How Politics in Trump’s America Divides Families

A progressive family in suburban Philadelphia refused to take down a “Black Lives Matter” sign when conservative relatives came to visit.  

Kenan and Margaret Sayers in front of their home in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania (Natalie Piserchio)

Margaret Sayers’s yard signs are still standing, staked in a row in the thick ivy that covers part of her front lawn in suburban Philadelphia. “Families Belong Together,” the first sign reads, above an illustration of two outstretched hands embracing a red heart. The second sign is a bright blue “Hate Has No Home Here” poster, which features the same phrase in English, Urdu, Arabic, Korean, Hebrew, and Spanish. But it’s the last sign, the one that reads, simply, “Black Lives Matter,” that became a source of tension when Sayers’s extended family visited from North Carolina to celebrate her son’s high-school graduation last spring.

“At least a week before their arrival, I was engaged in an internal struggle,” Sayers says. “I knew that the signs were going to be inflammatory.” Unable at first to decide what to do, Sayers called a family meeting with her husband and two children, who are 18 and 20, to ask whether they thought the signs should stay up or come down. Her son and daughter immediately told her that the signs should remain where they were. “I thought, This is a moment where I can stand for my beliefs, and I can stand by what I value,” Sayers’s son, Kenan, told me. “And I don’t want to look back and say, well, ‘I could have done this, but I didn’t.’”

Both of Sayers’s children are adopted, and Kenan is black. Sayers, who is white, says now that if it weren’t for the “Black Lives Matter” sign, she might have removed the signs temporarily for the sake of keeping the peace with her family. But she could see no way to explain to her son why the “Black Lives Matter” poster should be put away because his grandparents and aunt were coming to the house.

Before the trip, Sayers got a text from her sister, Terryn Owens, asking her to take down any political signs displayed in her yard for fear they would upset their conservative parents. “I texted her, ‘If you can tell me appropriate language to tell my son why we have to take the Black Lives Matter sign down, I will do it,’” Sayers says. Her sister’s response was one of shock and dismay. “You have a Black Lives Matter sign?”

Signs on the Sayerses’ lawn (Natalie Piserchio)

Sayers was so distressed by her sister’s response that she felt unable to engage other than to reply that the signs would stay where they were. The exchange also upset Owens, who said that Sayers’s decision to call the family meeting over the sign left her children “with the vision that their grandparents and aunt are racist,” and that she had already told Sayers it was fine for the signs to be left in place.

Sayers told me that she originally put up the “Black Lives Matter” sign because she was drawn to the movement’s principles of “diversity, inclusion, and restorative justice.” Soon after she bought the sign, a neighbor left a postcard on her front stoop thanking her for displaying it.

“My family loves my kids … They would never intentionally hurt my kids,” Sayers says. “But I think they have no idea how much that [removing the sign] would have hurt my son.”

The story of America in 2018 is really two stories. For so many events in political life, two unreconcilable accounts unfurl in parallel, and which story you trust seems to say more about your identity than it ever has before. These dueling narratives can make it feel impossible to have a productive conversation with anyone who believes the other story—and that includes members of your own family. In the lead-up to the 2016 election, a survey conducted by ABC News found that 37 percent of Americans had experienced increased tension with relatives or friends because of the campaign. The fracturing of the country at large finds expression on a personal level at birthday parties and barbecues and holiday dinners. How do you sit at the table with someone you love but with whom you cannot agree on even the most fundamental facts? Should you try to change their minds? Should you sit at the table with them at all?

How left-leaning Margaret Sayers and her right-leaning family view Brett Kavanaugh’s emotionally charged confirmation process is illustrative of the two stories: Was Christine Blasey Ford a heroic witness for the truth, sacrificing her well-being on a national stage for the greater good? Or was she a political pawn, being manipulated by the Democrats in order to torpedo a qualified candidate for the Supreme Court? Was Kavanaugh an unhinged and possibly predatory villain? Or was he a decent man who may have had a beer-drinking problem as a teenager?

Sayers’s main form of activism is fund-raising for left-leaning political candidates by planning open-mic nights and story slams, and having local bands perform at Third Floor Theater, a performance space located within her home. (Natalie Piserchio)

Sayers is a clinical psychologist and told me she thought her experience had informed her reading of Ford’s testimony. “I believe her, I’m sure, in part because I have a mental-health background, and I know about trauma and I know what it looks like and how it can affect people for years and years,” she says. Sayers thought Ford’s inability to remember some details of the incident made her more credible. “That is an incredibly common thing,” she said, for someone who has survived trauma to have trouble remembering the aftermath of an incident. They are more likely to remember specifics like the smell of cigarette smoke or the color of the skirt they were wearing that night—or, in Ford’s case, the sound of her attackers’ laughter. Sayers says she can’t imagine that Ford could have fabricated the story or that she would have put herself through the spectacle of the hearing if she wasn’t telling the truth. Ultimately, though, what convinced Sayers that Kavanaugh was unfit to serve on the Supreme Court was not Ford’s testimony but Kavanaugh’s. His “partisanship,” combined with a lack of a thorough investigation into the allegations against him, was disqualifying, she thought.

Owens, a retired attorney, had a very different perspective on the hearings. In her view, the allegations against Kavanaugh, from so long ago, were not enough to “convict” him and were unsubstantiated. She blamed Dianne Feinstein’s office for not releasing Ford’s letter to the FBI sooner, which would have triggered an investigation earlier. She thought “something” might have happened to Ford, but she was not convinced that Kavanaugh was involved. Owens, who has one son, also had a personal reaction to the hearings. “Any mother of a son should live in fear if Kavanaugh loses this because some woman says he did something wrong in college,” she says. She couldn’t understand why her sister didn’t consider this dimension: “She’s got a son.”

Donnie Douglas, Sayers and Owens’s brother and the editor for 22 years of The Robesonian, the local newspaper in Lumberton, North Carolina, where all three grew up, watched some of the hearings and says he thought the process was “beyond ridiculous.” Douglas described himself as a moderate on social issues and a conservative on fiscal matters. “They were talking about flatulence and a high-school yearbook,” he says. “And I don’t know anything about him as a judge [after watching]. Nothing.” Douglas says he thought most people had already made up their minds before the interviews started. “My sister was always going to believe the lady,” he says of Sayers. “She has no idea what happened. I don’t either, but Margaret was always going to be all in on [Ford].”

Both Douglas and Owens brought up Monica Lewinsky when asked about Kavanaugh. “If I was going to have a conversation with my sister, I would say, ‘Did you believe Monica Lewinsky?’” Douglas says. Owens says, “Liberals weren’t bothered by what happened to Monica Lewinsky, but they’re all up in arms about what happened to Christine Ford.” Douglas says he thought most Americans viewed Kavanaugh’s fitness for the Court and the allegations against him only through the lens of their political views, just as they had lined up for or against Bill Clinton based largely on party affiliation during his impeachment proceedings 20 years ago.

Both Sayers and Owens say their relationship, once close, has been strained by their political opinions. Sayers says she feels that their relationship has worsened significantly since Donald Trump’s election, though they have always disagreed. But Owens thought their relationship had become fraught much earlier than that, beginning when Barack Obama was elected in 2008.

Sayers and Owens have settled into an uneasy silence when it comes to politics, a silence that has spread to other aspects of their relationship. They talk and visit less than they used to. Owens unfriended Sayers on Facebook “a long time ago,” seeking to avoid her sister’s political posts. After the discussion of the signs turned contentious, the matter was not raised again. But Owens and their parents ended up leaving Pennsylvania a day early.

Steve Sayers sits in his Elkins Park home with his children, Kenan and Douglas Sayers. He and his wife, Margaret, adopted them as infants. (Natalie Piserchio)
“It’s really painful,” Sayers says of feeling “estranged” from her family. “We’re in a cold-war place.” Owens says she tries to avoid offending her sister and wishes they could talk about their views more openly. “Anything I say is going to be taken wrong,” she says. Owens expressed frustration that her sister often “shuts down” instead of talking about the sources of their disagreement. “I think she perceives me as being way more conservative than I am,” Owens says. “But if you can’t discuss it, you can’t change it.”

In the wake of the midterm elections, both sisters are cautiously optimistic, though for different reasons. Owens told me that after some reflection, she thought that it might be a good thing for Democrats to control the House of Representatives, because it might open up new avenues for Congress to work with the president on passing legislation on issues that both sides could agree on, such as infrastructure. “What the two houses need to do is work together and work with Trump to do something for the American people,” she said.

Sayers has mixed feelings about the midterms. “I was really disappointed about Beto and Amy McGrath,” she says, of Beto O’Rourke, who lost to Senator Ted Cruz in Texas, and McGrath, who lost a House race in Kentucky. “But I am hopeful the Republicans will be reined in a little bit” in Congress. She isn’t optimistic that much will get done.

Decades of living in the Northeast have faded Sayers’s North Carolina accent to a soft suggestion that slips out only on certain vowels, while her sister still speaks in the rounded cadences of the South. And yet despite the divergent paths the sisters have taken, despite their ideological opposition, they are much more alike than they are different. By all accounts, both are giving, generous people, committed to helping others in need. Owens does quilting for cancer patients. Sayers runs fund-raisers and community events on the top floor of her house. And each told me that she truly does want to understand the other’s point of view, an unusual sentiment in a world where few are willing even to listen.

There is a third story: The divide between us is really not so wide. The truth is that a majority of Americans agree on a staggering range of controversial issues, from guns and immigration to Roe vs. Wade and health care. One of the key findings in a 2018 report called “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape” is that 67 percent of Americans fall into an “exhausted majority,” caught between extremely politically engaged, committed, and vocal groups on the left and right. This majority shares “a sense of fatigue with our polarized national conversation, a willingness to be flexible in their political viewpoints, and a lack of voice in the national conversation.” The people in the middle want compromise and communication. But as liberals and conservatives move further apart, those things become less likely.

If you want to change someone’s mind, empathy is just as important as expertise. If you are hostile or defensive or begin with the assumption that the person you are talking to is not also a thinking, feeling human being, persuasion is an unlikely outcome of your interaction. “I think people forget that you can have respect for somebody without agreeing with them,” Kenan, Sayers’s 18-year-old son, told me when I asked him what he thinks about the inability of so many Americans to have a civil conversation about politics. “Respect and agreement aren’t the same thing.”

Kenan Sayers, who attends the University of North Carolina, with his mother, Margaret Sayers (Natalie Piserchio)

Sayers struggles to extend the respect she brings to most every other aspect of her life to people who hold political views that she finds indefensible, a tension she feels is also expressed in the Quaker faith she practices. “One of the central tenets of Quakerism is that there is a light within everyone. I really do believe that. That is part of what draws me to Quakerism,” she says. “But also my faith tells me I have to speak up in the face of injustice.”

It’s true that there are limits to compassion, gulfs that are uncrossable. Some people will never be persuaded to think differently, no matter who tries to convince them or how they’re approached. There are some family dinners that we have no choice but to leave. But there may be more room at the table for understanding—and change—than we realize.