change the subject. “Come on Paul,” he wrote, “we know politics is a bad conversation between us. How you doing, Bud?”
But I wasn’t having it. “That would be a yes, right?”
He said no, actually, that he would have voted for Trump, except that he was traveling for work. Wrong answer.
“We are done,” I wrote, and I will admit this felt mean, especially once the bargaining started. He quickly said he found problems in the both of the candidates. He placed a call to my wife. So far I have bitten down and stayed the course. I hope the family is doing well, I wrote.
The new problem between the two us will surely require some stage-managing on any shared trips we may still have to take. And yet I now feel deep in my bones: I can’t be friends with anyone who supported what happened.
But then, that was that. I had engaged with everyone in my social circle whom I could remotely blame for what had happened, sometimes unfairly. And I won’t lie, all of this felt pretty sad. But a lot of us feel pretty sad already, so what’s a little extra sadness between former friends.
Besides, I still have to figure out how I am going to make life unpleasant for all the Trump voters or even Trump-ambivalent as yet unknown. Going strictly by yard signs, they seem live in parts of town where you’d buy if you cared more about lawn size than people. But local numbers tell me there are 330 of them in my precinct. It unnerves me to think I share the sidewalk with even 330 votes for the social malevolence of denying my child’s school the right to ban guns.
We are not supposed to ask each other about our votes. It’s not polite. Of course, it’s also not polite to teach your kid to taunt mine that the strongman will be soon putting his opponent in jail. Nor is it polite to stand on the street corner and demand said jailing to all who will hear leading up to voting day, something that happened throughout my town and from even the overpasses. It is the stuff of nightmares, not political difference, to tell a child his country has become a place where the wrong choice in political office will cost you your freedom.
So for all the smiling enablers who put Hillary in pinstripes at the Minnesota State Fair and supported the taunts of “Lock Her Up,” how are you feeling about the man driving around the Twin Cities demanding we shoot her in the head? What about the guys now roaring around in their pickups with oversize American flags flapping from the back? Should we expect a new mood of Fallujah to sweep the land?
Revenge of the countryside against the city, showings of force by vigilantes working in cells, the placing of writers in a pen, using AM radio to spread propaganda and confusion — better be careful, party of small government, your people are starting to look like Hutu Power.
Trump did us all a favor by showing exactly what would happen if an opportunist and political parasite with a compliant host party normalized the American subtext of racism, then brought it to a vote. Some of us see that as a vote to be subjected to a million small acts of social correction, not engagement.
So you don’t have to make the Trump supporters dinner, or remain their friends on Facebook, or keep sending them holiday cards. In fact, it’s probably better that you don’t, not if you don’t want to normalize the election of a man who seems poised to penalize his critics, run a hotel business with the national Treasury, bunker down under the counsel of blood relatives as all tyrants do, and foment anger within his base. Some of us have pushed away family over far less. And once you’ve taken a stand, they might have to think about what matters more to them — their fondness for the strongman, or you.
Talk is overrated. The denial of warm potatoes, that gets a person thinking.
Paul John Scott is a writer in Rochester.