American political discourse was not exactly harmonious five years ago, but over the course of Donald Trump’s presidency, it corroded even further. What’s called the national conversation is really just millions of people communicating with each other, and if you could tune out all the yelling, you might be able to detect some of the silences that have arisen when two people stopped talking entirely.
One of those silences formed between Mary Ann Luna and a dear friend of hers from her federal-government job. By the time their relationship ended, after disagreements about Trump and the severity of the pandemic, Luna, a 74-year-old who lives in Gilbert, Arizona, and her friend had three decades of shared history. They ate lunch with each other every workday for about 15 years and once went on vacation together; when Luna’s daughter got married, her friend hosted a celebratory brunch.
Politics wasn’t something they talked much about until the 2016 election, when Luna says her friend started parroting Trump in daily conversation, making racist remarks and questioning Luna’s news sources. As her friend kept this up, Luna often tried to gently redirect the conversation. Their communication didn’t get confrontational until last year, when, among other things, her friend sent her a prayer for Trump, which upset Luna because her friend knew Luna didn’t like Trump. The last text Luna sent to her friend was in November, following a rare month-long silence between them: “I am sorry that your guy lost, but let’s leave politics out and just be friends.” She never heard back.
Luna was sad about losing a long-standing friendship but has come to accept what happened. During the Trump presidency, “she had crossed over to a side I had never known or seen before,” Luna told me. “I will miss the old person, not the new one.” Over the past five years, many other Americans have found themselves in a similar position, measuring the gap between what a relationship was like before Trump entered politics and what it was like after.
In a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted a couple of months after Trump’s 2016 victory, 16 percent of respondents said they had stopped communicating with a friend or family member because of the election. Four years later, many such relationships are still in disrepair. Corin Goodwin, a 53-year-old communications consultant in Seattle, hasn’t seen her dad since October 2016, when they had a falling-out over the presidential race, in which he supported Trump and she supported Hillary Clinton. Since then, they’ve had only occasional email contact. “When he passes, I don’t know if I will even be informed, which really freaks me out,” Goodwin told me. (Goodwin and others mentioned in this article were not comfortable putting me in touch with the friends and family members with whom they disagreed, so I was unable to hear the other sides of these stories.)
Because of the ways family members weave themselves into one another’s lives, political ruptures between them can be more world-altering than those between friends. A woman named Donna who is in her 60s and lives in Utah told me that after acrimonious family arguments on Facebook in 2016, her daughter informed her that because Donna supported Trump, she’d no longer be able to see her granddaughter. And in the past four years, she hasn’t, save for a 10-minute interaction at the funeral of a family member. The only other glimpses she gets of her granddaughter are when other family members send her pictures. “I’m really hurt,” Donna, who asked to be identified by only her first name so that she could speak openly about a family dispute, told me. “If I had known what was coming, I would have kept my mouth shut” about politics.
While Helen Nguyen still sees her dad regularly—he lives with her and her family in San Jose, California—they are likewise estranged. Nguyen, a 41-year-old software engineer who dislikes Trump and has had bitter arguments with her dad about him, says that since Congress certified Joe Biden’s victory over Trump, in January, her dad has largely ignored her at home. “I [feel] like we are strangers living under the same roof,” she told me.
The people I interviewed generally thought that if Trump had never entered politics, their relationships wouldn’t have deteriorated as they did. They may be correct, but this obscures a longer-running trend that seems to be fueling relationship-ending political disputes.
As political scientists have documented, over the past few decades, Americans’ party affiliations have become more strongly correlated with other aspects of who they are, such as their race, their religion, and where they live. As a result, certain political beliefs have become more predictably linked to broader worldviews. “Politics isn’t just politics anymore,” Emily Van Duyn, a communication professor at the University of Illinois, told me. “Political identity now encompasses so many other things—our social identity, our morals, our values.” This means that when two people disagree about a political figure, much more than a preference in candidates and their policies is often at stake.
While Trump didn’t create this dynamic, he did exacerbate it by constantly stoking political animosity and cultural division. Van Duyn, who has studied political disagreements in romantic relationships, said, “I think his bombastic approach to social mores in many ways forced people to have a reckoning around, Oh, my spouse supports Trump—what else does that encapsulate now? If he supports Trump, does he also hate me as a woman?”
That said, the relationships that frayed in the Trump era won’t necessarily be mended in the Joe Biden era. Some people I interviewed said that they were open to reconciliation when Trump was president, but several others said they weren’t then and aren’t now. One of Biden’s hopes for the country is “to turn the page, to unite, to heal.” He’s only a few months into his term, but no one I was in touch with has any newfound interest in repairing their relationship now that Trump is out of office and largely out of the news.
Instead, many of those who dislike Trump talked about having seen for the first time a troubling side of their friend or family member—one they could never un-see. “It would be uncomfortable for me to treat her the same way knowing what her political beliefs were,” Luna said of her ex-friend. Meanwhile, Donna says that despite lingering frustration with her daughter, she would be receptive to reconciliation. In her view, the onus to initiate that process is on her daughter, but she hasn’t gotten any indication that her daughter is more open to reconnecting now that Trump is no longer president.
Further, most of the people I was in touch with seemed unlikely to, in the future, befriend anyone who felt differently than they did about Trump or Biden. Donna, for instance, feels that she couldn’t be more than acquaintances with someone who supports Biden, because their values would differ too much from hers. Similarly, some interviewees who dislike Trump said that the fact of someone’s support for him would be enough to disqualify them as a potential friend, and it was viewed as a moral shortcoming.
Damaged relationships are the casualties of a dysfunctional political system, but they also reflect the shortage of tactics Americans have for talking through deep political differences. Van Duyn thinks that the ways people engage in everyday political conversations simply haven’t caught up to how all-encompassing political identities have become. Researchers have found some strategies that might help—for instance, writing prompts that have people imagine someone else’s perspective—but, Van Duyn said, “we need a better answer to [this] question.”
Of course, even if we had a better answer, some of today’s political differences would still be unbridgeable. “If we fundamentally can’t agree that Black lives matter or that people have human rights to be protected and respected,” Van Duyn noted, “that is a very different divide than, ‘We can’t agree about trickle-down economics.’”
Jeanne Safer, a psychotherapist in New York City, is mindful of that caveat, but maintains that people who cut off others over political differences frequently do so to their own detriment. “We can make politics seem like a thing that’s more fundamental to character than it really is, and I think we err seriously,” Safer, the author of I Love You, but I Hate Your Politics, told me. “If you have a long history with people who have treated you well and loved you, is it really all ruined by who they voted for?”
These days, many people would impatiently answer yes, but Safer’s view is that people you disagree with “can be wonderful friends, and people who agree with you can treat you very badly.” She also believes, based on her experiences with clients and interviews she did for her book, that something other than politics is at the root of many seemingly political conflicts with loved ones. For instance, when an adult child denounces their parents’ political beliefs, it might actually be less about politics and more about the child’s need to assert their independence.
One of Safer’s tenets of political communication is that you should never go into a conversation with the intention of changing someone’s mind. The tone should be inquisitive (“I want to hear more about why you think that”) rather than judgmental (“How could you think that?”). Ironically, as strategies like these become more valuable, they may also be needed less often: Many politically mixed friendships have ended, and so far, fewer seem likely to be formed in the future. This is concerning for what it says about the country’s ability to heal rifts that formed in the past five years. But it also would mean that, for better or worse, fewer friendships will be in need of rescuing from partisan conflicts.