Updated at 6:45 p.m. ET on November 1, 2020.
There was a hint of his Trumpism in our very first conversation. In August 2019, Reg responded via email to our online ad seeking a baby to adopt, and a few hours later he and I were on the phone. His pregnant 20-year-old niece had recently left home after a period of family strife and come to live with him. He wanted to help her get her life together, by providing room and board while she got a job and maybe an education. The first step toward those goals, both he and his niece felt, would be finding a family to adopt the baby, who would arrive in less than two months.
During that first call, Reg mentioned that he owned a small construction company in New England, where he lived. He groused about how hard it was to find good employees. When I asked whether the crackdowns on immigration and rise in deportations had caused this problem, he reflexively replied: “No, we just have a country where people don’t believe in working hard.”
That’s not enough to deduce someone’s political affiliation, of course—and what did it matter? Reg was enthusiastic about connecting us, a gay couple in Michigan, with his niece Jasmine, and we spent the next several weeks getting to know Jasmine over text and Facetime. (I’m referring to Reg and Jasmine by their first names to protect their privacy and that of our son.) Later, when we realized what a hard-core Donald Trump fan he was, we asked Reg why he’d picked us. After all, Trump, his vice president, and many Republican officials still oppose same-sex marriage and believe that governments and businesses should be allowed to deny goods and services to LGBTQ people. But Reg said he’d never had an issue with gay people. Plus, a line from our adoption profile had stood out to him as something that could help persuade Jasmine, who was struggling with the decision: “Since we’re two guys, our child will have two dads but never another mother.”
In late September, I took a day trip to meet Reg and Jasmine, so we could sniff each other out in person. My mission was to reassure Jasmine that we were committed to the baby and to remaining in touch after the birth via photos and updates, plus potentially in-person meetings someday, if and when we felt that was appropriate—as is common in modern open adoptions.
Reg’s home is a shrine to Donald Trump. You know the red Make America Great Again hats of the 2016 election? Well, those are for amateurs. Reg had a rack of some 15 or 20 different Trump hats—some in hunter’s camouflage, some star-spangled. His collection of pro-Trump artifacts was unlike anything I’d ever encountered, and I covered three Trump rallies in Michigan in 2016. On the fridge was a piece of paper that read, “Build That Wall.”
Were there not a baby at stake, I might have run. My husband and I had been trying to become fathers for several years, but our losses during the Great Recession made it financially impossible for some time. When we finally got going, we found the adoption market to be quite challenging for not-wealthy male couples in their mid-40s. Then, in 2018, we did have a baby—I even cut the cord in the delivery room—but he died a few hours after birth.
We were close to giving up when Reg emailed us that pivotal morning. Having spent countless hours interacting with several pregnant women considering adoption only to have our hopes dashed repeatedly, I sensed something genuine about Jasmine and Reg that told me this was our best shot.
So I bit my tongue and focused on the goal. My objections to Trump aren’t exactly ideological, anyway; I would be repulsed by any political figure as dishonest, crude, cruel, and corrupt as he is. Like many Americans, my personal views are a muddle: I’ve voted for members of both parties; agree with pieces of each side’s platforms; and wish they could find more middle ground in the interest of the public, rather than holding firm to the extremes that help them maintain power.
At some point Jasmine mentioned that she, too, “liked” Trump, but it was a milquetoast endorsement that seemed to merely echo the views of the people around her. As my relationship with Jasmine blossomed into one of mutual admiration and trust, I saw no value in risking our connection over Trump. She didn’t seem to have much interest in the subject, and I felt that was just as well. We giggled about Reg’s Trump-mania in an affectionate “Oh, that’s just Reg” way, as if we were bemused by, say, a Deadhead who always wears tie-dye. I chose not to turn our pleasant but nervous interactions into a Lincoln-Douglas debate.
Jasmine and I bonded over other things, mostly our hopes for a steadier, better life for the baby and for her. She and I both have significant and similar hearing loss, but the hearing aids she had were garbage. So I worked out a way for her to get state-of-the-art ones through a foundation.
Reg and I avoided all but the broadest discussions of politics. Much later on, he told me that he’d assumed my husband and I were politically liberal given our sexuality and profession—we’re both journalists— but that it didn’t matter to him. He saw how much Jasmine liked us and hoped that would deter her from choosing to keep the baby.
In October, Reg sat with me in a hospital waiting area as Jasmine gave birth. We talked about how profound this moment was for us and reiterated our hope that Jasmine would follow through with the adoption. She had agreed to it, but there was always a chance that she would change her mind once the baby was born. All the while, I tried really hard to ignore the fact that he was wearing a TRUMP 2020 hat.
The baby came and we did adopt him. But my nerves about a political conversation with Reg only mildly thawed. After the birth, we saw Reg and Jasmine a few times as we cared for our son in an Airbnb in their town while the process that legally gave him to us and allowed us to return with him to Michigan took its course. But again, we avoided much real discussion of Trump beyond good-naturedly teasing Reg about his MAGA wardrobe.
The only political argument we had in person came one afternoon a week after the birth when Reg was ranting about that old conservative gripe, the alleged failure of people to take personal responsibility. “Everybody in America has an equal chance to succeed,” he said. “I don’t buy any of this ‘Oh, I had a hard life’ bullshit. This is why this is the greatest country on the face of the Earth.”
I finally pushed back. Jasmine, I noted, certainly did not have the same chances that I’d had. I was born wealthy on Long Island; when my hearing loss emerged at age 6, I saw the best audiologists, obtained the most sophisticated technology money could buy, and had all the speech and mental-health therapy I needed. Jasmine? At 21, she has a completely unnecessary speech impediment that is a product not of her hearing loss—which isn’t any worse than mine—but of a lack of good hearing aids and proper therapies. “The only difference between Jasmine and me,” I told Reg, “is that I was born into privilege and she wasn’t. ”
I’m pretty sure Reg tuned out when I said the word privilege. And around that point in the discussion my husband arrived, saving us from a deeper, more dangerous debate, and changed the subject.
This is not an encouraging story about how a Trumper and someone appalled by the president came to a meeting of the minds. Rather, our political selves seemed to split off into an alternate dimension from our personal relationship. After my husband and I returned home to Michigan, Reg and I remained in touch over text, where I sent cute photos and gave updates on how our son was doing, and on Facebook—where things became uncomfortable.
To be blunt, Reg’s Facebook page scares the hell out of me. It is a daily barrage of cruel memes and political cheap shots, posts calling Biden voters stupid or calling the media the enemy. Things he shares are often based on distortions and misinformation. I’ve seen his posts slapped by Facebook with notices that they might contain “false information” and links to credible resources that explain why the claims are false or misleading. Despite that, Reg continues to post, say, that there’s a high incidence of fraud in mail-in voting, which is not true, and that COVID-19 has a 99 percent survival rate, which is misleading. (The WHO reports the median infection fatality rate of the coronavirus is less than 1 percent, but U.S. figures put the fatality rate of people who test positive closer to 2.5 percent.)*
I like the version of our relationship in which we share the joy and pride of what we accomplished together, for the baby and for Jasmine. What I can’t bear is the alternative online reality that Reg inhabits. Both versions of Reg are real—the one tolerant enough to see that we are worthy of raising his great-nephew, and the one who seriously thinks people who hold our views are “unhinged.” How, I wonder, can Reg share posts that say these things when he knows my husband and me, when he knows that we love our country and are bona fide capitalists? Maybe he thinks we’re exceptions? We’re not.
There doesn’t seem to be any way to bridge that gap. Even former President Barack Obama doesn’t know how. In a recent podcast interview, he said: “This is not just a progressive-versus-right-wing issue. This is really a genuine American-society issue. How do we reestablish some baselines of truth that at least the vast majority of people can agree to? … I do think that that’s going to be a big challenge that we all have, and I’m very concerned about that.”
So am I. How do we reconcile these differences when we’re too afraid—with good reason—to talk about them directly? For now, I’ve decided there is no way. Recently on Facebook, Reg and I got in an argument over the false claim that there are widespread security issues with mail-in ballots. I felt the discussion turning ugly, so I cut it off by writing, “That is amazing. The amount of disinformation you happily repeat is wild. We cannot have these conversations. It’s not healthy.” To which Reg replied, “Ditto.”
Like many people in this polarized era, my husband and I have lost friends and stopped talking to family members after vicious disputes over comments that we found bigoted or anti-factual. To allow that to happen in Reg’s case, though, would be a tragic epilogue to the most important event of our lives, the creation of our family. And we won’t change each other’s minds, so why bother fighting?
Our son turned 1 last month. Adoptive parents spend a lot of time wondering how and when we’ll tell our children their origin story, and how they’ll take it. In our case, though, there’s extra tension. If our boy had remained in his family of origin, he likely would have been raised to see the world and his place in it much differently. And he probably would have been taught that Donald Trump was a misunderstood, badly treated martyr for truth and freedom.
Someday, he’ll know about his road not taken. My hope for him is simple: that by then, Reg and I will be able to agree that we all lost our minds there for a while. But I fear that even then, we won’t be able to talk about what happened during the Trump years, lest in doing so we prove that we never truly regained our sanity.
* This article has been updated to clarify why claims that the coronavirus has a 99 percent survival rate are misleading.