Every family’s Thanksgiving traditions are different. In mine, there has always been a lot of talk about politics. That has persisted in the Age of Trump, but it’s a bit more muted, for reasons I’ll explain below. Dig a bit, however, and one can glean some valuable perspectives.
Back in the day — in the Before Time, when the millennials were too young to vote — my extended family was variegated in its politics. There were registered Republicans and registered Democrats and at least one relative who shall remain nameless but voted for Ross Perot.
Now? My family has abandoned the GOP en masse. One older relative who voted GOP for much of the 20th century was scarred by the George W. Bush years and has migrated further left with each passing year. Another remains a nominal Republican but vowed never to vote for Donald Trump or anyone who willingly served in his administration. The support of the youngest generation runs the gamut from Bernie Sanders to Pete Buttigieg.
The greater homogeneity around the Thanksgiving table paradoxically makes the politics conversation less interesting. Everyone agreed that Trump was bad, and no one around the table would be voting for him in 2020. In one-on-one conversations, however, a few subtleties emerged.
One member of the younger generation demonstrated no love for Trump but little love for any moderate Democrat as well. He is excited about Bernie, and a bit less excited about Elizabeth Warren, and he thinks someone like Joe Biden would be almost as bad as Trump. The cynicism about traditional politicians ran deep. He claimed that had Hillary Clinton won in 2016, the likelihood of the United States being embroiled in more Middle East wars than under Trump was high. To be clear, he’s not going to vote for Trump under any circumstances, and if he was living in a swing state, he said he would hold his nose and vote for Biden if he’s the nominee. But given his current blue-state environs, he plans to vote in the primary but not the general election if the choice is between Biden and Trump.
One member of my generation had a perspective that was simultaneously more fatalistic and optimistic. She thinks Trump will be reelected in 2020. She does not like that outcome, nor does she favor it. But she faces this prospect with equanimity.
To someone like me who has been watching Trump’s foreign policy unfold, such an outcome is mildly horrifying, to say the least. Biden said something similar during his Iowa barnstorming kickoff: “We can overcome four years of Donald Trump, but eight years will literally, literally begin to change the character of this nation, and we cannot let that happen.” Similarly, David Rothkopf recently suggested, “You either are actively fighting to save the country from Trump and Trumpism or you are supporting both either directly or via your passivity in the face of their racism, misogyny, nativism, religious intolerance, corruption and abuses.”
My relative, however, had a different, more optimistic perspective. As she put it, the country has experienced dark times in the past, even when things seemed superficially good. Misplaced nostalgia for the 1950s is mixed with the fact that it was also the decade of McCarthyism. That era of witch hunting was horrifying for the suspected witches, but also blessedly short. Even if Trump is reelected, she mused, the United States would eventually bounce back. The arc of American history eventually bends toward something better.
The commonality between these two views was a shared notion that the 2020 election will be unlikely to have permanent consequences. Yes, Trump might win, and yes, that would be bad. For one relative, it’s not a big deal if the alternative is a moderate Democrat. For the other, it’s a bigger deal, but the country has seen worse.
I have no idea how generalizable my family perspectives are, but these conversations left me with four thoughts. The first is that in the grand scheme of things, the nuances in these views do not amount for much. Neither relative will vote for Trump. My semi-socialist relative acknowledged that were he living in a swing state, he would cast a vote against Trump. This is all one can ask for in 2020.
The second is that my family has some serious advantages in Trump’s America. Almost all of the relatives at my Thanksgiving live in deeply blue states, and most of them are pretty affluent. The pathologies of the Trump administration barely affect their day-to-day lives. For my relatives, politics has the luxury of being a spectator sport. Others are not so lucky, but I suspect most voters are closer to my family’s position than not.
The third thought is that if 2016 affected me in any way, it has been to cast a skeptical eye at Whiggish theories of American politics. The arc of American history cannot be taken for granted. Those who desire a better America need to do what they can to effect that change.
The final thought, however, is lecturing Americans about doomsday in a decent economy will be unlikely to roust the voters that Trump’s opponents need to roust. The half of the country that loathes Trump will vote for the Democratic nominee. It is the remaining 10 percent of persuadable Americans that any campaign needs to target. These people barely pay attention to politics — a state of existence I briefly treasured during the Thanksgiving break. For those voters, there needs to be an upbeat message as well as criticism of Trump.
Next Thanksgiving, we will know who the president will be on Jan. 20, 2021. I hope that holiday will be less about reading the political tea leaves and more about the awesome sides.