“I’m terrified by the America we might wake up to after Election Day,” I wrote in a mid-September Facebook post in response to polls that put President-Elect Donald Trump ahead in Florida and Ohio. Of course, my worst fears came true Nov. 8, and I continue to grapple with this new political reality. In many ways, it really is frightening: plans for mass deportations, accounts of racial intimidation and the appointment of a white nationalist as chief strategist to the president-elect. After a brutal campaign that began in early 2015, my visions of life under a Clinton administration unraveled in the wee hours of Nov. 9. Now I’m left hoping that the country will remain intact over the next four years.
As I look ahead to the Thanksgiving holiday later this week, I am confronted with mixed emotions. I am excited to see my parents and sister, who are also disturbed by the election results and their implications for the future. But I am nervous about spending time with members of my extended family, some of whom undoubtedly voted for Trump. Will we discuss the election? How could we not? How will I find the energy to argue with them after expending so much in the weeks leading up to Nov. 8? Going home is usually an opportunity to rest and recharge during a brief break from the pressure of the semester, but might this five-day foray beyond the Brown bubble further contribute to my stress?
I am reminded of a Maya Angelou poem, “Human Family.” (You may have heard Angelou reading it in an iPhone commercial that aired during the Olympics this summer.) The poem concludes, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike. We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike. We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” This simple, rhythmic statement is undeniably true — science tells us so. And it has never been more relevant than at this very moment in time. If only we all shared the wisdom of this late, great American poet. We are all members of the human family, a cliche that Angelou elevated through honest poetry.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those people who, after the most divisive election in memory, demands that the heartbroken and horrified losers unify around a president-elect who has shown dangerous contempt for minorities, immigrants and women and in so doing has tarnished the country he represents. In the weeks and months ahead, it is more important than ever that we continue to challenge the hateful, unconstitutional rhetoric and actions of the Trump administration, as well as the Republican-controlled Congress whose speaker has shown support for Trump’s white nationalist chief strategist, Steve Bannon. Popular protests and sharp scrutiny of the president-elect by the media, government officials and civil society are absolutely necessary for the realization of the still-unattained ideal of a government that protects the rights of all people.
Keeping this in mind as I confront the intimidating prospect of discussing the election with my family, it is important to remember that people are not the candidates they voted for. If they voted for racist, sexist, xenophobic or homophobic reasons, then they should certainly be criticized. But many Trump supporters gravitated to him with different motivations, such as economic suffering or a sense of exclusion from the multicultural, progressive future President Barack Obama’s administration has been working to construct. In my view, not even these explanations — nothing, in fact — could justify voting for such a hateful, ill-qualified candidate. But this does not mean we have the luxury of cutting these people off from our political debates. To sever ties with unapologetic Trump supporters — a suggestion I have seen a couple of times on Facebook — would not be wise.
In politics, people are usually convinced that their own opinions are correct. So no matter how much you feel that the Constitution, morality, economics, good judgment and common decency are on your side, your opponent will be equally certain of their own superiority. To shout about how deplorable Trump supporters are or to stop talking to them, then, will do nothing to address the paralyzing polarization from which we are currently suffering. Stay angry, and stay motivated to effect change in our political system, but be smart about which tactic will be most persuasive with the person whose mind you’re trying to change. Yelling at your grandmother about how personally victimized by Trump you feel and then breaking down in tears might be an effective method. But it might not.
I regret not speaking directly with those family members whom I suspected would vote for Trump before the election. In a swing state that, like so many others, went red this year, maybe those difficult conversations could have made a difference if enough people like me had taken the risk of having them. We must never stop talking to one another because to do so would be to facilitate the continued deterioration of our society. The good news is that if we — people from both sides — approach these discussions from a place of love and empathy, we have nothing to fear. Of course, this is easier said than done, especially when the president-elect and his cronies insist on maintaining their divisive tactics.
Before the conclusion of “Human Family,” Angelou writes, “In minor ways we differ, in major we’re the same.” As we rebuild after this gutting election and gather around the dining table to give thanks, let’s strive to remember this simple truth about all people. After all, without it, what else do we have? If only Angelou were still alive to offer us a fresh slice of her wisdom for dessert.