In these times of such intense political upheaval, what impact have they had on your personal relationships? Have your friendships or familial bonds ruptured from the fallout caused by Brexit and Trump?
While this may be an abstract question for us South Africans living far from the action, the point was driven home to me in a way I had not expected – or ever dared think possible. I have a close relative living in America who, it turns out, voted for Trump. Not half-heartedly, mind you, but with deliberate intent.
How to react to this? My relative has lived in America for over 40 years, in a part of America known as the Mid-West but disparagingly known to us snobbish liberals as The Dark Heart of America. It is Republican country, the inner heartland where a deep religiosity abides, where conservatism is a proud tradition, where a hard work ethic is a prized virtue and one with an instinctive suspicion of Washington elites. This is country where, as Lyndon Johnson would have put it, “the people know when you’re sick and care when you die.” From my visits there, it’s a part of the world where to label its inhabitants as anti-foreigners would be too crude a generalisation; my relative, like many like him, are first-generation immigrants there, and during the 1960s when my mother studied in that part of the world she was broadly welcomed. Rather, it’s probably best described as a parochial society which will admit and welcome others – as long as those others subscribe to a uniform, nationalist version of what it means to be an American.
My relative has traditionally voted Republican; shaped, as it were, by the prevailing norms and societal values surrounding him. He is a warm-hearted, genial man who worked hard to build up his own business, and wants no one to tell him how to run it. Like many business owners, he has been affected by Obamacare’s requirements of him having to contribute towards medical aid for all his staff, which he resents.
Unsurprisingly, he believes in minimal government and tough love, and is neither a fan of welfare nor abortion. He worries that illegal immigration is out of hand. In previous years having a Republican in our midst was an inconvenient reality to my extended maternal family of left-leaning academics; one to be gently chided but generally tolerated. Now, having a Trump supporter among us has proven a cataclysm. How to engage in familial bonding with someone whose idea of the world is so utterly, fundamentally, anathema to me? Someone whose brave new “swamp-draining” world is now my Orwellian nightmare?
Should one blame voters for Trump’s subsequent actions as president? Is it fair to find a direct link between a vote for Trump and an endorsement for all of his future acts? Writing after the elections, the writer Amy Tan posted on her Facebook page, “We are now determining different ways we can support what matters to the country, our world and our planet. One of those decisions is to cut out of our lives those people who voted for Trump, for third-party candidates or for no one. This was not the election to take that stand.” Later, Tan clarified in another post that while she believed that one should surround oneself with people with different views, when the views of such people on such issues as racism and misogyny were so divergent with her own, she did not feel she needed to “have them as my personal friend, the one I would invite to my dinner table, to my house”.
In this vein, can such a gulf be bridged between my relative and I when next we sup?
There would be so many things to get off my chest during dinner. For starters, what message does supporting such a rampantly misogynist president send to those in the family who’ve committed their lives to supporting gender equality? Coming after Trump’s despicable Islamaphobic travel ban, what message does it send to the Muslims among us? (My family counts Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Anglicans and Protestants among us – a sort of inter-faith diversity which a Trumpian age cannot quite fathom.) Does he realise that through his vote, my little daughter may grow up to be one spurned by an America intolerant simply because of her Muslim heritage? How are we supposed to feel when Trump sows such hate and mistrust among his people, and threaten the freedom and safety of the entire free world? How can you possibly support a man who does not place a premium on integrity?
Will I say anything? Will he? Maybe he will gloat over the fact that, after years of being shouted down by a suffocating liberal political correctness from his kin, his voice has finally been heard.
In the old world we lived in, there’s a strong possibility such things may actually have been left unsaid. Part of the reason is perhaps because family mealtime conversations are actually not the easiest occasions to discuss complex issues or any subject where an outbreak of emotion may occur. We are tuned to simplify in such occasions rather than have deep, meaningful – and possibly uncomfortable – conversations; to try not to cause too much offence because the alternative is too hard. Most of us find it difficult to tell others in a public forum how we actually feel or what is really bugging us. We find it difficult to tell our loved ones in front of other loved ones that they’ve hurt us. We’re also not that comfortable taking on others whose viewpoints are radically different to ours, especially if we have to see them again and again in social settings.
But that was the old world. Now, I feel, to continue with this restraint would fail to grasp how profoundly our world has changed. Friendships and family relationships may very well crumble in the harsh light of this new reality. In the words of the writer Nilanjana Roy in the Financial Times, writing about friends as well as close family: “I don’t want friends at my table to be in agreement – how dull, how untrue to real life that would be. But I do want those at my table to be trusted friends in the first place, and these times have radically changed and reshaped friendship, the world over.”
What shall we talk about over dinner? DM