Parenting in the Shadow of Trump

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during a rally at Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 10.

Dominkick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images

Hey, Daddy! is a monthly column exploring the joys and struggles of parenting from a gay father’s perspective. Got a topic idea or question for Daddy? Send your letter along to johnculhane19104@gmail.com.

I’ve known for some time that this month’s column would have to be about parenting during this election season—and about trying to decide how much to talk about politics with my just-turned-12-year-old twins. Originally, I’d anticipated that politics would mean the candidates’ positions on various issues. But that was before it became clear this campaign would be largely issue-starved.

Once, I had this idea I’d write about the awful things Trump had said about major groups of people—women, Mexicans, Muslims, black Americans, refugees—and how his speeches weren’t even suitable for children. But the Clinton campaign made that point for me, running ads showing horrified kids, sprawled out on some of our nation’s finest carpets, listening to his bluster. More recently, Trump’s attacks on women and their looks spawned an even more upsetting Clinton ad depicting girls absorbing this sick, slanderous stew.

Those now seem like the good old days. Lately, I’ve been completely tongue-tied when trying to think of anything I might want to say to the kids about the Trump endgame. Then I saw this:

And there it is. The apotheosis of the anger, the violence, and the vitriol that will be the tragic legacy of this horrifying campaign season. If any two images can carry the full freight of the culture war Trump has set ablaze, it’s this pair. The Confederate battle flag isn’t just for racists any more. Now it also signals an angry male identity that lashes out at urban, millennial, educated elites. And who better to represent that bundle of despised stuff than the rainbow flag? All of those people might as well be gay. We know they’re alien. Trump’s mostly left LGBTQ people alone, but it hardly matters. The angriest partisans on the right are fully engaged, and they’re not picky about the specific targets.

What could I possibly tell my kids about all this—an election in which much of the national sentiment can be summed up in one figure kicking another in the gut? We let them watch the second debate with us and two other couples. I looked on in despair as the six children—all girls, ages 11–16—had to witness the dark sludge oozing through the screen. I conveniently remembered it was a school night and shooed our kids to bed about halfway through.

They didn’t ask questions about any of it the next day, and I was grateful for that. I’ve been trying to pry something out of them (and from their friends) about what they think of the election; mostly, they’re mum. But on Sunday, driving with a couple of their friends back from their birthday party weekend, one of my daughters asked if we’d move to Canada if Trump won. Apparently, this possibility gets discussed at school. I found myself saying “maybe”—and, for the first time, almost meaning it.

The truth is, this isn’t going to end with Trump, whether or not he wins. The dogs of war have been slipped, and the violence will rise up on both sides. Already in North Carolina—lately ground zero in the culture war—a GOP headquarters was firebombed by unknown, angry activists. A graffito on a nearby building demanded that “Nazi Republicans Leave Town Or Else.” The retaliatory ugliness is predictable, scary, and not easy to tamp down once unchained.

And there’s already a new Confederate versus Rainbow image: This one shows the tables turned, with the Rainbow Avenger kicking the Confederate Creep right in that same, sensitive spot. This is what we’ve come to, three weeks before what is sure to be a dismal Election Day, even when Hillary Clinton wins. And then we’ll have to hold our breath to see if Trump will slink away to sell more of his crappy products, or whether he’ll carry out his threat to question the results. A woman at a Mike Pence rally threatened a revolution if the election were stolen by voter fraud, a boogeyman that Trump has been wildly ginning up lately. Another Trump supporter suggested a “coup,” and said that Hillary Clinton “should be in prison or shot.”

I’ve been giving some thought about how to introduce these deeper concerns about divisiveness and outright violence with the kids. In a way, it’ll be simpler than engaging in political discussions on more nuanced topics, like climate change or the president’s role in the make-up of the Supreme Court.

But getting them to understand how divided and how angry our political leaders and the broader society have become is a big part of any conversation about the underlying issues these days. It’s not enough to understand that climate change is real, and what’s likely to happen—they also need to know how sclerotic and obstructionist Congress has become. (“Sclerotic” will also be a useful vocabulary-builder.) And the indefensible refusal to consider Supreme Court nominees has to be part of any conversation about why the Court’s membership matters so much. (Even 12-year-olds know that eight is a bad number for a court; when I asked what they thought of a nine-member court minus one, they said: “But what if there’s a tie?”)

The harder thing to explain is the why of all this divisiveness. How can I connect the dots for them from these points: congressional obstructionism; Trump’s success in using a racist, xenophobic attack on the president’s citizenship to launch his vile political career; and the explosive hatred that’s gotten almost impossible to avoid?

Honestly, I don’t know. Explanations having to do with how politicos have exploited the anxiety of uneducated white voters who see their economic and social position eroding can only take me so far. In the end, it will be about trying to cultivate empathy, and hoping that they’ll come to understand the anger without excusing it. In Philadelphia, one way to do has been to talk honestly of the many homeless people we regularly encounter, and how they might have been brought to this place. And it’s past time to get them involved in actually doing stuff to make a difference.

Bumper stickers rarely spawn civil discourse. Maybe the small consolation of this rock-bottom election season will be to remind us of the human toll of all this hatred, and to help us show kids a different way.