When He Says "Make America Great Again," She Hears "I Hate You"
The following is a fictional story, based on actual conversations I’ve been having in the past few weeks.
As a pastor, I’m often called upon to be with people in crisis. My primary role is to be a representative of Christ to them. I try to help people apply the Gospel to the specific situation that is confronting them. Sometimes, this means I do some marriage counseling.
Josh and Debra came to see me this week. They've been married for three years, and they came because they’ve been arguing quite a bit recently, and many of these arguments are centered around the presidential election.
Both Josh and Debra are Republicans, but Debra can’t stand Donald Trump. She voted for Hillary Clinton. Josh, on the other hand, got on board with Trump after Cruz dropped out. He never went to a rally, but he does own a certain red hat.
It took about 30 seconds after we said hello before the argument began. They both brought up specific policies. Debra asked Josh how he could support someone who wants to register Muslims. Josh asked Debra how she could support someone who was pro-choice. Things got heated fast; and, it became clear to me that there was more going on. So, I asked Debra a question.
“Debra,” I said, “can you tell me what you like personally about Hillary Clinton?” She looked away, thought for a moment, and began. “I like how strong she is. She had to work twice as hard as a man to get where she is. She has to do everything they can do, just backwards and in high heels. She has to be tough, and feminine, and strong, and caring, all at the same time.”
I turned to Josh, “can you tell me what you like personally about Donald Trump?” His voice changed, his volume dropped. “I like that he doesn’t take crap from anyone. He sees what needs to be done, and he does it. He really loves this country, and he wants to make it great again, for everyone. And I like how much he loves his family, he seems like a good dad.”
I looked at Debra. “Debra, when you think about the things you said about Hillary, do you want to be like that?” Without hesitation, she said “yes, of course.” She sat forward in her seat. “I think every woman wants to be like that, I think we have to be.”
I looked at Josh, “OK, man, same question, but about Trump. Do you want to be like that?”
“Oh, yeah, totally.”
“Are you like that?” I asked.
“Sometimes, I mean, I want to be, I’d like to be, but I know I’m not always,” he said.
I talked for a minute about this political season, how, from my perspective, most of the disagreements were less about policy and more about two specific people. Not much substantive talk about NAFTA or Obamacare. But lots of name-calling. They agreed with that assessment.
I turned to Debra again. “Debra, it sounds like there are some important ways you identify with Hillary.” She nodded. “When you hear Josh say something negative about her, does part of you hear him saying negative things about you?” She thought for a moment, her eyes widened. “Maybe.”
“Maybe?” I asked. Her eyes started to get misty, and she took a Kleenex.
I paused for a moment, looked at both of them, and then asked her “do you think it’s possible that Josh is identifying with Trump, somewhat, kind of like you’re identifying with her? Maybe when you say harsh things about Donald Trump, he hears you saying those things about him.” That’s when they took each other’s hands.
We talked quite a bit longer. In our conversation, I helped them to see something that may sound strange at first. When Josh was calling Hillary a “witch,” Debra was hearing him say, in part, “you’re a witch.” When Debra would say “I hate that racist jerk,” Josh was hearing her say “you’re a racist, and I hate you.”
Was that conscious? Of course not. Does Debra think that her beloved husband is a sexist and a racist? No, she doesn’t, mainly because he’s not one. Does Josh think that his wife a shrill, controlling, liar? No, of course not. But that’s what he was communicating.
This is the thing I keep running into. This election has been so brutal in large part because it has been so personal. If it were about policies, then we could strongly disagree. But, it wasn’t. It was about good and evil, about power, and hatred. It was about identity.
To many people, when you say “I hate Trump/Clinton,” they are hearing “I hate you.” And that is a serious problem to the continuation of relationships. Friendships have already ended over this election, Christians have left their churches, and families have had serious fights. I’m not speaking speculatively here. I have lost at least one dear friend, my church has lost at least one family, and I have had at least one shouting match with my own mother.
I’m not arguing for an equivalency between the candidates. I didn’t love either of them, and I wish we had had a different choice. However, I do think that only one of them is unqualified to be President. You may feel the same, whichever side you are on. But that is not my point. My point is this: we have to be careful about how we speak, so that we can be heard. And, we have to be able to separate ourselves from our preferred candidate, so that we can more objectively hear criticism about them.
If you are a Trump supporter, you might hear someone say that Trump is a racist. That doesn’t mean that this person is calling you a racist. You are not Trump.
If you are a Clinton supporter, and someone says that Clinton is corrupt, they aren’t calling you corrupt. You aren’t Clinton.
If you are a supporter of either candidate, be careful how you criticize. People are hearing more than what you are saying.
Now that we have a President-elect, this will become even more important. All of us should want Trump to do well, because that means our country will do well. If you care about America, you should pray for him and root for him.
Those who criticize President Trump must be able to do so in a way that doesn’t make 25% of the country think you hate them. Like any President, Trump will do things that should be criticized, and it is a civic duty to hold him accountable for his words and actions. And, my dear Trump-supporting friend, that does not mean the critics hate you. It just means they are doing what Americans have always done, and should always do: speak truth to power.
When you next argue with a loved one, consider these things. Speak carefully. Make it clear that you love that person on the “other side;” honor them, and respect them. Listen to one another, and disassociate yourself from political figures. You are not them, they are not you. I think that, if we do this, we’ll be able to have more civil conversations in a country that has grown pretty uncivil.