This Thanksgiving, It’s Time to Take On Your Conservative Relatives

This Thanksgiving, It’s Time to Take On Your Conservative Relatives

This Thanksgiving, It’s Time to Take On Your Conservative Relatives

Contrary to popular opinion, the holidays are not a time to “navigate” your uncle’s bigoted MAGA jokes. They’re the time to confront him.


Every holiday season, there is a flood of articles, features, and puff pieces telling you how to have a “safe” holiday dinner with your family. You know, one that avoids hot-button political disagreements like, “So are we going to impeach the criminal president or nah?” This year, CNN made an entire flowchart to help people “navigate” politics over Thanksgiving.

How weak. How pathetic. We stand on the precipice of losing our American character to the forces of authoritarianism and bigotry. For many people, this holiday season will be the last face-to-face encounter with family members before the most consequential election of our lifetimes. And yet, many people are desperate to pass the potatoes without starting any uncomfortable conversations.

The holidays are when your resistance is needed. Some of you have the opportunity to talk to Trump voters and assorted conservatives this weekend. Some of you will have the opportunity to talk to people who live in an echo chamber of Fox News commentary and Russian troll farms. To waste that opportunity because of your own hang-ups and Mommy or Daddy issues is criminal.

You might not like conflict, but if you choose to break bread with Trump supporters and climate change deniers because you happen to be related to them, then conflict is required. Anything less is appeasement, and we’ve had far too much of that these past few years. So stiffen your spine, rehearse your talking points, and get ready to fry some turkeys in your family with your righteousness.

Other people will tell you how to avoid fights. I’m going to tell you how to get into them.

1. Be an Ambassador of Truth

The key difference between a Trump supporter and the rest of us is one of facts: We believe in them, the Trumpers don’t. The phone call was not “perfect.” It’s not harder for a white man to get ahead in this country. Black Lives Matter is not a terrorist organization.

You can’t be expected to know the details of every whack-a-doodle conspiracy theory your family has heard from state-run media in this country. But you can be expected to distinguish things that are true from things that are false.

Do not let falsehoods lie unchallenged. If you hear something that is clearly false, say, “That’s not true.” If you hear something that sounds false but you’re not sure how, pull out your phone and Google it. The truth is out there, and it’s not hard to find if you have any ability to distinguish between credible news sources and Alex Jones.

Battling misinformation is critical work. No argument can be “won” against a person who refuses to operate within the bounds of factual reality. Republicans win because they are able to functionally silo people in their own homogeneous communities, with their own biased news sources. Long before you can change these people’s minds, you have to get them to acknowledge a world that exists beyond their own television.

Tell the truth. Call out lies. That’s your job over the holidays.

2. Call Bigotry and Misogyny by Their Name

Trump supporters do not like to be called “racist.” They have no problem actually being racist or supporting the policies of racism and white supremacy, but they dislike being called what they are.

And, generally speaking, family members of racists dislike calling their family members racist. They’d rather make excuses for racist thoughts and actions to shield themselves from the reality that they were raised by people who are racist.

The same is true with misogynists and homophobes. It’s entirely obvious that somebody is being sexist when they call one presidential candidate “hectoring” while another “tough,” but calling a family member out for their sexism feels like an escalation of conflict.

This coddling of bigots and sexists is unhelpful. It doesn’t make them more amenable or open to changing their minds. It just makes them think that their views, as offensive and retrograde as they might be, are still within the bounds of polite society and acceptable small talk. People will make disparaging remarks about disadvantaged groups when nobody from that group is in the room because they think it’s safe to talk “honestly.”

Do not let them feel safe. Do not let them feel comfortable. Do not let them feel like their biases are simply honest talk. If you think of yourself as an ally to members of other communities, then we need you to speak up at precisely those moments when nobody from that community is around. Your racist uncle isn’t inviting me over for dinner to share his debunked theories about the work ethics of the various races—and if he did invite me over, he’d have the good sense to chew with his mouth closed while I was around. It is on you, the ally, to be that voice in defense of a pluralistic society in rooms and at tables the rest of us don’t have access to.

Call out bigotry. Call out sexism. Let these people see that it’s not just black pundits or righteous feminists on television who can call bigotry and misogyny by their names. Your family is not going to read James Baldwin, so you have to do what you can in his stead.

3. Nonpolitical Topics Are Also Political

People tend to compartmentalize political conversations from everything else. They’ll be ready for a fight when politics or religion comes up, but issues of general culture are thought to be safe topics.

They’re not. Trumpism takes advantage of every retrograde aspect of our culture. If you are stuck in the past, Trump or some other conservative is there to tell you that you never need to change.

Take a traditional Thanksgiving Day football game. This may seem like safe, nonpolitical ground—so long as everybody agrees to not talk about Colin Kaepernick. But it won’t take long for Trump supporters in your family to say something racist, sexist, or plain nutty while watching the game. They’ll say a white athlete is just a “hard worker” while praising a black athlete’s “natural gifts.” They’ll champion a slur against Native Americans, masquerading as a nickname, on a holiday that commemorates the prelude to a continental genocide. They’ll make fun of the “egghead statisticians,” which will sound like they’re making a comment on football strategy, but actually they’re making an attack on science and math that will later fuel their climate change denier sensibilities. Or maybe they’ll just sit like lumps on the couch while women: prepare dinner, set the table, take care of the kids, clean up after dinner, serve dessert, and fetch them a beer.

In those moments, I think of the children. I think of the behavior that is being modeled for them. I think of the cultural messages they are learning as they’re being exposed to these “traditional” structures. Maybe it is too late for your Trump-supporting father to learn to be a better person, but it’s not too late for your children. They need to be told that Granddad is wrong, even if Granddad himself can’t figure it out.

Fight against these average, everyday examples of retrograde conservatism and let your kids see you fighting. Let your kids see you being good allies, and they will do better at standing up for what is right on their playgrounds and classrooms.

The smallest political unit is the family. Your activism among the people who know you and love you is the most effective. Fight. Welcome the opportunity for conflict. You are unlikely to change the worldview of any Trump supporter you are related to. But if you can debunk one conspiracy theory, if you can set one good example for a young niece or nephew, you can make more of a difference than all the hashtags you retweet over the rest of the year.

Happy Thanksgiving. As President Barack Obama says: We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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