Which is why, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, American University professor Lara Schwartz stood before a small gathering of people who showed up to the great hall of the National United Methodist Church in Northwest Washington for a public event titled “How to Attain Harmony Over the Holidays,” and she told them to forget everything they’ve absorbed about why it’s best not to talk about it, because frosty silence isn’t necessarily the answer.
“I love Thanksgiving as a metaphor for the ‘comfort food ideas’ about what’s broken in our discourse,” she said. “We fall back on these ideas when we’re upset and, 9 times out of 10, they aren’t good for us. One of those ideas is: We should never let politics get in the way of family. Another is: We’ll all be better off if we just set things aside.”
A couple of dozen people — mostly older, mostly white — showed up at the church to listen to Schwartz, presumably, because Americans have not been terrific at communicating with Americans of opposing political views in the years since President Trump was elected. But over the course of the two-hour event about how to talk about political division, Trump’s name would not be spoken aloud once.
How are we supposed to talk to family on the far side of the political divide without yelling? In theory, we’ve had some time to figure it out.
Daniel Fyffe, 27, says the past three Thanksgivings with his family in rural Ohio have “cooled down a tad each time” since 2016, when Fyffe attended dinner as the only devastated Democrat in the group — and so was the lone voice of protest when his aunt and uncle launched a fervent chant of “Lock her up!” before dessert was served.
Others have found the best way to “cool down” is to opt out entirely. Last year, Megan Tschanz Haefele, 31, of Athens, Ga., a Christian feminist and sexual assault survivor, was so distraught over the fallout with her in-laws following Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings that she and her husband canceled their flights for the planned holiday gathering: “We didn’t feel welcome anymore,” she says.
The fourth Thanksgiving of the Trump era is upon us, and where are we now? Have we gotten better at figuring out how to talk and not talk about what’s happening in the country?
Anonymous, the unnamed former senior Trump administration official who authored “A Warning,” apparently hopes so. In a Reddit AMA Tuesday, the unnamed author tossed out a few icebreakers for people to consider at their holiday gatherings: “Ask each other, what is at the source of the discord? How do we emerge from this era not divided but unified? What can we each do to better understand the other side and debate with dignity, not malice?”
Meanwhile, at a Tuesday night rally in Florida, Trump himself was busy stoking a new and factually baseless grievance for families to squabble over. “You know, some people want to change the name Thanksgiving,” he said, offering no details about the origins of the bizarre claim before reassuring his supporters: “We’re not changing it.”
Set aside, for a moment, its dark and dubious origins; Thanksgiving is supposed to be sacrosanct. We volunteer on Thanksgiving. We run 5K races for charity on Thanksgiving. We admire enormous parading balloons, for some reason, on Thanksgiving. Above all, we are thankful for one another on Thanksgiving.
Except when we’re not. Politics has always been there, the enormous elephant balloon in the room, threatening to disturb the culturally prescribed peace and fellowship by popping all of a sudden.
For plenty of families, Trump’s election stretched the skin of that balloon even tighter than usual. M. Keith Chen, a professor of economics at the University of California at Los Angeles, calls this “The Thanksgiving Effect.” After he endured a contentious family holiday in 2016, Chen says, he and Ryne Rohla, a doctoral student at Washington State University, decided to use the holiday “as a lens to try and understand the degree to which political polarization was degrading close family ties.”
In a study published last year in Science magazine, Chen and Rohla found that celebratory gatherings appeared to be cut short in cases where people — based on how their own home precincts tended to vote — traveled to events hosted in geographic areas that generally voted differently.
What that pattern truly means isn’t entirely clear. Did guests leave because they were uncomfortable? Did a host kick them out? If there was a confrontation, who started it? The following year, Chen notes, “a lot of the effect seemed to dissipate, which we thought was really hopeful.”
Or maybe it just meant that people weren’t talking about politics at all. On Wednesday, an Economist-YouGov poll found that 46 percent of Americans would try to avoid conversations about politics at Thanksgiving; just 8 percent said they would try to start political conversations. Stifling political arguments around the Thanksgiving table might be a relief, but could also mean surrendering to a stalemate. “Some of the conversations that are most likely to get you to examine the political beliefs and views of the other side are close family members who hold opposing beliefs,” Chen says. “So if those are the conversations that are getting most curtailed, we think of that as incredibly damaging.”
Chen says they’ll be watching Americans again this year, to see where we go, where we stay, how soon we leave. “But what we’re really focusing on now, in a somewhat terrified fashion,” he says, “is preparing to examine what happens next Thanksgiving.”
First, though, we have to get through this one.
Fyffe is headed back to the town where he was raised in Ohio, where he expects to be met with right-wing relatives who are feeling especially defensive about the impeachment inquiry and the looming election. But Fyffe is ready to talk.
“I’m not going to let this deter me from seeing my family — in fact, the opposite,” he says. “Because they’re my family, it’s my job to hold them accountable for these beliefs that they have, and it’s my job to make them see the light of how harmful their beliefs are.”