At age fourteen, I was not a critical thinker. I liked to read and to write and got good grades in school, but I also believed that reading Harry Potter would turn me into a witch and that alcohol and cigarettes would send me to hell. Kissing boys you weren’t engaged to was taboo, bad words had to be blacked out in books, and the only fantasy novels worth reading were Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings, and these only because the magic in them was symbolic and the plots contained overt religious themes. I didn’t think much about politics, but the few opinions I did hold (that Hillary Clinton was evil and that Democrats couldn’t be Christians) came straight from my parents and grandparents.
It was with this mindset that I watched Barack Obama become the 44th president of the United States. That night as the results rolled in, I pulled out my prayer journal and wrote,
God — you work in mysterious ways. How is this going to work for good?
Oblivious to the historicity of the moment and the TV bright with images of jubilant African Americans, I went on to voice the concerns my parents held (the end of homeschooling, increased abortions, the legalization of gay marriage, etc.), and then ended by referring to Obama as “our newly elected and overly perverted president.”
To be clear, my parents never said the words, “Barack Obama is a pervert.” I reached that conclusion on my own after noting their body language and tone of voice whenever he came onscreen. To be even clearer, I don’t resent my parents for having political opinions, nor do I blame them for sheltering me. They were simply trying their best, and besides, there are worse things to do to your kid than make her feel scandalous for watching a PG-13 movie.
What I do resent is that I graduated high school afraid of opposing opinions. The same fear that convinced me not to read Harry Potter kept me from studying evolutionism, from hearing Obama’s speeches, and from exposing myself to anything that didn’t align with and reaffirm my beliefs. A stranger to the term “critical thinking,” I believed that exposure = infection and should be avoided at all costs.
This head-in-the-sand way of living led to a curious mix of conviction and impotence; I knew exactly what I believed but had no ability to explain it, much less defend myself against dissenting voices. Once I got to college, it didn’t take long for my certainty to crumble, and by the time I got a grip on things (re: met enough professors willing to listen while I dumped my confusion at their feet), my time there was almost up. Christmas had passed, my final semester had begun, and Donald Trump was running for president.
Like most people, I laughed when Trump announced his candidacy in June of 2015. “That’ll last three weeks,” I remarked to a coworker. But as the months passed and Trump stuck around, I grew more and more uneasy. Was this man really going to be on the ballot?
Though I’d long ago stopped believing that Democrats couldn’t be Christians, it took Trump to dispel my lingering belief that political affiliation was the most important factor in deciding who to vote for. Of course, agreeing with a candidate’s stance was important, but what if his behavior contradicted everything you believed? What then? Was that “R” or “D” after his name really more important than his character?
The more I asked this question, the more confused I became. I heard no end to the criticism of Clinton, but next to nothing about Trump’s divorces, mocking speeches, and boasts of sexual harassment. In fact, I heard more about how Hillary was to blame for Bill’s infidelities in the 90s than I did about the Access Hollywood tape in 2005. Political polarization was nothing new to me (I was painfully aware of it every time I sat down to dinner), but as each meltdown, Twitter rant, and shocking revelation was pardoned and explained away, I realized just how deep the divide — political and cognitive — had become.
It was amidst this storm of opinions that I turned to Barack Obama. Though I’d changed a lot in the seven years since his election, I still felt vaguely uncomfortable whenever he appeared onscreen; it didn’t matter what I believed about gay rights, abortion, or religious freedom — whenever his name came up, all the rage and rancor of the 2008 election flooded back to my brain. Eventually, I decided to change the narrative; I wanted to like Obama, or at least obtain a definitive answer as to why I shouldn’t. Policy wasn’t enough. The spin I’d grown up absorbing was cast in terms of character, not political positioning; my family genuinely believed that Barack Obama was a bad person, and I wanted to know why.
It took a few months to find my footing, but slowly, one tweet, YouTube video, and long-form article at a time, I unraveled fact from fiction. What I found surprised me. What I found was not the nasty, vindictive, dishonest politician I’d been conditioned to believe existed. Instead, what I discovered was a sincere and sedate man intent on serving his country.
So why the hateful rhetoric? I can only conceive one answer: it’s easy. My grandparents could talk all day about the evils of Hillary Clinton, but mention Trump’s fondness for grabbing pussy and they’d dismiss it as “locker room talk,” or better yet avoid it altogether by insisting that anything was better than four more years of Democratic corruption. The same held true for their views on Obama: it was easier to paint him as an awful man than to accept him as an honest, upstanding president whose political beliefs didn’t align with theirs.
A few days after the election, I wrote a letter to the White House. I wrote two, actually — one to the President and one to the First Lady, thanking them for their service. A few weeks later, I got a reply from Michelle Obama. When I opened it, I started shaking. I knew it was probably a form letter, but frankly, I didn’t care. All that mattered was that I had a letter — from Michelle Obama. I wanted to show somebody!
But my parents were Republicans.
A few days later, on Christmas, I worked up the courage to ask my dad if he’d seen my post on Facebook.
“About the letter?”
“Anyway. You wanna see it?”
“Sure,” he sighed. “It’ll just make my day to see a letter from Michelle Obama.”
That’s the kind of attitude I’m talking about. That’s the political polarization I wish didn’t exist — the blind loyalty to party that inhibits our ability to recognize good and bad people when they’re standing right in front of us.
I’m not blaming anyone for the outcome of this election. There’s been enough mudslinging in the past six months to last everyone a lifetime, and Lord knows I’ve participated. All I want to say is this: Barack Obama is a good person. Michelle Obama is a good person. They are both fantastic role models. Regardless our political differences, we should all at least be able to agree on that.
Today, we say goodbye to a wonderful man and hello to … well, Donald Trump. We have a lot of work to do, work that existed long before Trump was on the scene. Racism exists. Sexism exists. Homophobia and ableism and xenophobia exist, and I know it’s overwhelming, but guess what? The healing starts with us. Right here, right now. It starts when I hug my grandparents. It starts when we sit down to dinner. It starts with honest conversation in the face of opposing opinions.
And I know, listening is hard. It’s easier to hide behind presumptions and prejudice than it is to lower our shields and talk. But reconciliation is important — essential, even. So in these coming weeks and months, I hope we can step back from political parties and see each other for what we really are: people. Messy, passionate, complicated people just trying to live our lives.
Postscript: This was supposed to be a review of Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father, but my words carried me away. If you’re like me and are trying to cut out as much political propaganda as possible, I suggest you start with the source: read Obama’s memoir. Note the publish date — 1995, long before he announced his candidacy. This is not a book of rhetoric. This is not a book of campaign slogans. It’s simply a personal memoir, one man’s search for meaning as he navigates his world, and I think it will teach you a lot, if you let it.