I finally made the call to my parents Wednesday night, the call I didn’t want to make, even as the despair and disbelief felt by pretty much everyone I know turned to social-media chatter about the “not my president” protests and recriminations about what could have been done — what, if anything, each of us could have done to avert this dumbfounding moment of what’s next for this country.
There is a recurring fantasy among the so-called cosmopolitan elites, perhaps especially urgently felt among those of us who moved to New York from somewhere else that felt too constricted to accommodate us or who we could be, that we could coax and argue other people — people out there — into our state of supposed enlightenment. That there could be a real discussion going on here, of good-faith people, who only needed to be shown the error of their thinking.
To tell you the truth, I didn’t want to just assume that my Republican parents voted for Donald Trump. My mother had mentioned a sympathy for Bernie Sanders and his “rigged economy” critique, and my father was a career military intelligence man who spent most of that time parrying the dark intentions of Soviet Russia. But I usually avoid discussing the election, any election, or politics, generally, with my parents, who are southern by heritage, military by multigenerational tradition, and Christian in some well-what-else-would-we-be sense of dutiful conventionality. It’s been a delicate enough thing for us to engineer a relationship — to be fair, having an arty urban gay son without interest in joining the Navy or watching NASCAR wasn’t exactly what they were picturing when they had me, either — even without an election season like this one.
But as I sat in my East Village bedroom while my boyfriend, Kendall, watched in the other room, and they had me on speakerphone from their house in Virginia, I already knew the answer. They have two gay sons — plus a daughter who worked briefly for Pat Robertson, but that’s another story entirely — but their (eventual) acceptance and embrace of us and our partners did not extend to the logic of who they supported at the ballot box. They could be one person at the holidays, and another in their personal convictions.
Kendall, who grew up very differently than I did, in a housing project in Detroit, was more scared than I was of a candidate who appealed so brazenly to racists, who talked so openly and (barely) codedly about “law and order.” Kendall’s family — black working-class people, mostly, who are so proud of him for finding his way out to achieve his dreams in New York, and are quite sweet to me, even as they find me a bit of a curiosity — was fully terrified. How dare we, after eight years of having a black president? To him, and his family, this was an about-face, a retreat to some American white-supremacist mean.
I’d never told Kendall this, but Trump often said what I knew my father felt. Not the misogynist stuff, but the tone of disgust at the blithe self-dealing of many in Washington. Which I admit at first I found a bit thrilling, especially early on, when he was heckling the GOP primary candidates on their Club for Growth–approved pieties and blatant hypocrisies. Yes, Trump seemed to me as disingenuous as any confidence man, willing to say anything he thought might help him close the deal, but part of why he was so effective was that, to my ear, about a third of the time he seemed to be the only person onstage willing or perhaps able to tell the truth about anything. It was fascinating. And it reminded me of the nationalist nostalgia of my father, his impatience and suspicion. My mother, who grew up poor in Appalachia, is more oblique in her views, but just as stubborn.
And from where they were, in their riverfront home in Virginia, which my mother does her best to run like a four-bedroom Downton Abbey, it all makes sense. Or, rather, there was little to contradict it. As my mother pointed out, she would have been surprised if anyone around them voted for Hillary Clinton. When we go for holidays, Kendall jokingly calls it the Plantation House, which it looks a bit like, though in fact it was a rather grand farmhouse built by bootleggers in the 1920s. Then there’s that portrait of my great-grandmother, an old Virginian with the landscape view of Robert E. Lee’s plantation behind her.
I love my parents, and they love me, and I know that I am of them, a kind of remix of them. But like millions of Americans, my parents were convinced of Hillary Clinton’s core perfidity, and nothing would change their mind on that. And so they got over their skepticism of Trump’s vulgarity, and cherry-picked among his inconsistencies, and thought maybe this change, whatever it is exactly — they weren’t sure — was worth rolling the dice on. And besides, as my father, who is 71, put it, they might only have a couple more elections left to vote in, and we can always try again in four years. To my mind, they confused nihilism for nationalism. And in the end, their reason for voting Trump was, What the hell? At least it’s not her.
Which left me wondering: What if I had tried harder? Even if you think you have the righteous prophetic fact-y dudgeon of a John Oliver, he has probably never changed anybody’s mind — you wouldn’t be watching him unless you already agreed with him — and listening to my parents talk about Trump, I was reminded about how depressing it is to hear talking points tumble out of the mouths of otherwise sentient humans. I got a little riled up. I told them they were not taking responsibility for their actions when they called it, essentially, a protest vote. (They didn’t think he’d actually win.) Which is an odd thing to tell a septuagenarian determined to stand athwart history and yell: Hold up! But history keeps rolling on, eventually burying us all in its wake.
My brother and his husband have three adopted kids. My parents love being grandparents: They take the kids, who are biracial, to Disney World and the beach. On Thursday, I texted my brother to say, “I know I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am disappointed in Mom and Dad.” He responded: “? Did you discuss the election?” We wondered if we should have tried to change their minds. “I guess I’m not engaged enough to invest,” he texted back. “Which is also sad.”