Reconciling Political Beliefs and Friendships

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

Is it possible to stay true to one's values and remain friends with someone who supports a leader that is in conflict with those values? This is a question that many Americans are asking themselves. Since President Donald Trump took office, an already politically torn country ripped even further, and family members and friends found themselves conflicted.

This happened for a couple of reasons. First of all, Donald Trump seemed to intentionally create chaos and encourage partisan conflict on a daily basis. From his tweets, to his rallies, to some of his aggressive and controversial policies, Trump appeared to constantly further the divide between the parties. If he was not intentionally dividing the country, it is hard to deny that he at least contributed to that affect. The second reason has to do with how this behavior was perceived by different people, especially when it had racial undertones.

Because some of Trump's policies, such as his zero-tolerance policy for example, targeted certain racial and ethnic groups, and because his rhetoric concerning these groups was so unapologetically insensitive, such as when he spoke of Mexican immigration as an infestation, many saw no other explanation other than that he was a racist. If he was not a racist, in their view, his words and actions certainly were.

Many others, however, saw an unconventional outsider with a overbearing personality, a cavalier on a course to expose the corruption in Washington and put America first, even if he offended some people along the way. These supporters were willing to accept his less desirable qualities for what they saw as the good of the nation. He was not discriminating against migrants from Latin America, he was defending our borders. He was not discriminating against people of color, he was condemning criminal and unpatriotic behavior. They saw him not as a racist, but as honest to a fault. Then of course there were those who supported Trump for his economic policies or his Supreme Court appointments, just as there were detractors who saw him as interfering with progressive goals.

I am concentrating on the issue of race because it has been a constant theme throughout Trump's presidency, and what I would call the biggest barrier to bipartisan cordiality. Both sides were affected by the race issue. Trump supporters accused the detractors of playing the race card, of reverse racism, of Anti-American sentiment, and of playing the victim. Detractors were branded as overly sensitive, as infringing on freedom of speech, and of condoning criminal behavior in support of Black Lives Matter.

For detractors it was much simpler. They saw Trump supporters as apologists for a racist. Others did some math and decided that an apologist is the same thing as a racist. Regardless, what is important to understand here is not only whether any of these accusations from either side are true, but that this is how people felt.

One side felt falsely accused of racism, and that was offensive to them. They argued that it was more important what Trump did as opposed to what he said, even if these things were in conflict. The other side felt racially discriminated against by President Trump and Trump supporters, and they were hurt by it. Trump detractors took Trump's words seriously and felt that they were dangerous for enciting racism in others.

Whether or not these things are true, and I believe that they are, is not the only consideration. If people felt this way, and that is one hell of a way to feel in one’s own country, then there should have ideally been a recognition and validation of those feelings, especially from close friends and family, instead of a flat denial. The emphatic denial by Trump supporters that any hint of racism existed had the appearance of dismissing the way people felt and reinforced a perceived disregard for other people's pain. If half of the country felt that Trump was acting in a racist manner, then it deserved some thought and consideration in the least, and one would hope for some compassion.

But what about compassion for Trump supporters? My original question was if it was possible to reconcile one's values and a friendship with someone who is seemingly in conflict with those values. There is not one answer to this question, but we can first look at what prevents both sides from showing compassion and validating the way in which the other side feels. It seems that for Trump supporters to validate the detractors' feelings, they feel they have to ‘betray’ their party. But, in order for Trump detractors to show compassion for a supporter, they feel they have to betray their values. That is how both sides percieve it, regardless of whether it is true or not. Both are burdensome, but I would argue that betraying one's values is the greater of the two.

Meeting this burden is the position I have found myself in for the past four years. Because I am married to a person of color, because I am very progressive on social issues and because I strongly condemn racism, I have been very conflicted about how to find one ounce of understanding or forgiveness for Trump supporters. Then something happened to me last night that made me take yet another look at all of this, and made the issue even more complex for me. I was forced to confront my own binary opinion of Trump supporters, and accept that there may be a gray area.

I read a Facebook post of an old friend that suggested that democrats used the Corona Virus as a political weapon against the Trump administration. Instead of making a compelling argument for why I think that is not true, I went on the attack with sarcasm, passive aggressivness, and outright aggression. I found myself attacking the character of a person that I had not spoken to in over 10 years all because I made some huge assumptions based on little to no information about how my friend felt. I saw a right leaning post, and then I thought, “He must be a Trump supporter,” (which he may or may not be, I don’t know). Then my subconscious mind took the next step, “He must be an extreme Trump supporter, a crazy right-wing nut, a Q-anon conspiracy theorist…. a racist."

I don’t know if it was a conscious thought, but my association between Trump followers and racism had grown so strong, that I was not allowing people to have an opinion about the Corona Virus without faulting them for everything that is wrong with the Republican Party. Then something happened. I snapped out of my anger by something familiar but long forgotten: someone who disagreed with me, my friend whom I was attacking, offered me an olive branch. He nicely and selflessly told me that we could disagree on an issue and still be friends.

I was shocked back into reality. I realized that my friend was only expressing feelings regarding one issue, and I had taken that and ran with it to an extreme. It took me a moment to gather myself. I quickly erased the comment I was about to send. After digesting it, there was only one thing for me to do: I genuinly apologized to him. I owed it to him because I don't know how he feels. I just think I know.

I have to tell you, it felt great. It felt a lot better than I had felt all night arguing with this person. Imagine that. In making amends with my friend, I did not do something that I once believed I would have to do. I did not betray my values. It turns out that people may be more complex than I give them credit for.

I may never fully understand how anyone can support President Trump. I just don’t get it. But what I do get is giving people a chance. It is the decent thing to do, even if that person gravitates towards values that may be in conflict with your own. After all, being indecent is exactly what I condemn in Donald Trump. And, being decent means not prejudging people and assuming things about them based on little to no information. I do not even know if my friend belongs to a political party, or if he is an independent thinker. I read one post, on one issue, and created an entire personality profile for him.

Still, I have zero tolerance for racism. And because I feel that our president is a racist, I have zero tolerance for President Trump. However, his supporters are not him. They are at least not responsible for his words and actions, and some of them have a variety of views concerning the president. They are, however, responsible for their vote, and that is why I waver and have not been fully relieved of this burden.

But, at least I am trying. It is a daily battle between my intellect and my heart. My intellect asks me, "At what point is a person complicit for another's actions? Is misinformation an excuse for one's negative actions? Are Trump supporters victims of misinformation? If so, do they deserve my compassion?"

My heart is a lot simpler. Some would say it bleeds. It is the type of heart that conservatives often criticize as a function of stupidity. Maybe, in some cases, they are right. But what about this case? Am I stupid for following my heart?

Obviously, I have still not fully reconciled how to accept close friends and family who support Trump and remain totally true to myself. That is okay. I know one thing for a fact: in that moment of realization and apology, I was at peace. That can change, but that moment will be no less real. And, the step that I took yesterday was that I was reminded that I am not perfect, and I should therefore not hold others to that standard. I am a human being who makes mistakes just like everyone else, and it would be shortsighted to judge other people's behavior without keeping that in mind. I do not know everything about someone based on that person’s political beliefs. I can do better, even though there is not an easy answer.

Before my friend and I went our separate ways online, he told me that he was going to support President Biden no matter what because he supports all US presidents. I thought to myself as I smiled, “Okay man. Stop while you’re ahead. Now you're just showing off."

by Josh Gane

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