This article was originally published for Thanksgiving 2016.
When Alina Cruz last week started texting culinary assignments to her family for the big pot-luck Thanksgiving feast at her house, she included a recipe — not for cranberry sauce or cornbread, but for what she hopes will be a few hours of peaceful co-existence: No Trump. No Clinton. No politics, period.
“It practically killed me to do it, because I’m a big believer in robust political discussions, but for that day, my home is a no-politics zone,” says Cruz, a Kendall attorney. “I would like to keep peace in the family. That’s the biggest thing for me. Keeping peace, no animosity. And this election, well....”
Barely two weeks past a presidential election that carved divisions in America right down to the bone, a lot of people see Thursday’s traditional extended family as a minefield across which their #neverTrump and #crookedHillary families are going to stampede like wounded elephants. Or donkeys.
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“You want to talk about Thanksgiving dinner? Are you gonna use my name? No? Then I’m going into therapy mode!!!” cried one angry Miami businesswoman, ticking off a list of escalating anxieties about a meal at which she and a couple of pro-Hillary sisters expect to be locked in hand-to-hand combat with a larger contingent of pro-Trump siblings.
Her fears are shared on all sides of the political spectrum, which only seems to have grown angrier in the wake of an election that set bold new standards for political invective. “Whether you voted for Hillary and Trump, this is a safe space for both of you,” rapper Kanye West assured fans at a concert last week, trying to summon an era of good feelings that ended moments later when he revealed he had supported Trump. The crowd began booing and throwing things at him.
Newspapers the past few days have bristled with stories about how to avoid Thanksgiving familicide, though their spirit of reconciliation has sometimes been dwarfed by their lack of good sense. (The New York Times’ suggestion for curative conversations included asking, “Do you think I’m sexist or racist?”)
Some of them, seeking succor in the past, have cited warm and fuzzy messages of unity in Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address (”Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection,”) or his second (”with malice toward none, with charity toward all”), apparently unaware that they were followed, respectively by the Civil War and his assassination.
I would like to keep peace in the family. That’s the biggest thing for me. Keeping peace, no animosity.
Even YouTube has gone into the family counseling business with a video parody of Flo Rida’s rap hit My House entitled Welcome To My Couch, in which a compliment to the Thanksgiving chef (”You make turkey great once again!”) triggers a suspicious retort (”What is that supposed to mean?”) that ends in a decapitational brawl. Recommended diversions range from TV (“I’ll be watching football/I prefer concussions/over these discussions”) to chatting up current events (“Brangelina, why you think they broke up?/Pluto’s not a planet, man that’s messed up!”)
Michael Oberschneider, a clinical psychologist in Ashburn, Va., about an hour outside Washington D.C., had a sinking feeling about the emotional aftermath of the presidential election when his patients wanted to talk not about their relationships or their jobs but...well, you know.
“It was just surreal,” he recalls. “The first one that morning was literally sobbing, because as a woman and as the mother of daughters, she was so offended by some of the things Trump had said. Then the second one came, and she was elated, ecstatic. I’d never seen her so happy in all the time I had known her. It went on like that. It was as if half my patients had a loved one die and the other half hit the lottery.”
In the past 10 days or so, their worries have shifted from the election itself to the possibility — well, probability — of over-the-turkey confrontations. “A couple was supposed to travel pretty far to be with one set of their parents,” Oberschneider says. “But because the patriarch is such a big Trump fan, they’ve decided not to go. They’re so upset that they’re going to avoid conflict altogether by staying home.”
In a way, you’d think we’d all be used to this by now. Many a friendship has been buried in an unmarked Facebook grave since the presidential campaign got underway 18 months ago. A poll by Monmouth University released in September showed that 7 percent of the people who responded had already ended friendships over the election.
One relatively mild-mannered Miami business consultant says that no matter how hard she tried during the campaign, anything she wrote on Facebook quickly devolved into a political shouting match, even when she refused to participate.
“I’d say something that wasn’t very pointed or controversial, and then one of my friends would respond, and then somebody else would take issue with that friend,” she shudders. “After a while my Facebook page would be full of all these long threads with people shouting at each other, people like, say, the sister of one of my friends from high school and the friend of a friend from work — people I hardly knew and who didn’t know each other at all. That’s my life now, I bring strangers together on Facebook to bitterly disagree with one another.... Meanwhile, the only people I can interact with anymore are comedians on YouTube.”
This is not, by the way, a case of cranky old people yelling at kids to get off their political lawns. College kids are at least as politically cannibalistic as their parents, as University of Florida senior Alex Ahrenholz discovered when he announced that after supporting Bernie Sanders during the primaries, he was switching to Trump for the general election. (He thought Sanders and Trump were both straight talkers who defied political correctness; Clinton, not so much.)
That kicked up a bit of fuss on Facebook, but it was nothing compared to what happened when he got home to discover a good friend who also happened to be his landlord — Ahrenholz was renting a room in her apartment — was boiling over.
“She was, umm, intense on the negativity,” Ahrenholz says. “For a long while after that, we basically didn’t talk. It’s a little better now, but there’s still a lot of, ‘oh, hi’ and walking into the other room.” Ahrenholz is looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner back home in Jupiter, where he plans to sit back and watch as his gladiatorially pro-Trump grandfather and aunt take on the entire rest of the family.
And seeing how angry people are right now, all the political ugliness and Facebook wars and riots in Portland, I was getting terrified that the Clinton people at the party might start crying and the Trump people might start celebrating and my daughter sees a whole house full of adults acting like children.
Fort Lauderdale pharmaceutical sales executive Jennifer Barr
For those less inclined to view family discussion as a spectator sport, psychologist Oberschneider counsels asking everybody in advance to avoid the subject of politics. “But you’ve got to have a list of other things to do, like running a 5K or watching football or the Macy’s parade,” he cautions. “Otherwise you’re likely to have a living room full of silent people, sitting there and not talking about the pink elephant in the room.”
And at least one South Florida family that’s already tried the Political Cone of Silence strategy says it works — at least if you’re willing to drag your 8-year-old daughter into the middle as a hostage.
Fort Lauderdale pharmaceutical sales executive Jennifer Barr always hosts a kick-off-the-Christmas-season party at her home. This year, it was scheduled for the Saturday right after the election — and watching Facebook bubble like a volcano full of political sewage, Barr was worried sick.
“My daughter Carly always helps bake Christmas cookies and things for it, and it’s a big deal to her,” Barr says. “She starts talking about it two or three months in advance. And seeing how angry people are right now, all the political ugliness and Facebook wars and riots in Portland, I was getting terrified that the Clinton people at the party might start crying and the Trump people might start celebrating and my daughter sees a whole house full of adults acting like children. Mean children.
“So I got her to make a sign that said, THIS PARTY IS A NO-POLITICS ZONE. THANK YOU. CARLY. I thought it was really important that it be in her handwriting, a reminder that there’s a child present, so act like an adult. And you know what? Everybody did. It was a nice three-hour break for everybody from talking about the election.”
So there’s your Thanksgiving solution: Use your kid (or borrow one from somebody else) to shame everybody into a semblance of human behavior. And after that, we can start figuring out Christmas, which, if early results are any indication, will be even worse. A shopping-mall Santa Claus in Sanford already got sent home to shovel reindeer dung after a mother complained that he told her daughter, “Do you know who’s on my naughty list? Hillary Clinton.”