Though we’ve known for four years that the 2020 US election cycle would be even more fraught than the strange and painful fall of the 2016 elections, most of us still find ourselves a little disoriented these days. For some, the urgency to remove Trump from office has immobilized us. For others, it’s fortified us into action to get out the vote and to sway those who are undecided, apathetic, and reluctant.
In the final five weeks before the election of a lifetime, we asked writers to consider the undecided voter and contribute compelling arguments and ideas for making the world right. Some contributors sent us work that takes on issues with precision and gravity. Others sent us different work, perhaps an even more visceral snapshot of this alarming moment — a one-act play, an open letter, a story of exile. New writing will be published weekdays; we believe its wisdom and strength will help us all navigate the uncertainty ahead.
“Your silence will not protect you.” — Audre Lorde
I am a product of politeness.
Which is to say, I am a product of silence. Silence meant, in some ways, to protect.
* * *
My parents, married nearly forty years, rarely talk politics. My mother, a lifelong liberal from New York City. My father, a lifelong conservative from the South. Models of unconditional love — and avoiding conflict.
But a few months ago, my dad breached their boundary.
“It feels like there’s a wall up between us,” he said to my mom. “Like we can’t talk.”
Though their wall was not shocking or new, my dad’s speech was. A break in the silence. A departure from safety.
Around the same time, my sister was also trying to unmute our family, proposing regular pre-election calls.
“To discuss what’s going on in this country,” she wrote in our group text. I could almost see her fingers pausing, second-guessing, as she typed. Feel my mom holding her breath.
Nearly four years had passed since my father and I had directly discussed politics. A few days after the 2016 election, I had finally called him, the only one of us who hadn’t voted for Hillary. The only one of us who, now, seems undeclared. Alone in a way that must be tough. I was already the family troublemaker — what writer isn’t? — but after the election I was desperate to understand why why why he had voted for Trump.
Sometimes silence is necessary; sometimes it does protect us, physically. But mine was born of fear, permitted by privilege.
I had regretted my timing, waiting so long to talk. And yet, after just a couple calls, I resumed writing about our silences—hiding behind words I could control, sentences I could sculpt.
Until a few months ago, that is. Until, after my sister’s texts and my dad’s surprising speech, we began meeting biweekly on Zoom: me on my Massachusetts balcony, my nephew toddling around my sister’s Pennsylvania yard, and my parents in their Miami living room—side by side in separate seats, not looking at each other but instead at the screen, all of us staring into our own faces.
A politics podcast to share, an article to discuss, an invitation to talk. Something familiar for other families, maybe.
Something we had never done.
“What are the dangers of a president who won’t agree to a peaceful transference of power?” I asked.
“A president who encourages violence and hate…” my sister added.
“What about the media?” my dad asked. “And the threat of too much government control?”
“I’ve NEVER seen this country so polarized,” my mother said, looking at my dad and then the screen and then away.
“Which politicians can we trust?” we all worried.
On many issues, we disagreed. On a few, we felt the same. I tried hard not to single out my dad. Tried to listen, really listen. To prioritize understanding each other’s minds more than changing them. But of course I still hope his perspective shifts. Of course I’m still terrified. What if he votes for Trump again? What if many people on the fence ultimately do?
* * *
Argument is a form of love, vulnerability; my family and I are finally learning this.
Our first meeting wasn’t calm or quick. The second either — though it felt much less fraught. Still, despite our differences, we continue to share our perspectives, our anxieties, our fears.
Unlike Trump, we’re listening to people we disagree with. Empowered by our new honesty, our willingness to understand.
“I wish we’d talked about these things when you girls were young,” my dad said on a recent call. “But I was always working so late…”
Dad home from construction sites at nine or ten. Mom at the hospital so early, rushing to pick us up from school, still in her nurse scrubs.
Our silence, our “polite” avoidance of conflict, at once pragmatic and habitual and fearful. And undoubtedly learned.
* * *
We are not only a divided people; we’re a people unable to converse.
Led by a man who, on debate stages and Twitter feeds, refuses to listen, attempts to silence our communities by name-calling and gaslighting and threatening our human rights. A man who, at unmasked rallies and parades, lies and evades.
A man who projects his own fakeness — his own inability to be vulnerable — with claims of transparency and fake news that, in themselves, are fake. Silencing techniques masquerading as candidness. Weakness masquerading as strength.
Another way he divides us.
Another reason he must go.
If you enjoyed this essay, please share it with an undecided voter in your life, and please consider contributing to Fair Fight.
Caitlin McGill’s essays appear in Blackbird, The Chattahoochee Review, CutBank, Gastronomica, Iron Horse, Vox, and others. She is writing a Miami-based memoir about intergenerational trauma, race, class, addiction, and the cost of ignoring our histories. One essay from her book was a Notable in The Best American Essays 2016.