To say that my husband is genuinely shocked that Trump was elected, is an understatement. He’s still having a hard time reconciling how we can be where we are today, with less than a month until the 2020 election. And when I say to him that I can see a clear path to Trump winning or stealing a second term, that I can just see it so easily unfolding right in front of me, I worry that his head might explode. But it all feels so familiar, I can’t help but think that it might just happen.
I recently told my husband that I think I know why 40% of Americans still support Donald Trump. But I couldn’t quite find the words to explain it in a way that made much sense, except in my own head. So here I am hitting the keys on the keyboard, trying to find them.
I think I understand the Americans who continue to support Donald Trump.
I think I understand them because he feels more familiar to me than this strange new life I’m trying to carve out for myself at this very moment.
His values seem to be my family’s values. I see my them reflected in him. In his vitriol, his denial of reality, his entitlement, his complete inability to take responsibility for any consequences of his actions. I see their anger, their fear, their prejudice and bigotry lit up on stage at every rally. I hear it in every interview. I recognize it in every racist dog whistle. I see it in the false front of Christianity that is used to justify his behavior, and theirs. And, I think, so do they.
Lying. Bullying. Gaslighting. Using rage, mockery and exile to control and punish anyone who dares express intellectual or emotional independence. Name calling. A complete unwillingness to admit mistakes. Viewing every relationship in black and white terms where there must be a winner and loser. And valuing the winning, real or perceived, above all else. These are just a few of the things that my family has in common with our president. I think I lived in a world that oddly mirrored this man’s presidency most of my life.
The truth seems to be that the things most of us find abhorrent about Donald Trump, are the exact same things that the remaining 40% of Americans love about him, including my family.
They admire him because he is the proof that they’ve been right all along. They see their own world view validated in his existence. They are standing in the sun. They are finally winning. Maybe it is more than admiration. I think they kind of love him.
Really? (Cue Seth Meyers’ voice in your head, or Jerry Seinfeld, or Amy Poehler.) Can it really be that the rest of the 40% are just like my family? Are there really that many messed up families in America? I think maybe so.
Before we are part of a society, before we participate in an economy, before we cast our first votes, we are members of families. And many families in America are broken in the same way that mine is. They have been for a long time.
Broken families are bigoted, homophobic and racist. Broken families hide behind the shield of Christianity to justify their anger and hatred. Broken families raise up broken men and women. Broken families justify ravaging our planet for profit. They surround themselves with other broken families and create broken societies, broken economies, and broken systems of governance.
Broken American families aren’t a partisan problem, a Christian problem, a White, Black, or class-based problem. They are a human problem — deep and generational. (Wait. I’m going to walk some of that back. I suppose it is possible that our broken families are largely a White problem. More on that later.)
People from families like mine love Donald Trump. They feel seen in a way they never have in their entire lives, validated for the first time ever. They hear him saying that they are good, that they were right to bully, shame, mock and discard anyone who disagreed with them. They see him tearing babies away from immigrants at the border and know that the way they treated their own families is just fine. They hear him denying any responsibility for the consequences of his actions and rest easy knowing that they need take no responsibility for the pain suffered by those they’ve been accused of mistreating. They finally have an ally who tells them, who shows them through his own actions, that they’ve been doing everything right all along, and they are righteous.
My premise assumes that many families operate, just like mine, under a system of coercion and manipulation with parenting more focused on compliance and agreement than on healthy growth and development. These are not families of love and kindness, or even of discipline and learning. In these systems, a family member that lacks the proper malleability is exiled or scapegoated. Just like Trump blames immigrants, liberals, and a whole host of others for everything that’s wrong in the country, these families blame their scapegoats for everything that is wrong in the family system. And just like Trump “barely knew” those guys who served him well but got a little bit indicted, family members who don’t fit the mold or are otherwise troublesome, are simply cast aside. It is all quite neat and tidy.
I think that the Trump presidency feels like a warm hug to the people who rule over and participate in these family systems. He is their guy. His dysfunction is their dysfunction. They love him because they, in so many ways, are him. This is not meant to be in any way hyperbolic. I think that what most of us find so unfathomable, abhorrent and repulsive about Trump is literally what his supporters love about him. And because he speaks to the core of who they are as human beings, his presidency is like a homecoming for them. He makes them feel like this is their country, and only their country. They love that. And they love him like family. They will never change their minds about him. Maybe they can’t.
I think I see them pretty clearly. Those 40% who still think he’s their guy, who are unwavering in their support, who have been waiting forever for someone in power to finally set them free, to understand them, to fight for them. I see them because I came from them.
So yeah, Trump feels like home to me too. It’s just that, like Trump’s America, my home was a lonely and frightening place.
In him I see my father who ranted against reparations, declaring, “if they don’t like it, they can just go back to where they came from,” and then screamed at and relentlessly mocked at his nine-year-old daughter who had the audacity to ask, “but aren’t they Americans just like us?”
In him I see my mother who declared to her six-year-old child that the child was responsible for the parent’s tantrums — for her misery, her inability to find happiness, and the drudgery of her life, and for the way she regularly used the child to exorcise her pain.
In him I see my parents who railed against their suicidal child, called her too sensitive, told her she was telling lies to seek attention, and essentially abandoned her to her own devices at eleven years old.
As an adult, I’ve spent decades trying to teach my family how to be better. I’ve tried to educate them, to show them by example that compassion and kindness are better paths. I thought I could help them. I thought I could teach them. I could not.
I fear too many of us fail to understand that Donald Trump, like my family, will never be teachable.
Broken families stay broken because the people in control like them that way. Broken systems of law and order, governance, business, finance, and education stay broken because the people in control like them that way. Their harms are intentional. They don’t believe they have anything to learn.
Can we change things in America? I think we can. And I think we start with changing the way we think about family.
For generations, the focus of American life has been firmly on the nuclear family. The preservation of the American family has been a directive of the highest order from our churches, from every branch of government, and from our educational institutions.
Obey your parents. Honor them. Do, believe, say, what they do, believe, say. And raise your own family the way you were raised.
Parents, hold your children tight. Control what they see, think, read, say and believe. Don’t encourage them to think for themselves or question your world view, for free-thinking children will be snatched up by the sodomites and intellectuals. Make sure they know who the bad guys are and who the good guys are. Teach them to fear anyone different than them. Make sure that they know about the bootstraps and that anyone who fails in this country just didn’t try hard enough. Set a good and positive example by worshiping the rich and powerful while despising the poor and needy, so your children will learn to always cast blame in the right direction. Tell them that these things you believe in are based on our good, Christian values. Teach them that to rebel against any of this means rebelling against god and being damned to hell. Never, ever waiver.
Am I nuts? Am I the only one who was raised in a family, in a community, where those were the primary lessons to be learned? That would be nice for all of you. But I don’t think I am.
The thing is though, none of those lessons remotely resemble good Christian values. Jesus didn’t stay with his family, follow their example for how to live his life, or look to them for what he should believe. He was a free thinker. He made his family from the least wanted people in society. He lived with sinners. He praised imperfect, questioning faith. He befriended the poor, the outcast, the sick, the discarded, the non-believers. He served and supported others. He didn’t seek to control or manipulate anyone. He was what our parents and leaders told us to be afraid of. He was the antithesis of who they told us a good Christian should be.
Maybe his life offers a good model for beginning to work our way out of this mess we’re in, a model of free-thinking, exploration, kindness, and inclusivity. A model for remaking the American family and reimagining what we mean when we say, “Family Values.”
Imagine an America where the party of family values was the one that told us to: cherish every child’s differences with all your heart because they are infinitely deserving of love; help the less fortunate because when we lift up one, we are all lifted up; teach the next generation about our shortcomings and failures so that they will know better and might do better; conserve our natural resources for the benefit of future generations; treat every single person equally and justly under the law; protect every person’s agency over their own body; educate every single child so that they might reach their full, unfettered potential; pay every American a living wage so they might thrive rather than struggle; ensure that every person in America, regardless of citizenship or stature, has access to outstanding and affordable healthcare because it is just the right god damn thing to do; respect every person’s faith or lack of faith; work to repair the damage done by our past bad deeds including slavery and the racist systems that linger in our society, because our humanity demands it; spend our time and treasure on service, support, and strengthening all of our families and communities; love and accept everyone who is the same as you or different from you in any imaginable way — just love people because every person deserves to be loved for exactly who they are.
I don’t know whether or not those are good Christian values. I don’t really care. They are my values.
What would happen if we took “Family Values” moniker back from the people who have so thoroughly distorted it and turned it into this thing they’ve used to control and frighten us?
Imagine what that country would look like. Imagine what those families would look like. Imagine what a world we could create.
I’m not a Christian. I was. But I’m not now.
But I am a White woman.
My experience is undeniably a White one. And it is quite possible that everything I’ve said here is true only for some White families. It is just slightly less likely that I’m off my rocker and no one else can relate to my experience, or thinks any of this makes any sense at all.
I expect that Black American families aren’t broken in the way my Trump-loving family is. I don’t know. Perhaps any Black Americans who read this will dismiss my experience as excuse-making and justification for past wrongs from a guilt-ridden, privileged White woman — Karen, Karen, Karen. Heck, maybe that’s actually what this is when you get right down to it. But it doesn’t feel like that’s what this is. I hope it’s not.
I do know that families like mine have been denying the reality of Black American families for generations. Families like mine have spent decades saying to Black families, from their positions of White privilege, ‘you know what your problem is…” And the values espoused by families like mine have been used to justify and prop up societal, financial and governmental systems designed to hurt Black families.
I felt something and was compelled to write it down, and this is what it came to be. I think the impetus for these words, which have admittedly wandered far from the topic of racial justice, was the clarity with which I now see my Trump-loving family. When I view their choices, their values, their actions, against the backdrop of the suffering experienced by Black Americans, my heart sinks. I want to go back and try, one more time, to teach them something better. I want to shake the meanness and cruelty out of them and replace it with love. I want them to know what I know.
Whoever you are, whatever family you come from, you may read this little essay and say that the conclusions I’ve drawn are crazy or dumb, or too simplistic to be of any value. That’s okay. I feel better having written them down here. And I feel like maybe I can work toward a new definition of what we mean when we say, “family values”, even if I’m doing it alone.
Who knows, maybe the idea of redefining what American family values are will catch on. Maybe family values in America will come to mean something inclusive and affirming to the children born in 2020, instead of what it has meant for many of us who are struggling to accept the reality of how we got to where we are today. Wouldn’t that be something?