Families Still Fighting Over Trump, Even As His Term Closes
It didn’t take much for Jonathan Hansen and his brother-in-law to come to blows over President Donald Trump in October.
Hansen was leaving his brother-in-law’s house with his kids when the surge in new COVID-19 cases came up. He said his brother-in-law told him Trump had done all he could to stem the pandemic.
Hansen disagreed and pointed to other countries that had dramatically reduced their numbers.
“When he started raising his voice, I raised my voice,” Hansen said. “I said a curse word. We are Mormon. You don't just cuss in the house. All of a sudden now we're arguing in front of our kids.”
It got worse. Hansen reached for his shoes, but not fast enough for his brother-in-law.
“He grabbed the shoes, chucked them out the door, and then just kind of pushed, just punched me out,” Hansen said.
His sister then appeared and Hansen said she hit him too. He called police.
“It just turned into chaos,” said the 46-year-old Hansen. “There was no need for that. I mean, we haven't had a hitting match since 30 years ago when we were children.”
His brother-in-law has since apologized. His sister has not.
Ever since Trump announced his candidacy for president in 2015, fights — verbal and otherwise — have erupted within families. And even though he lost his re-election bid to President-elect Joe Biden, the rancor hasn’t subsided.
“This has become a problem for the entire nation, for families across the country,” said San Diego marriage and family therapist David Peters. “This is a white hot issue.”
Rifts have formed over the president’s comments about immigrants, women and minorities; the numerous sexual assault allegations against him; his administration’s caging of migrant children; his impeachment; his handling of the pandemic, which has killed more than 250,000 people, and now his false claims that Biden owes his victory to voter fraud.
The fissures have shown, in some cases, that politics is thicker than blood.
“I regularly hear people sharing about the pain they have that they can't talk with their brother anymore,” Peters said. “Their parents won't talk with them anymore. The family just can't relax together. People are afraid. People are hurting. People feel shamed and bitterness is rising.”
He said the high emotions can be traced to our primal selves.
“Politics in the mind sits in the same space as religion,” Peters said. “It's that deep because it has to do with which tribe I'm with.”
And when a family member expresses opposite political views, Peters said it’s upsetting because it can feel like the person converted to an enemy religion.
Hansen, a real estate contractor, said he’s puzzled that his five siblings and parents — all Mormon — have supported a president who consistently behaves in ways that contradicts their religion.
“It's not what we were taught growing up,” Hansen said. “We were taught to love one another, to turn the other cheek, to be compassionate, empathetic, to listen.”
He also wonders why his mom, a nurse who teaches how to stop the spread of viruses, has been reluctant to wear a mask. He puts most of the blame on her heavy diet of conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.
“She'll go off on, `Oh, that's an overreach of the government,’” Hansen said.
Hansen says the cognitive dissonance is unbearable.
“We can't talk,” he said. “We can't even hang out together. I mean, it's too incendiary.”
Hansen said the time apart from his family is a stark change from the pre-Trump years when he, his parents and siblings would look for excuses to meet up and regularly celebrated the holidays and birthdays together.
Retired teacher and Trump supporter Diane Pearson said political arguments with her youngest child — a senior at UC-Davis — have cut deep.
“I was even moved to tears several times, afterward, just going away and crying on my own, because I was so sad that after several years of college that he seems to have so far become pretty close minded and not really willing to look at other sides of issues,” Pearson said.
The 64-year-old said she supports Trump because he opposes abortion and she favors his immigration policy. She believes construction of the wall along the Mexican border is “a good idea” and “essential.”
Pearson does acknowledge that Trump’s tweets can be disparaging, but they are outweighed by other traits she ascribes to the president.
“The man obviously has faults and has expressions and attitudes that are obnoxious and are hurtful and then he doesn't really recant them,” Pearson said. “But at the same time, he's got a certain decisiveness and power in making decisions that I agree with. So I kind of try to separate it out like that.”
Benjamin Goodwin, her 22-year-old son, described his mother’s defense of Trump “no matter what” as a surprise. And though the same can be said of other Trump supporters, he’s been hurt by her refusal to back off when things get heated between them.
“I’ve expected her to defuse the argument for the sake of saving the relationship because it’s getting intense, but instead she’d rather continue defending Donald Trump,” Goodwin said. “That’s the thing that bothers me the most.”
Complicating things further is that Goodwin’s father is Black and Pearson is white. And, unlike his mom, he believes Trump is a racist, which forms the crux of the gap between them.
“It plays a big role,” he said. “I see things kind of from both a Black and White perspective. “My mom can only really see things from a white person’s point of view.”
Still, Goodwin said this reality has strained but not broken his bond with his mom.
“You know, my mom and I love each other at the end of the day,” he said.
Peters, the family therapist, said he counsels his clients to apologize to family members for heated exchanges. He urges them to focus on the good times they’ve shared, refrain from talking politics and above all not to give up on their loved ones.
“The worst thing you can do is cut off relationships with family members,” he said.
Jonathan Hansen didn’t hear back when he reached out to his mom to ask if she would agree to a KPBS interview. He later learned that she had attended a “Stop the steal” rally, one of many protests that have sprung up among Trump supporters as the president has continued to make baseless claims of vote fraud.
His girlfriend, Chrystal Coleman, said they are considering extending a “friendly hand” to his family. She said she has thought about giving them a “way out” by acknowledging that everyone makes mistakes and that they were misled by Trump’s well-documented lies.
But then memories of Trump’s racist and misogynistic comments return and she has questions for Hansen’s family that she wants answered.
”How could you not realize? How could you not see it? How could you not hear it? Your silence was your consent if nothing else and how do we get past that?” She said.
Coleman said she has mulled over the words of Austrian philosopher Karl Popper who wrote in part, “when we extend tolerance to those who are openly intolerant, the tolerant ones end up being destroyed and tolerance with them.”
Meanwhile, Hanson is holding out hope that he can reconcile with his siblings and parents.
”I miss sitting with my mom and being with my mom who loves me, who raised me, took care of me,” Hansen said. “I miss having tea with her, having a nice meal with her, laughing, talking about her grandkids.”