October 22, 2019

After Trump: Can Bipartisan friendships be saved?

OK, I’ll come clean: I voted for Donald J. Trump. More accurately, I voted against Hillary Clinton. Trump was a bully and a braggart, poorly read yet untroubled by it, unfiltered and sexist, who made outrageous claims about deporting millions of undocumented immigrants. His cruel digs at Sen. John McCain and the Khizr Khan family were unforgivable. And I haven’t even started on that hair! (I’m sure Melania has done her best.) 

Conservatives like me faced a dismal choice in this election. Leading conservative thinkers brawled over our embarrassing nominee and divided into “never Trump” versus “never Hillary” camps. I was proud that at least our party was having a healthy knock-down, drag-out fight about our identity, but that would be cold comfort during a third Clinton administration. Many of my conservative friends voted for third-party candidates, and I nearly did, too. Ultimately, after Trump picked Mike Pence as a running mate and released a list of Supreme Court nominees who were constitutionalists and not judicial activists, he earned my reluctant vote. I was shocked and relieved when he won.

I have relatives and some friends whose politics are as blue as mine are red. With anti-Trump fury and dismay seething throughout the land, it has been hard to avoid some run-ins. One relative messaged me on Facebook after the election, asking me what I thought. I knew he had voted for Clinton, and I didn’t really want to engage. I thought the country needed a change. He shot back a barrage of anti-Trump invective, asking me if I was ready for “this racist bigot … a friend of the KKK … ” and more. 

“I’m not willing to be attacked,” I answered. “I never even said I liked Trump.” 

He apologized, but I am not eager to hear from him anytime soon. 

Fiery political debate is as old as human society, but more friendships seem to be splintering now. My friend Rebecca, also a writer and Torah-observant Jew, posted on Facebook that she planned to vote for Clinton, to show that not all Orthodox Jews were Trump voters. This triggered a fusillade of vitriolic responses from both the left and the right. Rebecca was shocked.   

“When people hated on the people who voted opposite them and showed no empathy for their concerns, many of which were genuine, I wasn’t sure I wanted their friendship anymore,” she told me. 

I had planned to keep my vote quiet. But after seeing the incessant stream of melodramatic posts by liberal Facebook friends portending doom and taking cheap shots at Trump voters, I caved in. Almost lockstep, the posts accused us of being “racists, bigots and misogynists.” There was a link to a Slate article called “There’s No Such Thing as a Good Trump Voter.” Yes, that’s the spirit, you campaigners for diversity and tolerance! 

One “friend” said she wanted to understand (unfathomable) people like me. OK, here goes, I thought. I respectfully listed about a half-dozen concerns of most conservatives: The need to repeal or drastically overhaul the political and structural chaos of Obamacare, now imploding, as many had predicted. Worry about the erosion of our religious liberties and even freedom of speech. Resentment that a belief in secure borders translated into our being “racists” and that belief that marriage is between one man and one woman made us “haters” and “homophobes.” Disbelief that Democrats seemed more worried about transgendered bathroom accessibility than home-grown Muslim extremism.  Concern over President (“I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone”) Obama’s executive overreach, whose multiplying defeats in the courts now prove the haughty lawlessness of his actions. 

She failed to address any of these points and repeated her demand that I prove I was not a racist-misogynist-bigot. See, my vote made me guilty until proven innocent. Worn down and convinced that she had only posed as intellectually curious, I withdrew from the conversation.  

A few years ago, I tried to engage a good friend, a staunch Democrat, in a conversation about our differing views. She refused categorically. Many of my conservative friends have similar stories, that liberal friends and relatives will not enter debate. How odd. If they are so certain their viewpoints are right, that facts and evidence are on their side, why not? Based on what I’ve seen, read and heard, I think they have more emotion than facts in their arsenals. 

On the other hand, liberal viewpoints are often presumed to be the “right” and normal views, certainly in “blue” territories. None of my conservative friends would dare to share their political views at the office or by having a political bumper sticker on their cars. They stand by uncomfortably when a colleague or the boss makes snide comments about Republicans or conservative policies. This is exactly the kind of political correctness that Trump has rightly called out as a suffocating menace in our culture today. 

The day after this election, one of my husband’s employees came to work fuming. In front of my husband, who wears a kippah and signs her checks, she compared Trump to Hitler. Arrogant and ignorant, yes. Unusual? No.

It shouldn’t be this way. Both sides should give each other the benefit of the doubt. We all love this country and want opportunity, safety and prosperity for all. Dialing back the name-calling and hate-mongering is a good place to start.

Judy Gruen’s books include “Till We Eat Again: A Second Helping.” She is working on a memoir about her unexpected path to Torah observance.