By June Leffler
Bringing up the election is ground zero for a cold war during Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone has a strong, contentious opinion, but it’s better to lay low to avoid total annihilation.
Who hasn’t weighed in on how to deal with potential political discussions this Thanksgiving? Therapists, advice columnists, talk show hosts and their callers, anyone who tweats.
Some groups advocate for #BridgingOurDivides during dinner. That seems too optimistic when most folks want to avoid the discussion entirely. Still, is it even possible to avoid talking about what many have obsessed over since election day?
Nick Wright grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. Ten years ago his mom and step-dad started an organic farm in Middlefield, Ohio. Wright believes his mom’s politics shifted because of the move.
“My mom was pretty progressive and loved Bill Clinton,” he said. “[In Middlefield] she dealt with a lot of white rural Trump supporters… she became a part of that community.”
All the while Wright has spent the last five years in Chicago, a prototypical liberal city.
“During the election we were silent,” said Wright. With the distance and time difference, Wright said he talks with his mom about once a week. They certainly did not talk on election day.
Wright wasn’t even sure whom his mom voted for. “She voted for [Libertarian candidate Gary] Johnson, which isn’t so bad,” said Wright’s aunt, Niki Miller, who is progressive and has been so since the ‘60s. Niki Miller voted for Clinton.
Wright said most of his family is anti-Trump, like he is, but he doesn’t want to “skewer” the rest of them.
“I really don’t know what will happen [on Thanksgiving]. My brother doesn’t walk away from an argument with a smile,” said Miller.
“[My parents] are people that always have the TV on in the room, and it’s usually on Fox News,” said Wright. Without paying too much attention to it, he said he could see something on the news triggering his aunt or uncle. “I hope someone will grab the remote and change the channel.”
Wright’s mom is hosting the family at her farm, tucked away in rural Ohio. Family members are traveling from both coasts but once they arrive they might feel a little stuck. Wright said the only way to get away would be to take a walk in the woods.
Thanksgiving is awkward for everybody. (Getty Images)
Mark Pfeffer is a licensed psychotherapist in Chicago who says folks face “heightened anticipatory anxiety” before holiday, family visits.
Pfeffer advises his clients to first decide if they even want to go to Thanksgiving dinner. “People have been through enough gatherings to where they routinely go,” he said. Still it doesn’t mean they have to.
Pfeffer said if folks decide to go, in preparation, they can make a rescue plan.
A rescue plan is something you arrange with your partner or whomever you are closest to. It should set discrete and intentional ways to check in on each other’s wellbeing during the event.
“After 20 minutes, plan to huddle and see how everyone is doing,” Pfeffer suggested. “Use signals like pulling on the earlobe if you need someone to rescue you out of a conversation.”
Avoidance is a popular strategy for keeping the peace. That’s Wright’s and Miller’s strategy.
“It’s been so painful.” Miller said. “I won’t even say [Trump’s] name. Sometimes it helps to take a break from it all,” she said.
Weston Strickler said his family is exceptionally good at avoiding politics. Strickler will visit his family in Kokomo, Indiana. He voted for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, and his parents voted for Clinton, but his aunts and uncles voted for Trump.
“They are the typical Midwest voters who voted for Obama and now voted for Trump. They wanted change.”
Strickler said if someone makes a political statement, everyone will politely not engage.
“We’d say hmmm, look at him and nod with a smile. An affirmative without continuing or encouraging it.”
Strickler said his family grew up with shared Christian values of simplicity, kindness, and passivity, not fire and brimstone. His mother’s side of the family is Mennonite.
“We all like each other, all have the same underlying values. It’s just more about how they think, with these values, that things need to be fixed.”
Pfeffer said avoidance doesn’t have to seem like you’re wearing blinders and just hoping for the best.
“I do counsel people to look someone in the eye, make eye contact and say, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ That is a direct and legitimate way to disengage.” Or say directly that it’s about time to change the subject. “Be assertive without making a big scene.”
Folks seem especially tense over this election in part because of the campaign’s derogatory language and demonization.
Wright believes his mom’s vote was based on economic policies, not on bigotry.
“They aren’t racist people, to the extent that they’re white people like you and me,” Wright said. “They don’t feel strongly against Muslims.”
Winona did not want to be identified because of the awkwardness with her family. “I’m having a hard time going home because my mom’s telling me that something that she can accept is racism, sexism and homophobia,” said Winona.
Winona grew up in rural Meade County in Kentucky. She is 24 years old and moved to Louisville, Kentucky, six years ago to go to college.
Winona is queer, black, and a Black Lives Matter and pro-choice activist. Her step-dad and mom are both white fundamental Christians.
“I’m black and pretty gay. Many of my loved ones are people of color and trans,” said Winona. “My mom says ‘well, you can’t just take it so personally.’ They know about things that have happened in the past. They tell me not to let it define me and not bring it up.”
Winona said she speaks with her mom once every two or three months, and visits about three times a year. She blocks her family on her social media. Her mom did call her the day after the election, saying she had voted for Trump.
It can get combative between her and her step-dad. “It’s screaming in a way I’ve never seen it in public … screaming ‘you’ve been brainwashed’,” she said. “Mom would be happy if all we did was talk about kittens and butterflies, but simultaneously she brings up politics.”
To make the visit easier, she brings up recipes, one of the few things she and her mom bond over. If she is engaged, she tries to remain calm. She discusses ideas rather than making statements about the person, but she doesn’t cower.
“If I’m silent, then people think I’m consenting and agreeing.”
Winona is bringing one of her friends to Thanksgiving, to support her and lessen the blow.
“He’s shown me to hold myself to a standard of being treated well. He taught me about boundaries in a way that had never occurred to me before.”
Friendsgiving is a relatively new tradition that provides the promise of refuge through a more casual gathering of friends for the holiday. For folks like Winona, Friendsgiving provides a safe space to openly be herself.
“There’s a certain level of respect and empathy,” said Winona. “Our families are difficult or not existent, so we need each other and a community emphasis on being loving and warm.”
That is, if one of your friends doesn’t reveal for the first time that they voted the other way.