Recently I gathered with a local chapter of “SURJ: Standing Up for Racial Justice” national civil rights organization. I held a simple sign: “White Allies: Show Support!”
Cars passed, mostly beeps and waves. Then a large truck screeched by. A white man thrust his middle finger out the window and screamed at us: “Get a ****ing life!” As he sped away, I saw a young boy sitting quietly in the passenger’s seat. He was watching. He was learning. Perhaps he now thinks this is what conservatism looks like: yelling, taunting, violent behavior at gatherings. Certainly this is what we have seen at Trump rallies, encouraged by his rhetoric, spiralling out of control towards church burnings and fist fights.
This little boy in the car is growing up with a vision of ugly, hateful conservatism. This is not the vision of conservatism I grew up with. This is not the behavior of conservatives in my life that I know and love now. And conservatives have the opportunity to make this clear on election day by saying enough is enough, by saying “NO” to Donald Trump.
Trying to get by while doing what’s right
My Grandpa Tony was a lifelong Republican. He was also the former Wisconsin National Guard affirmative action coordinator. When I was seventeen, my AP U.S. History assignment was to interview someone who had lived in 1968, asking about life in the midst of protests, assassinations, global unrest. Not unlike now.
I interviewed Grandpa. He settled into the couch, cleared his throat, and remembered: “Well, we were raising 10 children, so our lives were focused on that, plus making ends meet.” I get that. Isn’t that a snapshot of the American story? Trying to get by. A lifelong small business owner, entrepreneur, and national guardsman, Grandpa worked in oil, in personal investments, he even owned a giant super slide! Grandpa was a charter member of his church, a founding member of a fraternal organization. And he was called into the national guard for the 1970s Milwaukee race riots. When I was twelve, he told me about the first time he encountered racism, as a boy in Chicago learning that his black neighbors could not be buried in the same cemetery as his white neighbors. “And that’s just not right,” he told me. I learned a simple lesson about solidarity: you can work to get by, but still do what’s right. That includes standing up against racism.
What women can do and be
Grandpa also told me I could be anything I choose. He listened to me carefully, told me I was smart, capable. He assured me I could get married if I wanted, have kids if I wanted, or not– if I wanted. When I was fourteen, like all girls in our family, he took me into the shag-carpeted living room to teach me self defense moves: blocks, kicks. Somehow he imagined what living in this world as a woman might mean for me. Someday I might need to defend myself from someone who wanted to hurt, or grab me; the world might be be scary, but I could protect myself. When I watched Donald Trump yell at Hillary Clinton in the debates- interrupt her, mock her- I was scared. My hands shook as I posted updates. In boardrooms, offices, meetings, parties, I have seen women treated like this. I have been treated like this. When news broke of Trump bragging about grabbing women, I remembered, along with millions of women, the first time I was grabbed at as a girl in public. Ironically, I can see now that my Republican grandfather was ultimately preparing me for this world, for this moment. I watch daily with admiration as Hillary Clinton defends herself against this abuse. She is smart, capable. She can be anything she chooses.
Healthy masculinity & care for the stranger
Every November when I helped my grandparents embark on the maddening mail-merge journey to print their annual Christmas card address labels, Grandpa would pull aside a sheet of labels and carefully point out the names of his friends from other countries, including Arab nations, with whom he remained in touch. He told me about when he last saw them, their hours of sitting and talking. We toured through his house and handled arts and keepsakes they had shared with him; these items and those who gave them were precious to my grandfather. He voiced their beautiful names not with faltering, critical mockery or fear, but with the careful booming familiarity of a beloved brother.
This love ethic is something I saw repeatedly from my grandfather. Into adulthood, Grandpa kissed all his children, including his seven sons, and told them regularly that he loved them. Like anyone, he wasn’t without flaw. But he modeled heartfelt emotionally intelligent masculinity, crying often, never hiding it: when talking about the love he felt for his family, for his God, for his country. I watched him closely, I learned from him, I loved him fiercely though I knew our stories and ideologies were different. Many of us encounter conversations across difference through our families. We love them, they love us, so we can listen to each other in a way that transforms rather than shuts down or scares into silence.
Investing in love, together
These are the stories I remember, some of the first moments I started thinking about race, gender, and masculinity.
I learned these things from my Republican grandfather.
Grandpa died three years ago, just before #blacklivesmatter powerfully, beautifully swept the nation and opened our eyes to the racism that he already knew existed. Grandpa died before Hillary Clinton accepted the nomination and I cried on the couch, watching with my parents, recognizing we were witnessing history. She did what she wanted, like Grandpa said women could do. Grandpa only ever knew Donald Trump as some reality TV personality with big buildings and a steak company.
My last conversation with Grandpa was about investments. I was about to start my first real full-time job with benefits. Though I knew it would be financially prudent, I could not bring myself to opt for an aggressive high-risk portfolio because I didn’t know what my money would be supporting. I had nightmares dancing through my mind: Cigarettes? Oil?! Blood diamonds?!! A stressed out liberal millennial, I was struggling to consider how best to enter the game of capitalism without selling my soul. Even that, I know, is a privilege.
Our final conversation lasted three hours, probably only 30 minutes really talking about investments. The rest of the time he listened thoughtfully as I expressed how hard it felt to work to earn a living, build a community, and stay true to my values. And isn’t that a snapshot of the American story? Trying to get by while doing what’s right, just like he did. Grandpa listened to me. He calmly told me what my options were, and though I knew he might have have chosen differently, he supported me when I put it all into “Social Choice” investments. “Okay, honey.” he said.
Until the day he died, Grandpa called me “honey” not with the syrupy, patronizing condescension of a candidate who (not so) secretly hates women, but with a quiet, whispering love, reminding me I was sweet- a human to be savored, treasured, heard. He patted my head not with the infantilizing disdain of a demagogue, but with the cradling embrace of a comforter, then mutually bowing his own balding head for me to pat in return. And every time we’d part, Grandpa would repeat our playful refrain, radical phrases, his rallying cry. Not a rallying cry that incites violence, encourages slurs and shouting, but a soft, simple chorus so I would never forget:
“Do you know I love you?”
“And how do you know I love you?”
“Because you told me so, and you showed me so.”
I wish I could talk to Grandpa now. Talk about what to do, how to defend myself, in a time when I can no longer quite suppress my fear at the idea of a candidate like Trump who could not only hurt the country Grandpa loved, but also hurt me. Hurt my friends, hurt Grandpa’s own international friends with beautiful names. I know Grandpa and I would have long conversations. I would listen. He would listen. He wasn’t perfect, but my Grandpa, living his whole life on the political right, ultimately knew what was universally Right: A love ethic that transcended boundaries. A justice ethic that reached across difference to the stranger. His example is one we can all follow: at the polls, in our families, and around the community.
Grandpa & Me