For Families Torn Apart By Politics, The Election Results Won't Change Anything

Whether President Trump wins a second term or Joe Biden wins the White House, healing sharp divisions among family members won't be easy.
After four years of the Trump presidency, liberals and conservatives are more at odds than ever.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty Images
After four years of the Trump presidency, liberals and conservatives are more at odds than ever.

In the spring, Preston, a clinical social worker in California, stopped talking to her Trump-supporting family members.

Preston, who’s biracial ― white and Filipino ― said she and other Filipino members of her family “painfully bit their tongues” in conversations when white relatives blamed Asians for COVID-19 ― or, as President Donald Trump had begun calling it, the “Chinese virus.”

“The last time we talked was our last attempt to get them to see how their behavior and political choices negatively impacts our family and people of color as a whole,” said Preston, who, like others in this story, asked to use her first name only to protect her privacy.

“It ended with them again refusing to see any form of racism on their part and my Filipino family declaring that their racism was not something we could ‘agree to disagree’ about,” she told HuffPost.

For Jerry, a conservative who works in retail and lives in the San Francisco Bay area, conversations with his family ― his brother and sister in this case ― ceased when they dropped him from their Facebook friends list and changed their phone numbers.

Through the years, the family had fought about everything, including former Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes’s media empire and the case against Bowe Bergdahl, the soldier who avoided prison time for desertion after being captured by the Taliban and held for five years. (Trump called the sentencing a “disgrace.”)

But in the last four years, Jerry watched his brother and sister lean more to the left and further away from him.

“Whether the number change was intentional or coincidental, I can’t say, but I never pulled away from them,” he told HuffPost.

“I do miss them. It was not always like this. We were at one time a tight group, but since our parents’ passing away in 1999 and 2011, politics has consumed them,” he said. “And there’s no way they would ever vote conservative or I would vote liberal.”

In politically tense 2020, Preston’s and Jerrys’ stories are hardly uncommon. Friends of different political stripes are making use of the “mute” button on Facebook and Instagram. Nearly 80% of Americans now have “just a few” or no friends at all across the aisle, according to the Pew Research Center.

Democrats are a little bit more likely to say they’d end a friendship” Jocelyn Kiley, associate director of research at the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, told NPR recently. “But Republicans may be less likely to say they have friends on the other side. So it may not be all that differential.”

But what’s sadder still is the chasm that’s widened between highly partisan family members in the last four years.

In 2019, 35% of Republicans and 45% of Democrats said they would be unhappy if their child married someone from the opposing political party ― a sharp uptick from attitudes on the subject 50 years ago. Americans are increasingly subscribing to a kind of political tribalism, holding those who think like them close and sneering at those who don’t ― including family members.

Neighboring houses in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, display signs for opposing presidential candidates. Friendships across party lines are becoming uncommon -- and even family members are at odds.
Pacific Press via Getty Images
Neighboring houses in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, display signs for opposing presidential candidates. Friendships across party lines are becoming uncommon -- and even family members are at odds.

Whether President Trump ultimately wins or loses a second term, healing the sharp divisions in families won’t be easy, said Deborah Duley, a therapist in Leonardtown, Maryland.

“Republican versus Democrat has always been there in the fabric of our relationships, but this administration really highlighted, in a vicious way, the thoughts and feelings of many Americans that others find [objectionable],” she said.

For Duley’s clients who bring up familial political differences in sessions, it’s not about the political parties at all: It’s a feeling that their values and morals are no longer aligned with their relatives.

“For the people who complain about Trump and their Trump-supporting views, they think, how can we be close to people who believe it’s OK to separate children from their parents and lock them in cages?” she said. “That believe white supremacy is an accepted movement, and who feel that people of color don’t deserve to be treated as humans?”

For conservatives with liberal family members who’ve pushed them away, it’s a feeling of, “How can I make peace with someone who suggests I’m a racist or white supremacist because of my support of the police or the president?”

“These are not political issues, they are human issues, and they’ve caused all of us to look more closely at the people in our lives,” Duley said. “That’s really what the last four years has been for us: an enlightenment, an awakening, a reassessment of who we allow in our mental and emotional space.”

Trump was the prime reason Elsa, a caregiver living in California, had a falling out with her grown daughter.

The estrangement started with a meme: Right after the 2016 election, Elsa’s daughter posted a quote card about how a Trump supporter named “Bob” was just someone with a differing opinion and that “Bob” wasn’t deserving of hate.

“If Joe Biden wins, my family will refuse to acknowledge him as the president, they’ll continue posting conspiracy theories for the next four years and delegitimize any policies he advances.”

- Chaz Cardigan, a gay singer-songwriter from Tennessee

Elsa reacted with anger. As the 2016 campaign played out, she watched Trump mock a disabled reporter in a stump speech and was aghast (her middle daughter has Down syndrome).

“I commented ‘Fuck Bob’ if Bob was obviously OK with someone who made fun of people with disabilities, OK with being blatantly racist against Mexicans and other immigrants,” Elsa said. “I still cannot for the life of me understand how any decent person could still vote for him after that, especially for the friends and family that know my special needs daughter.

Her comment was forceful, but she stands by it. “I wanted to let people know that ‘Bob’ was either a horrible person or stupid because he fell for what to me was an obvious con job by Trump on a massive scale.”

What Elsa didn’t know at the time was that all of her daughter’s in-laws ― people she’d formerly had nothing but cordial relationships with ― were huge Trump supporters.

That made get-togethers incredibly awkward. At a subsequent birthday party for Elsa’s grandson, her daughter’s father-in-law was noticeably icy toward her.

“He even got up and walked away when I went to sit on a bench near him to watch our grandson playing,” she said. “I suspect he had seen my response to my daughter’s ‘Bob’ meme and was offended by it.”

Her daughter has similarly iced Elsa out, leaving her feeling like she’s been cast aside for her in-laws and, to some degree, Trump.

Since then, the mom has tried to make amends, but she says things have only gotten worse. Her daughter had a second son and Elsa hasn’t met him.

“Of course I miss her, but I miss the daughter I used to be close to, not the person she has become. I especially miss my grandson and the new baby grandson I have never even met. This is hard, but I’ll never lose hope that someday we can work past this.”

Chaz Cardigan, a gay singer-songwriter from Tennessee, was so disheartened by his family’s continued support of the president and his policies (especially toward the LGBTQ+ community) that he released a song about it late last month.

“You probably hate me, at least that’s how you vote,” he sings on the track released on TikTok. “It feels like you love him more than you love me. It feels like you love him more than you love me.”

At 25, Cardigan said he certainly doesn’t see Donald Trump as an “evil cartoon” like he saw George W. Bush as a teen. But he sees how Trump’s policies actively hurt people in his community, and it stings to watch his family continue to embrace the president.

“My human instinct is to see their support of this man as direct evidence that they don’t care about the human cost of his rhetoric or his policies,” he said. “But they would tell you, in almost every scenario in my family at least, that they voted for Trump because their stocks would perform better, that they felt disenfranchised by the political elite donor class on both sides of the aisle, and they saw Donald Trump as a chaos antidote to that.”

Would a Biden win and Trump leaving office change family relations for the better? Now that his relatives have aired their views, Cardigan said he has his doubts.

“No one I know that voted for Donald Trump regrets the decision, because they got what they wanted: Their stock portfolios benefited, so nothing else matters,” he said. “If Joe Biden wins, they will refuse to acknowledge him as the president, they’ll continue posting conspiracy theories for the next four years and delegitimize any policies he advances, no matter how helpful it is for their neighbors.”

Preston, the social worker, hopes to reconcile with the white side of her family, but it won’t be easy. She looks at them differently since Trump. Under different political circumstances, had a less-polarizing Republican been elected in 2016 ― a Mitt Romney or Jeb Bush, for instance ― she said she might have never known about her family’s hidden racist views.

“I do hope to reconcile with them at some point, but I think a lot of work will need to be done on their part until we can even begin to look towards reconciliation. My humanity and the humanity of people like me should never have been up for debate. The fact that it is a discussion at all, especially among family, is heartbreaking.”

“It’s hard to hate up close, which means that seeing our humanness in each other is really the only way to heal.”

- Deborah Duley, a therapist in Leonardtown, Maryland

For many families, including Preston’s, there used to be a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on political views. That was possible in the era before social media; now that everyone and their mother is sharing their hot political takes on Facebook and Instagram stories, pretending you’re all on the same page come Thanksgiving dinner and avoiding political talk isn’t easy.

Many are so turned off by their relatives’ views that they try to limit their time with them (as most of us continue to social distance, that’s not hard to do).

Duley, the therapist, thinks that’s an entirely reasonable decision to make, especially if a relative continues to try to foist their views on you when you’re face to face. Family is important, but prioritize your mental health, she said.

“I would never tell someone ‘Blood is blood’ or ‘Your family will always be your family.’ I always encourage clients to remember that just because you were born into this family doesn’t mean you chose them,” she said. “Obviously everyone has their limits of poor treatment, but some family members do things to us that are untenable, and leaving these people behind can be the best decision for your mental and emotional health.”

Duley has experienced this firsthand. “While there are family members I myself have excommunicated, it wasn’t because of one conversation or one vote. It was from their continued, long-lasting [disregard] of values and beliefs that I hold dear and their refusal to even listen to how I felt about their words and actions,” she said.

Is there a way forward for any of these families? Sadly, fissures over partisanship could be permanent, but the therapist also tells her clients to leave room for possible reconciliation.

“Being so locked into one way of thinking ensures that no one wins, that no one feels heard and all of us lose,” she said.

Relatives and friends torn apart by the Trump years will have to meet each other halfway. Take the example of CNN host Don Lemon. Last week, the anchor talked about how he has cut ties with friends who unyieldingly supported Trump. That said, he’s left the door open with one caveat.

“There are a lot of friends I had to really get rid of because they are so nonsensical when it comes to [Trump],” the anchor said. “If they’re willing to come back and willing to live in reality, then I will welcome them with open arms.”

If a family member is similarly willing to meet you halfway, Duley said to respect that. It will take intellectual humility and a concerted effort to understand each other from both parties, but it’s possible to make amends.

“I always encourage people, myself included, to remember what connects us to these loved ones or friends that we can remember. What activities did you love to do together or any memories that you really cherish? It’s hard to hate up close, which means that seeing our humanness in each other is really the only way to heal.”

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