I can’t talk to my dad about politics. This is ironic, given that I graduated with honors with a degree in political science. Politics is, proverbially, my “whole thing.”
This standoff is certainly not for lack of trying to connect with my dad. The past three and a half years have been filled with dinner-table debates and verbal sparring over the morning paper; my dad has a tendency to read inflammatory headlines aloud, and I have a tendency to rise to the bait. But most recently, the combination of quarantine and the election cycle has rendered that type of discussion impossible. To engage would be to risk the disintegration of our father-daughter relationship.
This is because the typical Trump supporter’s primary argumentative tool is not objective fact or legal justification, but false equivalence and ad hominem. An argument with a Trump supporter is an entirely different animal than the scholarly debates I enjoyed in college and, occasionally, in the workplace — the Trump supporter views disagreement as a personal attack and responds in kind.
This is not to say that the other side of the aisle is not guilty of the exact same thing. Some social scientists have found that internalizing one’s political viewpoint until it encompasses your personal identity could be responsible for the ever-growing rift between ideologies. In my case, however, no matter how many times I cite a law or point out a faulty source, I somehow without fail find myself on the defensive.
“When you’re older you’ll understand” is a favorite line I hear from my dad. (I’m 22.) “You gave in to the propaganda” is a close second. “You’re young, of course you’re a liberal.” Almost without fail, you can find an “Oh, honey” in there somewhere. It’s a back and forth of buzzwords and redirection underpinned by inexplicable bitterness and overall distrust in the world. And, because of my age and stature, condescension often plays a starring role.
It doesn’t help that the conversation usually starts with an inflammatory comment. For instance, my dad once played the viral video where a Texas man pushed a park ranger into a lake for asking crowds to respect social distancing orders; Dad laughed and said, “Good for him.” When my mom asked why, he claimed that the people who were at the lake that day had every right to be there and the governor had no authority to impose gathering limits. Unable to resist, I stepped in.
During the ensuing argument, my dad compared the fatality risks of the COVID-19 pandemic to everything from the flu to driving. He insisted that death was “inevitable.” When I countered that death from COVID-19 was preventable, he said, “Well, then you might as well take all the cars off the road.” I countered that things like driving under the influence and speeding were illegal for that very reason. Rather than respond, he doubled down on the point that death was “inevitable” and governors had no authority to execute stay-at-home orders. He insisted that executive orders were not law and that they were not legally enforceable.
At one point, he told me, “You know, it’s about a page long, read your Constitution.” I got an “A” in American Constitutional Law at a 400-course level. He knows this. And later, when my mother tried to reason with him by showing research that she found, he went silent, reading this information on his iPad with a furrowed brow.
It’s ironic that a month earlier, after I got off the plane from France (where I had been living since last September), my dad followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quarantine guidelines to the letter. He wouldn’t help me put my luggage in the trunk. He wouldn’t hug me. And yet now, he insists that governors had no authority to order him to stay at home, that death was “inevitable,” and that you may as well take cars off the road. Somewhere in between these two versions of my dad was a Tucker Carlson segment.
Other times, my dad’s Trumpisms come out of nowhere. Once, my mom joked that it was time for us to go back to Ireland since they were reporting no new COVID-19 cases. Dad replied, “Yeah, Patti LuPone can go there. She said she wants to leave the country. These people are going to get slammed — ” and on. No one had said a word about Patti LuPone at any point during the day.
Later, it turned out that he had read an article about Patti LuPone saying she wanted to leave the United States, ostensibly for political reasons. This had been stewing in my dad’s mind, angering him as viscerally as if LuPone had issued a terror threat and stirred him into an unprovoked frenzy hours later. When I cut off the building tirade by saying nobody wanted to talk about politics, he told me to shut up. When I told him not to speak to me that way, he said, “Then go. Leave.” So I left.
I do not know if this behavior is common with all Trump supporters, but it is a constant in my home. My dad ceaselessly consumes information that upsets him, subsuming criticism of American systems as though they are personal affronts. He readily absorbs the rhetoric that an attack on issues like racism or private health care is an attack on America itself. Somehow, the ideology both rejects the idea of victimhood while convincing you that you are a victim of some unseen corrupt power. It appears to be constantly on his mind, churning and building resentment toward people who aren’t even there. Everything — everything — comes back to politics.
Sometimes, there are moments of clarity. While in the car on the way to Lowe’s (I keep him company on errands, and he buys me Dunkin’ Donuts — it’s a long-standing quid pro quo) he told me that he knows when he is being irrational. He said he unequivocally believes that systemic racism exists and he knows the media he consumes is biased. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that he knows when what he is saying is wrong.
But less than an hour later, he was parroting Trump’s talking points about the Buffalo protestor who was hospitalized last month after police shoved him to the ground. My dad agreed with Trump’s tweet that 75-year-old Martin Gugino “fell harder than he was pushed,” saying the man, who now has a cracked skull, was an “agitator” who was waving his hand “threateningly” at the police. When I asked how police in full riot gear could feel threatened by a 75-year-old man, he said, “You don’t walk up to the police like that. He could have had a weapon.” When I countered that both of his hands were clearly occupied, he told me that I had “bought into the propaganda.” Whatever version of my dad I had been talking to minutes before, he was gone.
The breaking point was a debate that actually had nothing to do with him. I, for once, was the one to initiate the conversation after watching White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany equivocate on a question regarding Trump’s statement that he would override state governors who did not reopen churches. My deeply religious mother rose to defend her; I countered that overriding state governors would violate the 10th Amendment, and we fell into a debate.
The discussion itself was calm, if passionate. Mom’s arguments were based on the First Amendment, mine were based on the 10th, and we disagreed on respective interpretations therein. Out of nowhere, however, Dad chimed in.
“Because they don’t want to pay for it,” he said, seemingly once again following his own train of thought. “They don’t want to pay for it, so they have decided to go to socialism.”
Neither my mom nor I could fathom what “it” was for which “they” — presumably referring to my generation — did not want to pay, nor how socialism followed from an argument about religion. We both dismissed the non sequitur and carried on with the debate. But minutes later, after several more points and counterpoints, he inserted himself again.
Rising from his computer with a sigh and circling back around to the couch where I was sitting, he said, sounding as though he could not be more disappointed, “It’s sad. I really thought you had a brain. I really thought I raised someone who could think. Think for themselves.”
I am no stranger to insults to my intelligence. Hearing things like this from strangers, acquaintances, even friends, is one thing. Having it shouted at you by a Drill Instructor is one thing. Hearing it from your dad, who drove you to ballet class four times a week for 10 years, who drove you to school every morning, who showed up to every play and awards ceremony and dance recital, who has loved you with every inch of him for all your life and whom you have loved in return, is entirely another.
I lost my mind. I don’t remember a lot of what I said, but I know I shouted. I know I called him a hypocrite. I know I swore. I felt detached from my body; my hands were buzzing. And the whole while, however long it lasted, he simply sat there, hands folded in his lap, not looking at me, but with a private little smile on his face. He didn’t respond — he didn’t need to. He knew he had won.
Afterward, I stood in the middle of my bedroom, fists clenched, chest heaving, and cried. Dad had known exactly which thread to pull to unravel me, and he had pulled it without hesitation. We were not father and daughter in that moment; we were political opponents. And in his mind, I was the enemy.
If you have at any point argued with a Trump supporter, especially if you are young, you will know that this is the pattern. The goal is not to win with facts or logical arguments. The goal is to twist and turn and obfuscate, striking vulnerable areas with escalating ad hominem until the opponent cracks with frustration or, in my case, hurt. And, the moment that happens — the moment you respond emotionally or show that you are frustrated — you have lost.
The next morning, my dad came into my room and sat on my bed before I had gotten up. He put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Okay, I’m sorry. Bad choice of words. It was a bad choice of words. I’m sorry. Okay? Yeah? I love you.”
Yes, I accepted the apology. He of course entirely missed the point, but by then I had already resolved that restarting the argument would do nothing but harm. I knew — and at his core, I think he knows as well — that the issue, in the end, wasn’t that he hadn’t raised someone who could think for herself. The issue was that he had, and she doesn’t agree with him.
And so, I compartmentalize my relationship with my Trump supporter dad for the sake of peace. Some will disagree that this is the right thing to do. Some will call this a privileged position, and perhaps that is true. Indeed, my dad has lost close relationships over his views — a friendship he had had for more than 30 years ended almost on the spot on election night in 2016. Some I know have cut family members out of their lives for their political views; that is their prerogative. But in the end, my dad is my dad, and it’s my call. I love him, desperately want him to be on the right side of history, but I will not allow politics to be the thing that rips us apart.
I have a front-row seat to the mindset and behavior of the classic Trump supporter, and I am alarmed by what I see. It is a steady stream of misinformation that twists and bends to justify the unjustifiable, to deny the undeniable, built on an unmovable foundation of bitterness and distrust. Nearly four years of pitting my education in legal philosophy and governmental operation against his deeply held beliefs has not shifted his position one iota. He lives in a world completely apart from my own, rides a train of thought on which he appears to be the only passenger, and finds solace in his own discontent. He does not want a debate; he wants a fight.
Though this may be surprising, I do not write this to tarnish my dad’s name. I do not want to make him look bad or feel embarrassed. I write this as a message from someone with unfettered insight into the Trump supporter’s heart and mind: You cannot crack the rhetoric. You cannot argue with him. The only — only — solution is to outnumber him. Outnumber him in the polls, in the voting booths, in the government. And when he tries to solicit a response, tries to goad you into lashing out against him, do what I have learned to do the hard way: Walk away.