People, Not Pundits

A woman tries to understand her mother's politics.

In this illustration a crowd of people, colored red, face away from the viewer, while a woman with a shaved head, colored blue, stands amid them with her arms spread, half-facing the viewer.

Sheila Laufer

The night Donald Trump was elected, I was sitting in a graduate writing workshop at Portland State University, fully expecting Hillary Clinton to become our first female president. Our professor streamed CNN live on a projection screen behind him so we could keep track of the election while carrying on with class. That soon proved impossible. As the results came in and state after state was called for Trump, a nervous energy started to permeate the room. Students started checking other news sources on their phones under the table, unable to believe what was happening. When we were dismissed around 8:00 p.m., I rode my bike home, convinced that by the time I got there Hillary would have garnered the needed votes to surge ahead and clinch the presidency once and for all. But as I passed clusters of people standing outside bars, hugging solemnly, seemingly frozen in grief, my nervousness escalated toward panic. When the results became official, I was dumbfounded. What does this mean? Is our country condoning blatant racism and sexual harassment? What behavior is acceptable from our leaders? I recalled the endless ways in which Trump mortified me: the pussy-grabbing, calling Mexicans rapists, mocking a reporter with a disability, not to mention his nonsensical, rambling answers to important questions. I was not only profoundly embarrassed by the choice so many Americans had made, but also disgusted. I felt powerless, afraid. Donald Trump is going to destroy the country, I thought. But while I was commiserating with my housemates, I knew my mom was celebrating.

Since high school, I’d been at political odds with Mom. She is a lifelong Republican, and I thought Republicans were the party of rich, white, selfish people who hated gays and wanted to destroy the planet. When I was a teenager, we fought constantly. I remember pleading with her once, to the point of tears: “Come on, Mom, who are you to say what a woman should do with her body if she becomes pregnant? What if she was raped?” She pressed her point, saying, “It doesn’t matter, Catherine, abortion is just wrong!” Her insistence that it was immoral, regardless of the circumstances, felt so cruel to me. Eventually it became unbearable, and I stormed out of the room, slamming the door after throwing my hands up in an I-can’t-talk-to-you fury. I longed to escape my comfortable, white, suburban upbringing and private Catholic schooling. By college, I considered myself an atheist, pro-choice, anti-capitalist, feminist progressive. I wasn’t a Democrat (they weren’t radical enough); I was an independent, a nebulous identity I claimed kept me “open-minded.”

In recent years, as I started to mend my relationship with my mother, I realized that I didn’t actually understand why she believed what she believed, because I’d never tried. What I could appreciate was her generosity. She gives money to charities and gives her time to people in need. Whatever our differences, I can see that she tries to live a life of integrity founded on kindness and love. So what appealed to her about Republican politics? Why did policies that seemed cruel to me appeal to my mother? I wanted a more nuanced understanding of our political differences and, more than anything, a way to talk about them.  

But shortly after the election, when Mom invited me to attend the Roanoke Conference, an annual gathering for Washington State conservatives held in the small beach town of Ocean Shores, I didn’t think I could stomach it. Not when all my friends were organizing, marching, resisting. It didn’t feel like the time to try to understand the other side. Mom thought I had been brainwashed by my liberal university education and daily dose of NPR, so to practice the open-mindedness that I preached, I finally agreed to join her. But three days before the conference I received a raspy-sounding voice mail from her: “I’ve been in bed for three days.” She had a mean flu. I’d already bought my registration and train ticket, so I was going. Alone.

By the time Trump’s executive order suspending the issuing of visas to people from seven Muslim-majority countries threw airports across the country into disarray, I’d been at the conference for twenty-four hours, and it was cocktail hour on Saturday night. I’d attended panels on homelessness, transportation, and education. I regretted not being able to talk to Mom about these topics, which had been the whole point of going. I milled about between sessions, acutely aware of how I might be perceived, reminding myself to smile lest I seem closed-off or hostile. I was the only woman with a shaved head and gauge earrings. As the attendees trickled into the main hall for dinner, filling the round tables as they chatted affably with one another, I wished Mom was there to help me navigate this unfamiliar world. I felt like a three-year-old longing to hide behind the folds of her mother’s skirt.

“Didn’t I see you at the hotel this morning?” said an older gentleman about my father’s age, also waiting in line for a drink. I did indeed recognize him. He was staying across the hall from me, and I’d seen him in the lobby during the continental breakfast. His name was Armen. We made small talk, and I explained that I was supposed to be there with my mom, but she was sick.

“Do you have anyone to sit with tonight?” he asked.

“No, I don’t.”

“Would you like to join us?”

“Thank you, that would be great.”

Armen is the son of an Armenian father and a French mother. He was raised in New York City and has an Einsteinian appearance—frazzled, curly, graying hair and thin spectacles. When I asked what he did for a living, he described himself to me as a “serial entrepreneur.” He’d cofounded a personal software start-up, been the owner and president of a real estate company, and worked as a mechanical engineer for Boeing, among other vocations. Many of these ventures he’d stumbled into “accidentally,” he said. He’d been a Democrat in college. It wasn’t until he became a business owner and experienced government regulation and taxation firsthand that he started to rethink his political leanings. Hearing him share his story, I realized he had a history, a life, not just a political party, and even that party affiliation was complicated.

Armen’s cohorts warmly welcomed me to the table and asked if I was involved in the Republican Party in Portland. I said I was an independent and explained that I had wanted to come with my mom because we often disagreed on politics and I wanted to get better at talking to her. “Oh, yes, we have to be able to talk to one another,” said a woman from Whidbey Island.

“How are we doing so far?” asked Jeanne, another woman at the table. “Do you think we’re nice?”

I said I’d been enjoying myself and was especially impressed with the panel on homelessness that morning. To my surprise, two of the four panelists were not Republicans and “outed” themselves as liberals. The conversation that ensued was thoughtful, thorough, respectful, and from my vantage point, productive. 

“I appreciated that there were so many different points of view and everyone was having a respectful conversation,” I told my tablemates, who, to my surprise, agreed. 

After the entrées were served, the evening program began and the keynote speaker was introduced: Jonah Goldberg, an author and senior editor at the National Review. I recognized his name. Several years earlier, Mom had given me a signed copy of his book The Tyranny of Clichés, in which he’d written: “To Catherine, give it a try!” I never read it. I knew next to nothing about him, so I was surprised when Goldberg made it clear at the outset that he had not been a Trump supporter—he didn’t think Trump was a real conservative. 

I’d been trying to figure out what exactly a “real” conservative was. During breaks in the conference, I’d go back to my hotel room and read about conservative ideology in Jerry Z. Muller’s Conservatism, a robust anthology I’d toted along and had been gradually picking through. According to Muller, people often confuse orthodoxy with true conservatism. The orthodox defense of institutions is based on the belief that they correspond with an absolute truth; the conservative defense shies away from that reasoning and instead points to the utilitarian value of the institutions. 

From Muller’s explanation I could see it was orthodoxy that frightened me about Republican politics. After all, who defines “absolute truth”? Plain conservatism, on the other hand—just the idea of conserving institutions that work—didn’t seem crazy. What “works” is often the center of disagreement, but at least it’s up for debate.

I listened to Goldberg, waiting for the twist, the moment when he’d say something to clearly differentiate my politics from his. I sensed a “but” coming. So I was surprised when, instead of suggesting conservatives seize their power as a chance to ramrod their own agenda, Goldberg suggested a different approach. 

Now was not the time to gloat, he said, but to be “happy warriors” and sell the idea of federalism: an equal division of power between the federal and regional governments. Liberals’ panic over Trump’s election had created the perfect moment to convince the left that Washington is not the answer to our problems, and that empowering local communities is. To me he seemed to be suggesting a rebalancing that would actually give liberals (and everyone else) more power, not less.

I felt like I’d found the foothold I’d been looking for: a potential avenue for compromise. I was one of those panicking about Trump. I was terrified of what the federal government could do under his authority. I had never heard of federalism (or more likely, I had, and had forgotten), but I was intrigued. Concentrating power locally seemed like an idea a lot of people I knew could agree with. For the first time since November, I was starting to feel slightly better, not because I’d found a way for my side to win, but because I was starting to imagine ways in which I could compromise, especially as I was beginning to get to know people similar to those I would be compromising with—people like Armen, people like Jeanne. I wished Mom was there to talk about it all with. 


“I would be the perfect liberal,” Jeanne said to me at breakfast the next morning. Jeanne looks like a youthful sixty-year-old with frosted, chin-length hair framing a round, impeccably made-up face. She told me she wasn’t always a Republican. Jeanne is from Philadelphia and was married to an abusive man in the Mafia before fleeing to Seattle alone with her three children.  

“He was the kind of man that would hold you by the hair and tell you how much he loved you,” she said, grabbing her own hair. “Please don’t love me so much!” she said, laughing off the past. Armen and I exchanged concerned glances, eyes wide. He had been friends with Jeanne for a while, but clearly this story was new to him too.

Jeanne had been on welfare and food stamps—she even admitted to having had an abortion—but eventually she became a realtor and then opened a string of dress shops. She had since retired from retail, but continued to invest in real estate. She’d done well. She recounted her story, riddled with hardships and then successes, testifying to what a person can do if she doesn’t succumb to a “victim mentality,” which she claimed Democrats encourage. She said she believed in helping people, but she wanted to do so independently, through her church. I thought of my mother’s generosity, which I had struggled so hard to reconcile with her political leanings. I could see that, like Jeanne, it wasn’t that Mom thought we shouldn’t help people, she just had a different means for doing so, one that she felt was personal, direct. 

As the conference wrapped up and people started shuffling out into a drizzly afternoon, Jeanne teased, “Have we converted you yet?” I laughed and thanked her for sharing so much of her personal story with me. I was far from considering registering with the GOP, and to say I was optimistic about bipartisan relations would be an overstatement, but my fear had relaxed, if only a notch. I felt better, the way you feel better after you stop procrastinating, finally do what you needed to do, and realize it wasn’t as bad as you’d imagined. For all my social and political anxiety, once I got over myself, there were just people on the other side, people with pasts, with feelings—and at least among those I met at the conference—people with good intentions, who were kind and reasonable. People who reminded me of Mom.

After attending the conference, I decided to broaden my menu of news sources and political perspectives. I started looking for more voices on the right that might give me an even more nuanced understanding of what conservatives are about, and I began to see them as potential collaborators with diverse perspectives that differ from what the pundits on FOX News spout. But perhaps the most significant effect of my experience at Roanoke was the way it changed my understanding of and interaction with Mom. 

During Obama’s presidency, my mother was scared. As she and my father were trying to retire, she became terrified of the unprecedented power she felt the Affordable Care Act would grant the government. I’d call home for a routine catch-up phone call, and her voice would shake as she told me, “Catherine, the government is taking away our power over our lives—we won’t have a say in our health care anymore. Obama is destroying this country.” At the time, I could not understand her fear. I thought she was overreacting. In some ways, I still do, but now that I’m in her position, afraid of the personal impact of a president’s power, I understand how real that fear is. It seems to me that no one should have to feel like that when their candidate loses.

While my mother and I still often diverge in our politics, the visceral response that used to take hold of me—my rising blood pressure, clenched jaw and throat, the fluttering frustration in my chest—has noticeably dissipated. I can see her as a person, not a political pundit. I can hear her without reacting immediately in anger, which means I can actually listen. I can assume she has the best of intentions while still disagreeing with her, and do so in a more measured, rational, and productive way. This has led not only to better conversations between us, but also more satisfying ones. We recently talked about abortion when I was home for a visit, and this time, it didn’t end with me shouting and leaving the room in anger and frustration. No doors slammed shut; we both had a chance to listen and be heard.  


Family, Identity, Politics


3 comments have been posted.

I am sure that they were all "nice" people but that doesn't negate the fact that they voted for a racist and misogynist. I don't care about state rights vs federal government. I care that my husband is in more danger now that he has ever been in his life because now white supremacists are "good people." I have known a lot of "nice" people who turned out to be racist and I don't care how nice they are to people they believe are the same as them. That doesn't make them nice. I had one Trump supporter tell me that Trump's racism was a "small problem". How do I talk to a person like that? I had another young white girl tell me that Blacks don't have any problems in this country! For me, racism is a deal breaker and anyone who voted for Trump is a racist.

Janet Warner | September 2018 | Oregon

Well written, Catherine, unlike the comment by Dan who uses mis-directed words, like "stolen"... by Trump when I would guess there are more than five hundred children each week who are separated from their parents by Social Services across the USA who are citizens (not from people coming across our borders at illegal crossings). Dan should want Kavenaugh to be the next Supreme Justice as he is for separating the three branches of Federal Gov't, (following the constitution directives) to placing political power back into the hands of the States and to local levels.

Dwight Visser | September 2018 |

Congratulations! I realize that you wrote this before current events have horrified America anew. The Kavenaugh nomination is frightening. 500 children are still stolen from their families by Trump. We’re all praying for November to MAGA by Taking Back Our Congress. And on and on. I hope you’ll update this after November. Xo

Dan Wasil | September 2018 | Portland

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