When I arrived at the rally, I ran into an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in years. We weren’t close — she’d mistakenly thought I’d moved to Chicago in the interim. But she immediately enfolded me in a giant, tight, genuine hug, asking if I were going to march next weekend.
It felt good. I’d been nervous. I was surprised my northeastern Florida town — not populous enough, I thought, to create even a tiny blue oasis in an otherwise-hundred-mile radius of red — was on the resistance roadshow’s docket in the first place. But I walked into the St. Augustine Amphitheater and found it packed — yes, with mostly elderly, white faces, but in some ways, that made it even better. A beautiful young Navajo woman in traditional dress told us her people were really called the Diné. She sang about how we obviously can’t own the earth; we don’t even get to keep our own bones and skin. Local environmental organizations were giving out stickers and taking volunteers’ names. I stood there and cried for an hour, feeling surrounded, feeling like I belonged, feeling supported in a way I hadn’t since the early afternoon of November 8th.
I’d told my father I had plans with a friend and I’d told my mother the truth, but hesitantly, only after making sure dad was well out of earshot. When I walked out of the house in my “Nasty Woman” T-shirt, I knew they wouldn’t be happy about it. That’s the only reason I haven’t worn that shirt every single day since the election. I just moved home in December, in part to help my parents as they age — but also, admittedly, to spend a year or two living rent-free, trying to get my freelance career on its feet. Mom and dad have been registered Republicans as long as I can remember, repeating that thing about how I’d grow out of my progressivism one day. (“If you’re a young conservative, you don’t have a heart,” intones my father, imparting coffee-mug-derived wisdom. “If you’re an old liberal, you don’t have a brain.”)
They’re still convinced, still voting red down the ballot; I’m facing my 30th birthday and haven’t taken many rightward steps. Why, I thought, stir such a well-coagulated pot?
But when I came home and my mother asked, incredulously, how it went, her rolling eyes audible in her voice, it hurt me.
My mother, for context, is of not-so-distant Russian descent — third generation. She doesn’t speak the language and has never seen the country, but knows her late grandfather was on the run from bad politics. Last year, her eyes got huge and her voice got shaky whenever Bernie Sanders came up. For her, the word “socialism” itself is a loudly-sounding alarm bell.
But like an alarm bell, it carries no real meaning for her besides abject panic. My mother actually has several socialist tendencies. She says things like, “We should all have free hospitalization,” which is what she calls health care. She says she “doesn’t mind” paying her taxes if they’re going to good use. Most tellingly of all, her constant refrain when I ask about specific rightist policies is, “I don’t fully understand it.” Why exactly are people complaining about Obamacare, I ask? She explains that small business owners hate it, that it can render their costs prohibitively high, but that she thinks we should all have an equal amount of money set aside for our medical care by the government, no matter who we work for. I raise my eyebrow. I bring up my now-tenuous right to abortion and she says, “The people won’t let them take that away from us.”
I can deal with my father’s acquiescence to conservatism, and even to the Trump monster. He is significantly older than my mother. He is also undeniably losing his mind. He repeats himself, about 80% of his speech consisting of song lyrics and television quotes. He fondly romanticizes his time in the Coast Guard (and has occasionally lied, bragging he’s a Vietnam vet); he’s fallen from upper to lower middle class. He is also unabashedly bigoted. He’s admitted, with some pride, to feeling physical nausea once while witnessing an attractive, blonde, white young woman kissing a large black man.
In other words, he’s a lost cause.
But my mother recycles. She puts her hands into the trash to remove the water bottle I mistakenly place there and rinses it, drops it into the second trash can she keeps specifically for that purpose. My mother cringes when my father uses the n-word, which he does; she’s consistently responded to that awful “Once you go black, you never go back” quip with a smirking, “That’s not entirely true” — although (because?) she knows it makes my father shiver. My bold, brave, beautiful mother, who burned a bra once in the ’60s. Who used to get in trouble with her brothers because she climbed faster and higher and more dangerously, scaling and balancing on the I-beams of the up-and-coming market around the corner from her childhood home despite its being situated, as it would be, over asphalt.
So when she said, “What, was it just a bunch of saps crying into their beer?” I tried to explain — the songs, the environmentalists. The young boy in dorky sneaker-sandals and a NASA shirt that read, “I NEED MY SPACE.” The fact that the Diné woman had called him “Uncle Trump,” however much audience laughter that had solicited.
“I don’t know. No one was protesting when he was elected,” she went on. I couldn’t help but direct her to Donald Trump’s tweeted exhortation in 2012 to do just that — to start a revolution. She rolled her eyes physically now, murmured something under her breath. I suggested that we simply drop it, and she agreed, turning her comments instead to the smell of the pre-ground coffee she’d just opened.
I’m not enough of an idealist to totally dismiss her reluctance. After the rally, even a liberal friend of mine asked, “Okay, but did it do anything? The president can’t be protested out of office.” I understand how the picket sign slogans — “Water is Life;” “Love is Love” — these three-word snapshots of the way the world should work might come across as simple, aphoristic, hackneyed. Gutless, in their lack of defined strategy. Even nefarious, in the certainly-not-unheard of case of corrupt politicians leveraging their supporters’ naivete for untoward causes or personal gain.
But come on: There’s just a raw, positive power in a group of people gathered together at their own cost for the sole intention of denying hate, enacting love and singing songs together. There’s a palpable bravery in supporting progressivism in an overwhelmingly red county. At least at the level of the people, it’s undeniably well-intentioned. And that’s the very best part of humanity. It’s worth celebrating, no matter what.
My mother’s incredulousness is a huge loss — not just on a human level, but for our democracy. She’s been misled, in part because my father refuses to watch anything but Fox News, and because he keeps the bile spewing at full volume from not one but five television sets around the clock. My mother is idealistic and nurturing and kind, but she also doesn’t spend much time with anyone but my father. She’s turning seventy soon, and neither of my parents finished college. It’s easy for me to feel like she should be able to see through the network’s rhetoric for what it is, but she’s old and isolated and no one ever taught her what “rhetoric” means in the first place.
Unfortunately, her fundamental misunderstanding is part of what put Trump in office. I know she voted for him, and I know she isn’t a unique case. Be it a lack of critical thinking skills, self-imposed isolation or simple gullibility, my mother lost a facet of herself somewhere along the way. Now, we must deal with the ramifications of that loss as a country.
This mismatch between innate good intentions and outward political expression is exactly why Trump and his supporters are so excited to eschew “the elites” and academia. Our educational system is far from perfect, but it remains perhaps our best tool in the fight to create independent thinkers who can understand and evaluate political rhetoric.
A few years ago, I taught writing to a crop of Midwestern college freshmen who assured me we were living in a post-racial society. I know the little I could do in a single semester couldn’t possibly fix that misperception. But I also know the books they’ll read, the experiences they’ll encounter, and people they’ll meet, should they stay in the academy, will do well to give them the tools they’ll need to make up their own minds.
I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to make up mine — to decide, the following weekend, to pull that same shirt back over my head, walk out of my parents’ house and march, disapproving looks or no.
Top photo by Kelly M. Shea via kellymeshea.com
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