In 2016, I watched from Ontario as it became clear that Donald Trump would win the U.S. election. The dismay I felt was made worse knowing that very soon, my Canadian husband-to-be would come face to face with some of Trump’s most fervent supporters a few weeks later.
We drove down to North Carolina to celebrate American Thanksgiving with my parents. It would be my fiancé’s first time meeting extended family. I was an American citizen and a Democrat, and warned him that we’d be the only non-Republicans in attendance. The mood was cordial until he politely asked those gathered why they supported the then-president elect.
The response was immediate, heated and had nothing to do with Trump’s policy or vision for America’s future. They questioned former U.S. president Barack Obama’s legitimacy and repeated Trump’s birther claims. Before then, my husband had never heard the N-word thrown around in casual conversation. It was a taste of the racism, nativism and xenophobia that characterize Trumpism.
When he responded in kind about Canada’s admiration for Obama, another guest wordlessly unholstered his handgun and placed it on the table. That pretty much wrapped up the evening.
All I could do was put my head down on the table and wait for it to be over, much like I had most my life.
For liberal Americans living abroad, like me, the past four years have been a special kind of torture.
I grew up in Allegany County, Md., a conservative-leaning part of Appalachia that Trump recently won by a factor of two to one. As a child in the 1970s, I was raised to be mistrustful of anyone who wasn’t politically conservative.
Attending university in rural Virginia opened up my world. At 18, I found lifelong friends who were inclusive and accepting of all races, faiths and sexual orientations. Throughout the ’80s I became more progressive, an outlier in my family, openly challenging them on matters of racism and becoming the first to vote in support of progressive politics. Eventually, my sister became my ally after switching parties in 2004.
In 2014, I was 42. Part mid-life crisis, part escaping a do-nothing response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, and part divorce, I took a leap of faith. I packed up my car and moved to Ontario. Little did I know that it was the best decision I would ever make. Finally, I found a more humane and sane existence. I found the love of my life, got married and became a Canadian citizen in 2019.
Meanwhile in America, years went by as Trump left chaos and uncertainty in his wake. He separated and caged migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, tear gassed peaceful protestors for a photo op and encouraged police brutality.
My anxiety over Trump’s abuses compounded on social media, where I put up with pro-Trump posts to keep in touch with family and friends. The breaking point for me came when I heard Trump describe white supremacists chanting “you will not replace us” during their march through Charlottesville, Va. as “very fine people.”
Sharing my criticisms online led to a Trump-supporting family member telling me to “shut up and fall in line like all the other women in the family.” I did neither, and blocked family members from my accounts. Needless to say, interactions with my folks became shorter and significantly less frequent.
It simply drove the wedge further into our family rifts, and I fear any chances of finding common ground died that day.
For liberal Americans living abroad, like me, the past four years have been a special kind of torture. Seeing progressive friends march in Washington and in their small towns, I wished I could do something more impactful than vote from abroad. But there’s no better way to get the full picture of your country than living outside of it.
After a year of Black Lives Matter protests, the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest — and emboldened by pre-election polls that claimed a Joe Biden advantage — I felt hope for the first time that things could change.
On the eve of the 2020 election, I spoke out publicly about what it was like living in a family of Trump supporters. As I shared how their views led to us losing some of the close family relationships we once shared, I felt absolutely heartsick imagining their reactions. But I knew it was important, and pressed on.
From the online response, I was far from alone. People told me how Trumpism had fractured their relationships, and others described how their own families had split along partisan lines. Some of my family members who found the interview called me a hypocrite, telling me that I had conflated their political ideology with flat-out racism. It simply drove the wedge further into our family rifts, and I fear any chances of finding common ground died that day.
With president-elect Joe Biden’s recent election victory, the question is: where do we go from here?
While I’ve felt overwhelmed with relief, my family’s reaction has been subdued and resigned. I know they will suffer through the next four years. And like many, my family will likely cling to the hope of a Trump campaign in 2024.
The fact is, Trumpism is not necessarily tied to a single candidate, and Trump’s loss won’t change who my family is. There are elements of their ideology that disregard the core values of human morality, amplifying America’s worst populist impulses, and transcend mere politics. Trumpism is not going anywhere.
But there are some things that give me hope for America. For one, the monumental accomplishment of Kamala Harris, elected our first female vice president, and also the first Black and first South Asian to hold the office. Biden may face immense challenges ahead, especially if the Republican Party maintains control of the U.S. Senate, but he seems fully committed to healing the divisions laid bare in the election.
How does my family — or any other divided family in America — move forward? It starts with all of us, everyone, looking in the mirror and finding some common ground. Admitting we are all flawed and all hold some prejudices, and once and for all dealing with it. We have to start talking about this division. It won’t be easy, but the alternative is being collectively mired in the uncertainty and grief I feel every time I think of the loved ones I have no hope of seeing again.
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