Ask Polly: How Do I Deal With My Trump-Voter Dad?

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Photo: Miriam Pieprzyca/EyeEm/Getty Images

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Dear Polly,

I know you’ve written extensively about your feelings regarding the election. I share your pain. I’m struggling to move forward, I’m struggling to hope … but I’m donating money, I’m making phone calls, and trying my best to move forward. Still, I’m begging you to write about this one more time, because I can’t figure out how to move forward with my Trump-voting family and friends. I have friends that voted for Bush and I could live with that. I could live with people voting for McCain, or Romney. I have pro-life friends, I have Republican friends, I have religious friends (I’m an atheist), but I cannot for the life of me figure out how to look my father in the eyes without wanting to spit in his face. Keep in mind, I love my dad! I gave my daughter (born just 5 months ago!) his name as her middle name. But I just can’t fathom how he voted for Donald Trump. I cannot see how I am supposed to raise my girls to respect the president of the United States when he has said and done the things he’s said and done. As a woman, as a mother, as a victim of sexual assault myself, I am appalled that my father could vote for this man. How do I mesh the man I loved and respected with the man who voted for Trump? How do I stay friends with people who voted Trump? Please help me. I’m really struggling with how to move forward.

P.S. I tried talking calmly to my dad and just got a steady stream of Fox News bull$&@! And an earful about how Hillary Clinton is the devil. He won’t admit that anything Trump said was distasteful or wrong or unbecoming a President. He says I’m just a crazy socialist. I can distance myself from friends who voted for Trump but my dad?

Sincerely,

AAAAARRRGGG!!!!!

Dear AAAAARRRGGG!!!!!,

I had a boyfriend who used to say the short, 12-step version of the serenity prayer every morning and night. I thought it was a little dorky, to be honest, but I keep thinking of it these days:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Parents are not easy to change. A lot of parents have bad attitudes about their adult kids already. They don’t understand the sounds that come out of kids’ mouths. They don’t understand why their kids act like everything they say and do is wrong now, even though they’ve been living in this world for many more years than their kids have. They’re pretty sick of feeling like their kids see them as the enemy. And Trump tells this kind of parent that it’s fine to be exactly as annoyed and pissed off and resistant to modern life as they already were. Trump says you can make America great again just by being yourself and rejecting all of the changes of the past 40 to 60 years, rolling back the clock to an imagined time when white men could realize their big dreams without feeling all guilty and self-conscious about it, and white women could ride along without feeling like they should be leading the charge. There’s this shared sense that somehow things were super-duper fantastic in the ’50s, like the whole world was a Disneyland version of reality: the streets were clean and gee, our old LaSalle ran great! Those were the days!

This shared delusion, this shared notion of an idealized past, has made Americans capable of handing power to a man willing to engage in corruption and injustice for personal gain. He doesn’t even have to deliver on any of his promises, all he has to do is pay lip service to shared American fantasies about what (clean, lily-white, safe, Disney) America looks like. All he needs to do is conjure triumphant images of white men and white America while slowly but surely putting into place people and policies that will destroy every good thing that America stands for.

While your dad and others like him stroll down Main Street, USA, sipping frozen lemonade and listening to a perky barbershop quartet sing, the rest of us are watching this man recruit human beings to work in the White House who don’t “believe” in climate change but do literally believe that Muslims are evil. We’re experiencing or witnessing hate crimes by newly empowered racist thugs, while this man doesn’t even address it or make moves to stop it. We’re reading about a newly empowered Putin testing supersonic long-range nuclear missiles, and this man is tweeting about his trivial grudge of the day.

We are not exactly in the optimal state for thoughtful, patient discussions with close relatives and friends who have, for some bizarre unfathomable reason, empowered this dangerous human and rendered our lives a fucking hellscape of anxiety and fear and raw anger. I don’t want to overstate it, but fuck. That’s just how it feels. Talking to Trump supporters feels like talking to someone who’s holding a gun to your temple and doesn’t even know it. They think you’re being hysterical, when you’re just trying to stay alive.

So look, I don’t think this is a good time to confront your parents. This isn’t a time we can afford to dig for the worst parts of our nature. Even if you’re walking around like the Dalai Lama most of the time, the stressors of this moment are actually hard to measure, and you won’t know just how furious and panicked you are until you’re staring a Trump supporter (or a non-voter) in the face. You have to be very thoughtful in choosing the best uses for your energy.

Many people are in the same position that you’re in. Our frustration must be used for the greater good. It can’t be funneled into petty arguments with people who aren’t going to move an inch. If you get stuck there, that’s your dysfunction ruling you. Let it go. If you think you can enlighten some people, then yes. Certainly the looming threat of fascism and the violence against people of color and Muslims and LGBT people needs to mentioned constantly, particularly to those who want to pretend that Trump is some man of the people fighting for the values of the heartland. But trying to get your parents to see what you see rarely works all that well. Grandparents are actually more open to their grandkids than parents are to their kids. Aunts and uncles sometimes have more empathy because they’re less invested. But parents are seriously problematic.

When you start drawing lines in the sand with your parents, it generally fails. I did that with my mom a few years ago, and it was a disaster. I kept saying “I need this one thing from you.” But my mom needs a lot of love and gentleness in order to be coaxed into seeing things from my perspective. It just looked to her like I was furious at her for no reason. She couldn’t give me anything as long as I was in that state, even if I was very direct and calm about what I wanted from her. Whether or not your relationship will be permanently injured by this election remains to be seen — but I wouldn’t find out right now, when you’re angry and panicked. Pour that energy into other things that might make a real difference in the world.

A lot of us need to learn this lesson: Every single relationship in your life can’t be perfectly settled and understood and resolved. You can’t get closure with everyone. You can’t have perfect mutual understanding with everyone. You can love someone who doesn’t respect you and not respect them, either. You can love someone who makes you incredibly angry. You can love someone who is very broken, who sees you as broken, too. You can love something that is broken and can never be fixed. Don’t shut off your love. That’s not the answer. But stop trying to fix something that is not fixable.

Trying to repair every broken thing, trying to address every single thing that hasn’t been said, trying to explain your whole worldview and way of thinking and current state of panic, trying to heal yourself by making all of your relationships “right,” will only waste your energy and make you miserable at this moment. Sure, if you have casual friendships that feel like they’re fucked and you want to live in a new way, away from people who seem ignorant or who absolutely don’t share your core values, then go for it. But expunging your entire life of “bad” people can be a way of believing in fantasies, too.

This is a hard wake-up call for so many of us. We’ve been thinking that everything would turn out fine and we didn’t necessarily have to confront anyone or get our hands dirty. We thought we could just stare at our goddamn phones for another decade — I include myself in that. Distracting ourselves with freakish stories about a candidate we were sure would never win was another way of living in a fantasy world.

I am trying to live in the real world now, and in the real world, some relationships are broken and need to be left alone. There’s not enough time to fix people who don’t want to be fixed. I recommend sidestepping parents and confronting everyone else by making it clear what you stand for and searching for shared principles and moving on when it’s clear they aren’t there. I recommend standing up for humanity and the planet and appealing to others on this front.

I recommend taking action every day. Take action every single day and keep a running list of everything you do. When you feel lost and discouraged, look at your list. Print out your action list and tape it to the wall. Put your “I Voted” sticker at the top. Voting is just the start. It is not enough.

Take action and then learn to step away, too. Don’t go down the rabbit hole all day long. Get some air, read an unrelated book, call your friends who are sad about what’s happening in the world right now. Reach out to devastated friends by text and phone. Visit them in person. Meet with everyone you know who is concerned about human rights and the future of the planet. Sympathize, strategize. Dig deep for the best part of yourself. Appeal to the best in others. Build alliances with people who believe in the human heart.

And brace yourself to be disliked, to be seen as uncool for standing up for what you believe. You can’t be universally loved and utterly comfortable and also stand up for what’s right. Be brave and resist the conforming consensus when it doesn’t align with what you believe. When people roll their eyes or cut you out because you stand up for your principles, don’t let it eat you alive. Draw strength from it. Find people who are with you. Reaffirm your core principles. Don’t waste your time on people who are determined to remain in their clean, safe, fantasy worlds.

Speaking of which, the original version of the serenity prayer is much longer than the 12-step version. After the part about sorting out changeable and unchangeable things, it continues:

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Amen.

There are good lessons here, but there’s also a very of Christian flavor of passivity that might just sit by and watch neighbors get led to the gas chambers, all the while “Trusting that You will make all things right.” I don’t think we can trust that anyone else will make this mess right. I think we have to make our voices heard, every day.

But I do like that first part. We do have to live one day at a time, enjoy one moment at a time, and accept hardship as a pathway to peace. We can take the sinful world as it is — think of how timeless the sins of the world are, the fact that these cycles of evil always seem to repeat themselves eventually. But we can also stand up and say out loud that we will not let that evil devour our world.

That’s the paradox that confronts us. We have to ask for the grace and serenity, every day, to do our best and to leave broken things behind for now. We have to humble ourselves in the face of reality. But we still have to get up and fight, in every way we possibly can. We have to commit to a new way of engaging with the world around us — by becoming part of our communities, by speaking openly to others when we’re calm enough to try — but we also have to privately take care of ourselves and do whatever is necessary to enjoy one moment at a time.

We are alive and free and we can change the world together. There is so much ugliness out there, but something truly beautiful is happening all around us, too. We are all waking up from a shared fantasy that nothing could ever go horribly wrong. You have to be still and listen to the moment, and know how many hearts are breaking around you, and know that we are here to protect each other and protect our planet. Your stubborn fathers and mothers are not what matters at this moment. You can teach them what you believe just by delivering the news of what you do, every day, to live your values. You can tell them how you spend your time in a neutral way instead of confronting them about what’s wrong with them. You can state your core principles: “I believe that every human being on the planet deserves the same basic rights and the same amount of respect and care, and I will not tolerate a world that treats human beings as disposable. I will not be ruled by my fear and my anger. I will stand up for the rights of ordinary people, knowing that this world is on my side.” Accept that hardship is the path to peace, but never give up the fight.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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