When a democrat and a republican are navigating marriage and election season in the era of Trump.
On our third date, circa 2006, I finally decided to ask Mike about the W ’04 bumper sticker on his car. I had assumed through the first two dates that it came with the car, that it wasn’t his and he hadn’t been bothered to take it off. I was 18 and deeply committed to my political beliefs, which were influenced heavily by Michael Moore and my dad, who’s own grandparents had been Bolshevik revolutionaries. As much as I liked Mike (and I really liked Mike), it was going to be difficult to continue seeing a guy who supported Dubya enough to have a sticker on his car.
As we got into the mustang that bore the offending sticker, I cleared my throat, trying to figure out a subtle way to ask about his political leanings.
“So, you’re not, like, a republican, are you?” Real subtle.
“Yup, I am,” Mike replied with a confidence I tried not to frame as the typical male chauvinist confidence I associated with republicans.
“I feel like that might be a problem,” I said, sighing, head tilting back against the seat. I looked at him and saw he was confused.
“I’m definitely not a republican. I hate Bush. Like, in ninth grade I kept a notebook and one of the illustrations was of him hanging from a tree.”
Mike just nodded.
I’ll tell you what: often times a desire to have sex with someone greatly outweighs whatever you think of their political beliefs.
“I mean,” Mike said, clearing his throat, “I’m not that much of a republican. I don’t think I even voted in 2004. I’m cool with you being a democrat.”
I studied his face for a moment, his handsome, open, honest face, and swallowed. Okay, I thought, let’s just give this a try. I thought briefly (for the first time of many) of James Carville and Mary Matalin. Maybe this could work.
You may be shocked to learn that things did in fact work. I’m shocked, though more because we were mere babes in the woods of adulthood when we eventually got married and started having kids. The odds were not in our favor and for many years, our political beliefs were at the bottom of the list of things we argued about.
We got through the election of 2008 intact, and both agreed that while we didn’t love each other’s candidates, our parties could have picked worse. 2012 was a little trickier. I did not like Mitt Romney. Mike did not like President Obama. Neither one of us could find anything particularly redeeming about each other’s candidate’s policies. Yet, like a couple who roots for opposing sports teams, we watched the conventions and debates as though they were the playoffs (chips and dip and all) and attempted to be sportsmanlike when the results came in.
During the interim years, we easily found ground on which we could both stand. For example, we are both pro-choice, voted in the favor of gay marriage when it was on the ballot in our state, and desire a safe and beautiful place for us to raise our children and for others to raise their children. We have often said to one another that we want the same things, but we have different ideas on how to get there.
And until 2016, I think many politically differentiated couples, friends and families, co-workers, and neighbors all might have said the same to each other. Donald Trump changed that.
I know I’m not saying anything even remotely new when I say Donald Trump is deeply divisive. Something about him flicks a switch in a certain group of folks and it’s hard to turn it off. I knew early on that he would not only win his party’s nomination, but if Hilary was the democrats’ candidate, the presidency, too. I saw a fire in people’s eyes when they spoke about him that I had never seen in anyone before. He lit up people who had never previously cared for politics or thought their vote would matter or their opinion be heard.
Mike was not one of those people. He liked Jeb. My husband liked the idea of consistency and trusted the Bush name (no, I still don’t get it, either), and I shrugged it off, both doubting he would get the nomination and also having my own concerns regarding the DNC seemingly forcing Hilary Clinton on voters.
However, as the campaign season marched on and the republicans started to drop like flies around Trump, Mike, like many, started to see the appeal.
“He just says whatever he wants! He’s totally unfiltered!”
“You can trust him because he’s not as polished like the other politicians. He’s not even really a politician. He’s a business guy!”
“Oh, he doesn’t mean half of what he says. Listen to what he means, not the actual words.”
Yes. Oh, yes, Mike said all of these things and more. All the things you have probably heard your spouse or friend or co-worker or dad say. I responded just like you did, probably loudly and I may have even thrown a shoe at his head a couple of times.
The big question you might be asking yourself (as I have): Did Mike agree with the really awful shit Trump said during the campaign? The short answer is, no. The longer answer includes some doubt, because if you’re supporting someone who says awful shit, aren’t you thereby supporting the awful shit? My answer to this, and the rest of the questions you and I both might have right now is: humans are fucking complicated.
What’s shifted for many Americans between 2016 and now is that issues that once seemed theoretical, debatable, and abstract to those of us who sit in privilege have since been made very tangible. I believe America is built on a classist and racist system and it needs to change. No longer do I feel we just need better leaders and to make sure all our friends go out and vote (though, those things might help). I feel we need a massive overhaul to our system. We need a reckoning.
Mike’s not on the same page. He sees many of the flaws I do and is deeply frustrated by many of the systems we have in place. But he does not share my fury. His focus is narrowed in on us. How is our family doing? Are we safe? Are we fed? Do we have good things to look forward to? And it’s not to say that isn’t my own focus in many cases, or even that it’s wrong for that to be his focus, but I believe as middle class white folks, we have a responsibility to make sure everyone else at least has a chance. He thinks the systems in place already gives that chance, or would if the right people were running them and they were properly funded.
I know my marriage is not unique. While rural New England hardly qualifies as suburbia, I do fit the profile of the suburban white woman, a group that has had a (much, much too slow) awakening to the injustices faced by folks who aren’t white and/or middle class. But many suburban white women are married to suburban white men, a demographic that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016 and likely will again next month. There are millions of women whose politics have shifted to the left (if they weren’t there already, like me), while our husbands remain squarely to the right.
How we, as partners, react to our significant others’ politics is a microcosm of the possibilities for our country. We can silently continue on, avoiding all discussion of politics and the beliefs that drive us there, we could end our marriages, or we can keep the conversation going, constantly seeking out the other person, desiring to understand and to be felt understood.
For myself and for our country, my desire remains firmly with keeping the conversation going, continuing to always seek understanding, even when it feels impossible. I realize this is a point of privilege for me, on many levels. But I also can’t ignore the fact that I love my husband, share a life and children with him, and that, in the end, I don’t think I will be saving anyone by abandoning our marriage. Similarly, by and large, I do not think we are doing anything to help our country or the people in it by abandoning relationships with people who we otherwise care about over politics.
Naturally, there are exceptions to this. Just as I would never tell a friend within a toxic marriage to continue on despite clear signals they should part ways, we should shed toxic relationships in our lives, whether they be with a friend or family member, public person, or a corporation that clearly doesn’t support our values. But deep political disagreement, when all other aspects of your life align, is perhaps not reason enough to discard people. This encouragement to cancel one another, to find people with whom we disagree irredeemable despite a rich and loving history, is just one more tool those who would control us (and our money and resources) use.
Mike and I are fundamentally different, but it all still works because we have a deep respect and love for one another. We see each other’s humanity, have been with each other through miscarriages, mental health issues, job changes, births, deaths, and literally for richer or poorer. However much it might pain me when we disagree on key issues, it is nothing compared to the pain of not having Mike be my husband, to be my person.
Since Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing last month, much has been said regarding RBG’s friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia. Now, a collegial friendship amongst two Supreme Court justices is different from a marriage, but at the end of the day, my hope for most romantic partnerships is that you are, indeed, friends. I have heard Justice Ginsberg speak about her friendship with Justice Scalia quite a bit now, and each time I cannot help but think of my husband.
“We are two people who are quite different in their core beliefs, but who respect each other’s character and ability,” Ginsburg is quoted as saying. “There is nobody else I spend every New Year’s Eve with.”
I feel the same.