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My scary, awkward, hopeful conversation with my dad about why he voted for Trump

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My loving parents taught me how to speak, but they also taught me silence. I only know that my father voted for Trump because my mother — a Clinton supporter — asked on the evening of November 8, hours after they voted. They had not otherwise spoken about politics during the election season.

Nearly everyone I have spoken to has said that at least one of their family members voted for Trump too. Many weren’t even Trump supporters; they were “Never Hillarys.” But that means little now that Trump is president-elect.

Growing up in Miami, Florida, where my parents still live, I was happily surrounded by different languages and cultures and more diversity than most places in the United States possess; as a white woman, I was the minority. I learned to speak Spanish at the grocery store and local bakery and my friends’ houses. Trump represented a dismissal of many of those historically marginalized cultures I had grown to love and feel a part of.

I voted for Clinton because she seemed to represent equality for women and people of color, but more so because she did not represent the Islamophobic, homophobic, sexist, and racist thinking that Trump does. Almost everyone in the city of Boston, where I now teach and live, voted with this in mind too.

How was it possible that my own father voted for Trump?

I didn’t talk to my dad about Trump before the election

Nearly every day for the past year, I worried how my father, who had lived in South Carolina until his late 20s, would vote. Deep down, I knew the answer, but I naively maintained my optimism. I often scanned his Facebook page, hoping not to find Trump propaganda. Most of his posts seemed harmless, often about his alma mater and their upcoming football games. He is often silent about politics.

He never “likes” my Facebook posts about immigration or institutional racism or human rights. He only “likes” photos of me and posts about my personal achievements. Once, when he uncharacteristically shared an article about “illegal immigrants,” I commented and expressed my disagreement. He never commented back.

I was not surprised that my father had voted for someone who wanted to build a wall; I knew my father believed that immigrants must “do it the right way” and that they “need to assimilate into our society and help, not hurt, our country.”

But the United States is born of immigrants; my father is here because his ancestors fled Scotland in the 1700s — fled poverty, war, perhaps even sought asylum. Trump’s mother is a Scottish immigrant too, a fact he often ignores; his paternal grandparents are German immigrants who claimed they were Swedish in order to avoid conflict with Jewish friends and customers. And, of course, Trump is married to an immigrant.

How can we not remember our roots?

Can’t Trump voters see we are all human beings, some born into peace but so many into war? Can’t they see that white American citizens specifically live within a system that has handed them privilege for centuries, deluding them into believing they have done more than others to earn it? Can’t they see that this privilege is founded on years and years of slavery and oppression? That reaching out a hand to those who have been robbed in ways white American citizens never have is different from being taken advantage of?

I did not say any of this to my father before the election. Perhaps I feared that such questions would destroy our relationship. But does that mean I value one human life more than I do millions? What does that say about me?

After Trump won, we had our first true talk about politics — ever

A few days after the election, my father and I had the first true conversation we’ve ever had about politics. After Trump was elected, my frustration and anger was stronger than ever. I wanted to open some imaginary door at the back of everyone’s skulls, peer inside, and try to understand the engineering of their thoughts. A conversation with my dad — however belated — seemed like a first step at doing that. Still, my heart raced just thinking about talking to him. I was eager to hear his responses, but I was also eager to prove him wrong.

“I have to admit, I was scared to talk to you about this,” I said. “I know you probably weren’t, but I was.”

“No, no,” he said. “I was very nervous to talk about this with you too.”

Our shared emotion slowed my heartbeat, steadied my hands.

“This country gives everyone the opportunity to succeed,” my father said, “but to succeed, each individual has to take responsibility for their own destiny. Less excuses and more work is the answer to their success.”

“But not everyone is given equal opportunity yet,” I said. “No matter what the law claims to uphold.”

“I understand,” he said. “And I’d have to do more thinking and reading on that to properly respond.”

My hands shook again as I asked him if he ever reads my posts about political issues.

“I read them,” he said. “I sometimes feel uncomfortable, but I always respect your views and values, and I support your right to voice your opinions. Your views make me open up my thinking and consider the conditions that others have to deal with. You have challenged me to reconsider many philosophical issues.”

I was relieved that those articles had at least affected his thinking, but they clearly had not affected his actions.

“I’m hoping [Trump] will talk less and listen more”

When I asked him to explain his reasons for voting for Trump, my father said he thought Obama’s presidency “has taken our country to the brink of bankruptcy.” He said, “Something has to be done to bring back fiscal responsibility. We can’t just keep overspending and trying to make up for the reckless spending by increasing taxes. We need to bring manufacturing back to the United States from other countries. We need to give US businesses the breaks that are necessary to keep them here, rather than giving the breaks to foreign manufacturers. This will help our economy and provide jobs for our workers. I believe that Clinton would have continued Obama’s reckless spending and weak foreign policies and would have taken our country so far down that we might never have recovered.”

“I respect and share your desire to ensure economic stability,” I said.

“It’s not all about economics, though,” he said. “Obama’s problematic dealings with Israel and his endorsement of countries that have vowed to take down the US scare me most.”

“I understand the importance of those issues and, truly, I don’t know enough about Obama’s foreign policy to speak on it,” I said. “But more than anything, I cannot bring myself to prioritize those economic and international issues over the daily injustices and violence inflicted upon marginalized people and encouraged by Trump’s reckless rhetoric and thinking.”

“[Trump is] not a seasoned politician,” he said. “And he unfortunately says whatever is on his mind without thinking. I’m hoping he will talk less and listen more.”

I told my father that I hope Trump will do more listening too. But that Trump says what is on his mind and that what is on his mind are Islamophobic, homophobic, sexist, and racist ideas is the ultimate reason to not vote for Trump. His decisions will surely be affected by that thinking. And so will all of those marginalized people for whom we’ve only recently begun to establish equal rights and protection.

When I asked what my father thought of Trump’s bigoted remarks, he said, “Trump can be an idiot, but Hillary is truly dangerous. I believe Trump is smart enough to surround himself with highly qualified people who will advise him against such remarks. He has made some really stupid statements, which Hillary’s campaign has naturally made the most of. Hillary had a cast of thousands planning every word she has spoken and has spent a tremendous amount of money trying to overcome her shortcomings.”

He also said he believes Trump’s endorsements from groups like the Ku Klux Klan are disgusting.

“But believing this disgusting does nothing to stop the violence they undoubtedly encourage,” I said. “Believing Clinton more dangerous than Trump, who has provoked sexual predators and bigots of all kinds, suggests a blindness — whether willful or not — we cannot ignore.”

“I pray that none of those marginalized people are endangered,” my dad said. “Truly, I hope that Trump can make the pendulum swing back again from where it currently stands on the left. I hope we can find a middle ground, not swing too far right again and into a place where human rights are at risk. I really do.”

“I know,” I said. “But I don’t think that’s a risk that anyone should be willing to take.”

“I always thought we were the greatest country on Earth, and I still do”

My father turned 70 last year. I wished him a happy birthday on the phone and later on his Facebook page, where I found another rare message he had shared, this one from a veterans group: “Never Forget. In Memory, 1959 to 1975, 58,479 brothers and sisters who never returned from Vietnam War.”

I can’t imagine what it’s like for my father to live with the memories of his time as a medic in Vietnam, but I’ve tried. He has always been present and loving, but he rarely discusses sensitive issues. It seemed like he’d been hoarding his thoughts and feelings for so many years that when I wondered about his concealed memories, I imagined them buried alive inside his head, tapping on the corners of his skull with tiny pickaxes, inmates trying to excavate their way out.

Because we had never talked about it, I assumed that he had tuned out Vietnam, or perhaps put that film on pause. I always thought part of him remembered — couldn’t not remember — and that he needed that pain to have been for something. If he could justify his grief, memories of grenades blowing off his buddies’ limbs and shrapnel shooting up his own legs, by continuing to “protect” this country — keep “illegals” out; keep Americans and their money and their land “safe” — then perhaps his trauma wouldn’t have been for nothing.

But when I asked my father about this after the election, he refused my theory.

“My experience in Vietnam didn’t change my views of America. I always thought we were the greatest country on Earth, and I still do,” he said. “I have always loved my country. I’m sure this is due to my family’s values and the values of the community where I grew up. I’ve never been given a reason not to love the United States of America.”

That might be the most important part of his response: Like most white, heterosexual, cisgender men, he has never been oppressed by his country.

When I mentioned this, I sensed our conversation was veering into rocky terrain. We were silent for a moment. I didn’t press. I didn’t think my father would talk to me about politics for the first time while also deeply considering his privilege. But it’s a conversation we still must have.

I think Trump votes are the result of pain — but they’ve also created deep pain

Although my father claimed that Vietnam did not influence his vote, I still believe that everyone who voted for Trump likely has that something, that painful reason that compelled them to vote for him, that makes them need this country and its xenophobia in order to excuse a different pain. Protect America to make fallen soldiers matter. Protect America to make my mother’s job loss matter. Protect America to protect the excuse for killing more people — by continuing war, or by ignoring human rights issues.

But these responses to pain — these Trump votes — have inflicted a new pain. For many of us, we are mourning as we would a national tragedy.

At the end of our conversation, my father said, “The older I get, the more I realize I don’t know. More than ever before, I work now to really understand what is behind the actions of people. The one thing I will never be able to accept is negativity.”

Perhaps I, too, had not been thinking enough about what I don’t know. Believing that the majority of our country had been thinking the way most of Boston had been was naive. After my conversation with my father, I realized that my own bubble might have prevented me from understanding other parts of the country, just as their bubbles might have stopped them from understanding me. I still strongly disagree with my father and Trump voters, but our conversation revealed, among many implicit biases, the danger of these so-called “coastal” and “rural” bubbles and the power and necessity of open dialogue. Sometimes those dialogues are hardest when they include the ones we love, but not engaging in them is a problematic exercise of privilege.

This conversation with my dad seems to signal a true willingness to listen, but how old must we be to truly understand each other? How old must we be to remedy mistrust of politicians and economic insecurity and scary foreign policies without electing a president like Trump?

Caitlin McGill is a 2016 St. Botolph Emerging Artist Award winner and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference scholarship recipient. She was also the 2014 winner of the Rafael Torch Nonfiction Literary Award. Her essays and flash fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Blackbird, Crab Orchard Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Short, Fast, & Deadly, The Southeast Review, and several other magazines. Currently, she is working on a memoir in essays in which she journeys to uncover her family’s hidden past. Throughout this pilgrimage to exhume her identity, she grapples with the cost of ignoring our pastsof ignoring history itself. One essay from her book was named a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2016. Her website is caitlinmcgill.com.


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