My cousin back in rural Illinois, where I grew up and where most of my family still lives, sent me a nice note over Facebook the other day. She saw I had a novel coming out and told me she was proud of me and couldn’t wait to read it. I thanked her and said I’d love to catch lunch the next time I’m in town. She said that would be nice.
Then she added: “And no politics … I promise!”
I promised as well. We’re going to do our best to honor that promise. But it’s getting harder. Again.
Families across America that were so divided by the Trump era have only started to heal in the last couple of years — and now we’re facing the real possibility of a sequel.
I’m dreading, and I sense that she and many other Americans are dreading, having to go through this gantlet so soon again. Politics have divided families in ugly ways, and I do sense that the Biden era, for many, has been a chance to try to heal. But the wounds may be about to be reopened.
One of the implicit, but central, selling points of a Joe Biden presidency was that, if he did his job right, the average American wouldn’t have to pay much attention to him. The “normalcy” Mr. Biden vowed to return us to was partly about making the executive branch a functioning arm of government again, and about no longer being the (very scary) joke that the country had become globally during the Donald Trump presidency.
But at home, for many Americans, it was about something simpler than that: It was about returning to a world where we did not have to talk and fight about politics all the time. It was about being in your own home, among your own family and being able to forget, if just for a little while, that politics were happening at all — or at least assume that reasonable people were taking care of it.
The Trump years made this impossible, and the ubiquitousness of politics, the sense that you had to be screaming about the state of the world at all times, fractured families across the country. What had once been merely some awkward moments at Thanksgiving became constant fissures pitting kids against parents, siblings against siblings, generation against generation.
Some of these fissures became ruptures, or even chasms: I have one friend who clashed with his in-laws over Mr. Trump so dramatically that they still haven’t met their 3-year-old granddaughter. The constant and inescapable political discourse of 2015 to 2021 frayed every bond of American society, perhaps family most of all.
But there has been a quiet change the last couple of years. These disagreements have not gone away: The world is as perilous and fraught as it has always been. But since Mr. Trump left office, you’ve been able to find moments of escape and respite, and even, yes, normalcy. There have not been constant presidential tweets; there has not been a ban on travel from several predominantly Muslim countries; whatever verbal gaffes Mr. Biden might make, you have felt fairly confident he’d never refer to another country with a scatological vulgarity.
Things have not been perfect, and there are still people desperately trying to fight about everything — there’s always that relative who insists on making sure you saw his “Let’s Go Brandon” hat. But with the easing of a pandemic that scrambled the planet, you have been able to walk around in the world for at least a few minutes at a time without worrying that it would explode. Maybe you even mended some fences with the people who, no matter how much you may disagree with them, you love. (My friend’s daughter finally has a meeting with her grandparents planned for this summer.)
You could take those first steps, because, for the first time in a long time, politics hasn’t been the center of American life. But the recent CNN town hall with Mr. Trump was a reminder of storm clouds on the horizon — and these clouds look very familiar.
A majority of Americans do not want to see another matchup between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump. There are many reasons for this, yet I wonder if a big one for many people is the fear that those tumultuous times that we just went through and unceasing torrent of political battles that invaded our holiday dinner table are about to return. Trump versus Biden? This is what we just went through. We have to go through that again?
And what if Ron DeSantis gets the Republican nomination over Mr. Trump? Maybe that will just lead to entirely new fights. Though considering how bruising any nomination battle that Mr. Trump loses would be — if such a battle ends at all — I suspect it won’t leave the country in a healing mood, either.
My cousin and I disagree on many things, and there have been times — as when I saw her on Facebook cheering on the buses of “patriots” on their way to Washington on Jan. 5, 2021 — when I thought our relationship was essentially over. This was not long after she, someone who detasseled corn in the vast Illinois fields alongside me when we were both children, called me an “elitist deep stater.” It was difficult to wrap my mind around how much had changed: I had gone from affably disagreeing with her about Mitt Romney to wondering if she’d lost touch with reality entirely.
But the fact remains: I love my cousin, and my cousin loves me. It is impossible to imagine my life, who I would be, without her place in it, and I’m sure she feels the same way. She has known me forever in a way so few people have. I’ve enjoyed reconnecting and have even thought, “If our relationship can survive 2020, it can survive anything.” But can it survive that twice? I am not sure. I suspect many families across the country are wondering the same thing.
We can avoid talking about it, but it’s coming. It lurks, waiting to blast us all apart again. If you want to know why millions of Americans are so wary of a Trump-Biden sequel, that gathering storm is a big part of the answer.
Will Leitch is the author, most recently, of the novel “The Time Has Come,” and is a contributing editor at New York magazine.
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