Photo Credit: William C. Donahue
We grew up in a family of six kids, and he is the one closest to me–in age, and in other ways, too. As I write this, he looks out at me from his official high school Senior photograph that hangs on my study wall. It is one of the mementos I rescued from our family house when, about a decade ago, our dad got cancer and left us with a chaos of accumulated junk and memories.
It fell to my brother and me to sort out Dad’s affairs. Suddenly, after years of living separate grown-up lives—he in Michigan, I wherever my academic appointments would take me—we were thrown together again to work side-by-side to clean up the house my father had neglected for years, and to get it ready for sale.
It was so much worse than we’d expected. My brother started in the basement, where we discovered dissolving asbestos tiles and cracks in the foundation. I started upstairs in my father’s “office,” a bedroom crammed with boxes of useless papers: cancelled checks and bank statements from the 1970s, mostly from accounts that had been closed for years. Rather than part with any of this, our dad simply moved on, declaring the next bedroom his new office.
The tile roof leaked, the basement flooded, and the entire garage was leaning so far out of true that it became impossible even to close the door. As he always does, my brother approached the situation methodically, while I tossed junk at a rate that made him feel uneasy, worried that I might be discarding potentially precious items.
It didn’t always go well, to be honest. But we got the job done.
As a kid, my brother could fix anything: lamps, record players, radios. It was never clear where this strange talent sprang from. I’d find him alone in his room tinkering, inventing, rigging up a new speaker system that he created from mere spare parts. He always had a toolbox ready at hand, chock-full of random things whose purpose was not always immediately clear, at least not to me. No surprise, then, that he became an accomplished robotics electrician, a guy who programs, installs, and repairs automated assembly lines at all of Detroit’s remaining car manufacturers. After work, he volunteers at a local high school, teaching electronics and coaching the local robotics competition. The kids love him. And so do I.
When we were teenagers we ran up quite a tab of sibling rivalry–comparing our achievements, our possessions, our bodies. There were times we each claimed to be ahead of the other, and perhaps secretly we still do. He taught me how to water-ski, and when I was out of work one summer after college, he offered me a job. I set aside my pride, and went to work for my little brother. We clashed now and again, but deep down we shared common goals: to find our way in the world despite two parents who were just not very good at helping us do that, and an ambition finally to step into our futures–which were to be very, very different.
I was the best man at my brother’s wedding, and am the godfather to one of his children.
So how did brothers who were once so close end up on opposite sides of the great American political divide?
We see each other at weddings and funerals, we call on birthdays and holidays. We are cordial. But we, who once stood together shoulder to shoulder facing death (or so it seemed to us then) can now somehow manage only small talk. He is part of the 42% of American voters who have remained loyal to Trump throughout his chaotic and ruinous presidency. And he will do so again, in a swing-state that matters in the upcoming election.
Unlike my brother, I became an academic, a professor of literature and film and of European studies. I’ve studied and taught at some of America’s top institutions. It is a long way from home, in so many ways, and a handicap in speaking to my Trump-smitten brother. Though born and raised in the Midwest, I have—in his eyes—become one of the so-called East Coast elites, someone who has lost touch with the common people. I’ve become the enemy.
And the warning signs were there, even before Trump was elected. On Christmas, midway through the first Obama administration, I parked our Toyota in front of his house, located in a white Detroit suburb, and I was scolded for my failure to buy American, which he claimed contributed to US unemployment. I didn’t hesitate to return the favor, holding forth on the global nature of supply and assembly chains in the automobile industry.
Yes, I guess I lectured.
Ultimately it was not a debate on the economy, of course, but something far more personal. I had gone all cerebral while my brother had wanted to connect over the issue of mass unemployment—then still rather high in his working-class neighborhood. Pink slips were the sole result of free trade, he insisted, and had nothing to do with his own job—robotics. We both made it personal—my foreign car, his job in automation—and it did not end well. After too much yelling and too many tears, we called a truce.
When I left, I checked out the other cars on the street. He was right. Not one was a foreign make.
We haven’t had a single conversation of this kind since then, although he does reach out on holidays and birthdays, and to talk about sports. Like many families, we now consciously steer clear of politics. To common friends and other siblings, we speak our minds; with each other we keep the peace by keeping mum.
This is no doubt a failure. One of the alleged lessons from the 2016 election, according to a number of liberal pundits, is that we on the left need to listen better to the Trump voters in order to learn to appreciate their sense of injury, grievance, and displeasure.
I wonder if those who peddle this advice actually practice what they preach—in their own families, with their own Trump-loyal siblings?
Are they really willing to risk everything? To give up what little relationship they might still lay claim to? Do they trust themselves not to erupt in anger or tears?
I’ve failed more times than my brother will ever know. I’ve written letters I’ve never mailed, long-winded missives expatiating on the importance of science, the misplaced Republican-stoked fear of big government, and our most exigent challenge, racism. But when I re-read them, all I see in myself is the insufferable bastard, the self-righteous know-it-all he already thinks I am. And frankly, I have little to add that is original. Everything I’ve written has been said by others better. And it is there for anyone to see.
But he doesn’t want to. Trump famously attracts single issue voters (the stock market, abortion, guns), who hang their hat on a few things they see as essential. Everything else fades into the background, collateral damage to what my brother might call the President’s “rough edges.” Because we don’t see eye to eye on these alleged fundamentals, I can’t find any common ground with my own brother.
The pundits are wrong. It is not true that listening to the pro-Trump malcontents will lead to healing. What grievance still needs to be aired after four years of Trump Republicans dominating the federal government? That is a very naive claim that holds out no hope for our family. And I’ve got news for any fellow liberals still planning a listening tour among hard-core Trumpers: what you see as generous listening they see as arrogant condescension.
Sometimes people write about political discord in families as if it were mere grist for a TV sitcom. Well-known political couples on opposite sides—like Kellyanne and George Conway now, or Mary Matalin and James Carville during the Clinton presidency—are typically objects of amusement (“I wonder what dinner conversation is like at their house!”) rather than serious consideration. Comics love material about those “hilarious” relatives who let loose with riotous bigotry after a drink or two. Sometimes it takes a sentimental turn: commentators conjuring politically divergent families coming together over the proverbial Thanksgiving table, overcoming differences and finding common ground, a maudlin if temporary kind of reconciliation. What a wonderful fantasy.
The truth, however, is usually a lot darker and frankly not very entertaining.
After months of isolation because of the coronavirus, I’m frankly emotionally raw, on edge about the prospect of Trump being re-elected, especially as he pushes hard on the “law and order” narrative that is gaining traction in part because of the very violence he is spawning.
In Michigan, where my brother and I grew up, right-wing groups brandishing nooses, Confederate flags, and automatic rifles entered the state Capitol to protest Governor Whitmer’s stay-at-home order. Some of them—fully armed, without face masks, and standing shoulder-to-shoulder—occupied the Senate gallery, prompting some lawmakers to wear bullet-proof vests in the chamber below.
Now, with the Supreme Court shifting to a solid 6-3 conservative majority, we face the imminent reversal of Roe v. Wade, and the possible overturning of Obamacare. With the pandemic still raging out of control and no credible federal plan in place to confront it, it is a great relief to at least be able to turn to our families for comfort and solace, right?
I wish. Because to experience the dissolution of my own extended family on top of all that is going on in this country is frankly overwhelming. It is a painful estrangement that needs to be acknowledged and seriously mourned–not trivialized.
I look across the room at that Senior photo on my wall and see a handsome, blond eighteen-year-old, just on the verge of manhood, sporting a modest mustache, with a closed-lipped smile to hide his imperfect teeth. Then he was my kid brother, and my friend.
I want to be his friend again, despite Trump, or maybe after Trump. But I don’t yet know how. And he doesn’t either.
For many families this is a gathering storm that will not abate on November 3, no matter what happens. Whatever happens on November 3, we will not be celebrating together. The abyss in our families will only widen, the resentments deepen.
For my Trump-voting brother and me, American politics has become painfully personal, with no end in sight.
William C. Donahue holds a Ph.D. in German Literature from Harvard and is a scholar of contemporary German literature and film. The author of “Holocaust as Fiction: Bernhard Schlink’s ‘Nazi’ Novels and Their Films” and “The End of Modernism: Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé,” he is a concurrent professor of Film, Television, and Theatre. He also served as chair of Notre Dame’s Department of German and Russian Languages and Literatures.