- The Washington Times
Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The self-described “last Republican on the Upper West Side” will join family for Thanksgiving dinner and arrive fully armored.

“Well, I hope to have a good time,” Suzanne Pederson said of the annual family celebration, “but I probably won’t.”

This will be the nation’s fourth Thanksgiving since Donald Trump was elected president and the first since the Democrats’ perpetually simmering effort to impeach him fanned into flame. That development has some professionals cautioning that even a perfectly cooked turkey and stuffing can be ruined by a political fight at the table.

Knowing few Manhattan lairs are welcome to President Trump’s supporters, Ms. Pederson said, she has no intention of mentioning the president’s name or policies, but as a guest of devout Democrats, she expects political topics to arise anyway.

“The thing I hate the most is being baited and falling for it,” she said. “When they sidle up and say, ‘Help me understand what appeals to you about him,’ when you know you’re on the Upper West Side and they’re not listening to a word I say.”

The retired public relations executive said she isn’t sure “if I should put duct tape or Scotch tape over my mouth before I go to these parties.”

Political discussions are always a dinner table minefield, and avoiding them has been a staple of the holiday advice business for decades. But observers said they now see a more pronounced, venomous side that could prove more injurious to families down the road.

“Some have said they’ve lost friends and don’t like family members over this president,” said John Osterlind, a libertarian radio show host in New Orleans. “I say if that’s the case, those weren’t really friends and you already had a problem with those family members.”

“What I have seen dealing with Trump is an intrusion of politics into the therapeutic space that I’ve never seen before because people are so depressed, and Trump’s election was such a triggering event for my clients in particular,” said Lisa Litt, a professor at the New School for Social Research and a New York City psychologist, most of whose patients are women and many of whom have been victims of sexual assault or harassment.

“But more often than not, people are trying to avoid such conversations because they are so upsetting,” Ms. Litt said.

That is probably the best advice for anyone looking to avoid a holiday row, particularly one that could have familial repercussions. Better Angels, an organization and website devoted to mending political fences, is offering “Depolarizing Thanksgiving” advice, with versions designed for those who “lean left” or “lean right.”

Much of its advice is sensible for any situation, let alone a holiday get-together, and the authors make it clear that fights don’t start when all parties agree not to throw the first punch.

“If you can just sort of announce at the beginning, ‘I was hoping we’re not going to go there’ or ‘I don’t think this is the time to get into it,’ you can often avoid a fight altogether,” said Bill Doherty, a professor at the University of Minnesota and the director of its Marriage and Family Therapy Program.

“The key is to neither combat nor defend in your remarks,” he said.

That has become problematic in the era of Trump because his detractors are so enraged and his defenders feel so besieged.

“There’s this tremendous agitation among Trump opponents, who see him as some ‘existential threat,’ and consequently the social filters now are just thinner or fewer when it comes to anti-Trump types,” Mr. Doherty said. “The problems arise most often if you have a ‘gladiator’ in the family, someone who is determined to tell everyone why they are wrong and, let’s face it, that’s often Trump-related.”

Mr. Doherty said researchers have found families “boycotting” Thanksgiving rather than confronting friends and family with different political views. Data compiled last year from cellphone locations showed a reduction in holiday travel.

Not everyone is convinced that Americans have crossed a conversational Rubicon when it comes to politics and Thanksgiving. Lizzie Post, co-president of the Emily Post Institute and great-great-granddaughter of the manners prophet, said she was encouraged during an NPR call-in show when many people expressed a desire to have an enlightening rather than infuriating political discussion.

Given that desire, it is more important to know how to handle rather than dodge the political hot potatoes.

“You have to make clear it isn’t a personal judgment on someone else,” Ms. Post said. “In my mind, that’s not us, and it isn’t anything my etiquette suggests we should do.”

Of course, not everyone wants a calm holiday. In 2008, candidate Barack Obama urged his supporters to “argue with them, get in their face,” and in 2017, after Mr. Trump took office, Gentlemen’s Quarterly told readers to toss aside manners.

“It’s your civic duty to ruin Thanksgiving by bringing up Trump,” the magazine declared in a warm holiday piece. “This Turkey Day, consider making life HELL for a few of your relatives.”

All of this has led to what Mr. Doherty labels “affected polarization,” meaning there is an emotional portion, a tribal pull, that wasn’t as noticeable before the Trump presidency.

He said he and his father argued over the Vietnam War and other topics, but those never threatened to tear the family apart.

“That was issues; this has become emotional,” Mr. Doherty said. “People are saying, ‘I can’t emotionally handle this,’ and that’s something unprecedented in our modern history.”

Ms. Pederson has noticed the same thing as winter’s winds come off the Hudson River and a chill settles over the Upper West Side.

“We once had JFK or Nixon, and those were completely different sides, but it wasn’t like this,” she said. “The hatred now is just unbelievable.”

In her case, she joked, an easy out has presented itself.

“With Obama, it was OK. Then it would be like, ‘Oh, look, a Republican, isn’t that cute,’ and you were sort of an oddity that could amuse people,” Ms. Pederson said. “Now I’m just not invited anywhere anymore.”

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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