by Rachel Howard
The morning the networks call Pennsylvania for Biden, the morning Americans in Atlanta and Detroit and Philadelphia and San Francisco dance in the streets, I take prosecco to my neighbours and drink mimosas on their porch. Then I come home and see a comment from my priest on Twitter: I still can’t get over the President complimenting people marching and chanting “The Jews will not replace us!” And 70m people still voted for him. Give me some time to process….
It’s habit now: Once or twice a day, I check for tweets from my priest. He’s in Oakland, I’m in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Because my local Episcopal congregation told me the words “social justice” were “too divisive,” I now worship, through my computer, at a church 140 miles away, where talk of “social justice” is a normal part of nearly every sermon. You could chalk this distance worship up to the pandemic reconfiguring all our relationships, but in the U.S., I think, this reconfiguring really began on November 4th 2016, when Americans woke up to a president-elect who spoke relentlessly of invaders and outsiders and “traitors” and “patriots.” On that day, Americans began in earnest to scrutinise the people we met at our workplaces, our children’s schools, our grocery stores. On guard for the telltale signs. Calculating which people were our people.
Some people, you already knew. My grandfather’s wife, for instance. Weeks before the 2016 election, she’d posted a photo of my grandfather in a red hat, his blonde-grey hair combed over his forehead: Benny jumped on the Trump Train!
I wrote to her after the inauguration. I appealed to her as a fellow Christian, though I knew she believed her Catholicism to be the one true faith and mine to be heresy. She had voted to save the unborn babies. What could you say in the face of that? I wrote to her that I was praying for our country. That I was concerned to see an avowed white supremacist named chief White House advisor. That I worried about non-Christian, non-white people being harassed and vilified. That I worried about my daughter’s future as a person of Mexican-American descent.
My grandfather’s wife wrote to me more about innocent unborn babies.
I stopped writing to her.
My grandfather’s wife matters to me primarily because she is the gatekeeper to a relationship with my grandfather. I’ve never been that close to him, though as my dead father’s only child, I have very much wanted to preserve that family tie. Still, it’s been fairly easy, after the 2016 election, to defer the real reckoning to later — to simply skip the Christmas dinner, to say sorry, we can’t take the risk and RSVP regrets when my father’s side of the family held a large wedding for my cousin during the pandemic.
The people I actually reckon with are physically closer. My in-laws’ neighbour, for instance. She lives ten minutes away. So many conversations, between me and my husband, about what we should or shouldn’t say to her. About whether to use her pool. With my in-laws’ neighbour, as with my grandfather’s wife, we already knew. We’d already heard her talk, at family dinners, about how the real problem was “Black-on-black crime,” shaking her head with pity. The day after the 2016 election, she asked me brightly how I was doing, and I said, “Not well – the election.” She said, “Well, just think if it had gone the other way.”
This past summer, I told my husband I was no longer comfortable using her pool. A few weeks later he said that he had learned, through his parents, that she wasn’t going to vote for Trump this time; something the president said had finally gone “too far.” So we used her pool. And then the week of the election my husband gave me an update. She got worried about Antifa and “communism”; she changed her mind back.
Then there are the people who are far away but you can’t afford to lose. My brother.
We haven’t always been close, but I love and admire him; severing our connection would be a real crisis. Four months ago, although very concerned about catching coronavirus, I met him at the vacation house he’d rented for his family, his wife’s sister’s family, and his mother- and father-in-law. As I dipped my feet into the edge of the pool, reminding my daughter to stay six feet from her splashing cousins, my brother’s father-in-law lay in a lounge chair sucking Otter Pops, shouting at my brother’s wife afloat on a plastic raft. “You’re a fool to want universal healthcare!” he heckled. Didn’t she want low taxes? A strong economy? Did she think we could take in everyone from Mexico? “You’re really a Republican, you just don’t know it,” he called.
I couldn’t smile. I declined an Otter Pop. My family and I left.
But I wasn’t distraught, because I already knew that my brother did not agree with his father-in-law; I knew that my brother was one of our people. He teaches world history, he recognises fascism when he sees it. We’d already had long phone calls, all through the past four years, about our disappointment that a whole political party would fall in line behind a president who governed like a mafia boss.
And so, this past week, as we waited for the count updates from Arizona, from Nevada, from Georgia, I texted my brother near-constantly. There was comfort in knowing that he was not part of the 70 million. That my brother was one of the sane ones. That our family would hold.
But I was texting my mother, too, and she was not texting back.
My mother did not vote for Trump in 2016. She was sympathetic, this past summer, to the Black Lives Matter protests. She agreed, all through the past year, that Trump was a reckless liar. But she also told me I was overreacting, that he’d be just like Nixon, that none of this was a big deal.
And when I called about the impeachment vote, and then about Amy Coney Barrett’s supreme court nomination, my mother started saying some interesting things. That the Democrats were dishonest, too. That they were “aggressive.” “Out to get people.” “Being rude.”
These talking points carried the verbatim whiff of Fox News.
My stepfather, my mother’s husband, watches Fox News. He also watches One America News, which he once touted to me as the “independent, unbiased” network. Fox News called the election for Biden last week, but One America did not. As I write this, a main headline on its website, linking to a video interview, reads: Giuliani breaks down evidence that could secure election for President Trump.
In the weeks running up to the Biden-Trump election, my mother told me she didn’t know which way my stepfather was voting. On Thursday of election week, the day Trump gave a speech claiming, “If you count the legal votes, I easily win,” I emailed my mother and my stepfather a link to the Washington Post’s fact-check. Neither replied.
Then, that happy Saturday morning, within minutes of the networks calling the election for Biden, an email appeared. My stepfather wrote that our past policy of not discussing politics within the family had worked well for us and we should stick to that. He added that we should all expect to learn a lot about voter fraud.
I couldn’t finish my breakfast.
Every week of the pandemic, I’ve met online with friends from the Oakland piano bar that somehow, in my thirties, became my second home — my second religious congregation, if you will. With the bar shut down, we gather not around the piano, but in our separate little video boxes. And yet, nine months into this pandemic, we are closer than ever. We don’t just sing each other songs and spout off tasteless sex jokes on Zoom; we call and text each other through the week, we know each other’s needs and griefs.
There’s a Trump supporter among us. Before the pandemic, back in the bar, Bob (as I’ll call him) used to taunt me about the impeachment hearings, used to call the Democrats’ chief impeachment prosecutor “Shifty Schiff.” I yelled at Bob in that dark bar, beneath the dusty rafters stapled with business cards. I stopped just short of “fuck off.” I said, “This is not funny.”
Everyone in our group knows that Bob supported Trump. And all year, I wondered when Bob’s support for Trump would become a problem; I waited for the rift. After George Floyd’s death, after Trump used the military to disperse peaceful protesters so he could pose with a Bible in front of a church, one of the members of our group — let’s call her Veronica — posted on Facebook that she was unfriending anyone who supported Trump. But in our piano bar meet-ups, somehow, “Uncle Bob,” as Veronica calls him, got a pass.
In the days since Biden won, Bob has “liked” our photos of the president-elect and the vice-president-elect on Facebook. The day after the race was called, he cheered with us.
I find it easy to forget, now, that I don’t know which way Bob voted. I don’t know whether my ease with this is right or wrong.
We piano bar friends are people of many races and orientations and ages. We are, we like to tell each other, “the best people.”
About my stepfather: Years ago, shortly after meeting, he and I had a heated argument about him flying the Confederate flag. I didn’t understand “the heritage,” he said. So I am not altogether shocked that, though he is family, he is not one of our people.
But some people — some people, I wouldn’t have known.
There’s a woman in my life, a woman I’ve loved since I was four years old. When I was in elementary school, she raised me like her own child. When my father died, she became my idea of an angel. She gives everything to others, to a point of fault — to a point of making herself susceptible to abusive men. She works a regular job and worships every Sunday at a non-denominational, self-proclaimed “Bible-based” church. She is the least selfish person I know.
About a year ago, she began sharing memes on Facebook. Some of them had to do with protecting “family values.” Others “corrected” accounts of Civil War history by pointing out that Black people enslaved each other in Africa. When I asked what was the point of her sharing this take on the Civil War, we somehow ended up talking about single mothers and how their bad parenting ruins communities and creates crime. I suggested she should be careful about trading in racist stereotypes. She wrote to me, “I don’t think I mean what you think I mean.”
I told her I love her.
The memes kept coming.
I didn’t want to fight with her, so I unfriended her.
She was one of the “best people.”
This is how, although Joe Biden won the election, 70 million Americans — more than in 2016 — voted in 2020 for Trump.
I check Twitter now. Nothing new from my priest. Still processing, perhaps. I see that the attorney general has authorised the Department of Justice to investigate election fraud. I see that the Secretary of State has proclaimed that “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”
This is the America Trump has left us. If he leaves.
About the Author:
Rachel Howard is the author of a novel, The Risk of Us, and a memoir about her father’s unsolved murder, The Lost Night. Her short fiction and nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Waxwing, Zyzzyva, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other venues. She also writes dance criticism for the Fjord Review and the San Francisco Chronicle. She lives in Nevada City, California.
Image from Bart Everson, Empty Pool, 2018 (2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))