Three years of the Trump presidency has meant three holiday seasons of essays bemoaning the difficulty of maintaining family harmony around the dinner table. Just within the past weeks, we’ve had USA Today offer "9 Ways to Avoid Political Food Fights," and the Washington Post ask, "Can Family Trump Trump?"
With impeachment now looming over Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, even the Brookings Institute, that august Washington think tank, saw fit to publish an instruction manual in the hopes of avoiding raised voices, hurt feelings, and broken crockery.
To which I say, bring on the turmoil. It is absolutely appropriate and approvable for blood ties to be subordinated to truth-telling at this moment of existential crisis. The normal standards of etiquette deserve to be violated when the conversation topic is whether a de facto monarchy should be enshrined by the Republican senators acting as Trump’s Praetorian Guard.
Would we have felt that families on the opposite sides of the Civil War should have just agreed to disagree? When World War II was already raging in Europe and the United States was torn between isolationists and interventionists, should we just have passed the gravy and chatted about college football? What about the periods when women's suffrage, civil rights legislation, and marriage equality were dividing the nation?
There is a word for societies that privilege consensus among relatives above the free expression of genuine dissent: clannish. In such societies, internal unanimity must be maintained, because everyone outside the clan is a real or potential enemy.
In modern America, we deem such behavior atavistic. So why should we be urged to adopt it for ourselves, lest a raging argument about impeachment and any other number of Trump’s crimes, calumnies, and perfidies dispel the false cheer around the mistletoe or menorah?
As an observant Jew now celebrating Hanukkah, I am reminded that this holiday commemorates and indeed extols civil war under certain dire circumstances. Beneath its American veneer of being pseudo-Christmas, beyond its common portrayal as a festival honoring ancient Jews for resisting Greek oppression, the theological and historical truth of Hanukkah is that it marks an internal battle between those Jews who had aligned themselves with Hellenistic culture and those who rejected that foreign, pagan influence. The fundamentalists won, and so they wrote the history, as the victors generally do.
It’s not that I relish the prospect of holiday gatherings exploding into recriminations. In more ordinary times, political difference was just that — a difference of opinion, or theory, or analysis, and one that need not imperil relationships. We have seen Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, former adversaries in the 1992 election, collaborate in disaster-relief efforts. We have seen Michele Obama and George W. Bush form a seemingly sincere friendship despite the immense rift between the Obama and Bush administrations. James Carville and Mary Matalin even made a bestselling book out of their partisan version of a fight-and-fuck marriage, with him a longtime Clinton strategist and she a veteran GOP operative.
That book, however, came out 25 years ago. Tellingly, its 2014 sequel was mostly ignored.
If you’re looking for better role models today, consider George and Kellyanne Conway. They make no pretense of setting aside their disagreements for lovey-dovey reconciliation. The #NeverTrumper husband takes evident delight in trolling his Trump propagandist wife through everything from op-ed articles to organized opposition.
I have a favored side in this fight, and it is not Kellyanne’s. The Trump movement, so truculent itself, has demanded timid acquiescence from its opponents. We’re snowflakes, right? We’re suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome, aren’t we? Instead of beefing, we should just agree with the president that there were “very fine people” in both sides at Charlottesville. In the version of Civil War history proffered by John Kelly, then Trump’s chief of staff, the only problem was a “lack of ability to compromise.”
Those of us who despair over our nation’s slide into authoritarianism, into one-man and one-party rule with the window-dressing of vestigial democratic institutions, have no reason to compromise, not among strangers and not among our nuclear and extended families. A ruined holiday qualifies as a relatively gentle reminder that preserving the republic matters just a tiny bit more than making small talk and having proper table manners.
Samuel G. Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and the author of eight books.