No, this is not the usual story that one might have expected to read. Instead it is a story told by a woman that illustrates a point that I made before, that once people support a public figure, they are reluctant to admit that they made a mistake because it reflects poorly on their judgment, so they stick with them, treating them as one might treat allegiance to a sports team. This is a special case of a more general phenomenon where once people believe something because it seems plausible, then it is very hard to change their minds later with new evidence, because they can rationalize the new evidence away to justify their initial belief. This is why governments rush to give their versions of events (always favorable to themselves) whenever something happens because they know that later evidence that contradicts it and shows that they were lying has a good chance of being ignored.
Sticking to one’s support of politician can result in one being dragged by that person into supporting positions that one might have initially not advocated because the alternative, abandoning one’s support for the politician, is too difficult to stomach. This phenomenon is most visible with Trump because he was initially pretty much of an unknown when he entered the presidential race, vaguely espousing a sense of grievance that things were unfair and that ‘we’ (here he was dog-whistling white people) needed to get back to an earlier period of greatness that was never explicitly identified. He was also entertaining in his own way and there may well be people who found that his greatest appeal.
That seemed to be the case with Jennifer Merrill’s husband, who started out as a casual Trump supporter but then went along with him as Trump went into extreme areas, until it was too much for her to take.
As I made plans to participate in my third Women’s March in January, there had been one big change in my life this time around: I was no longer living with my husband.
Last fall, after 24 years of marriage and almost two years of dealing with the aftermath of the devastating 2016 election, I decided I could not live with this person anymore. Why? Because, while the results of the election were devastating for me, they were not for my husband. He voted for Donald Trump, and he has continued to support him. So as a staunch liberal and a frequent Trump protester, I had to do something.
She describes how initially the political differences between them were minor.
Eric (a pseudonym) and I met in the early 1990s, when we were both in our late 20s. We didn’t talk much about politics, but I volunteered for Greenpeace and Amnesty International and was just beginning to identify as a liberal. From what I gathered, he was pretty apolitical and middle-of-the-road in his views.
We got married in May 1994, adopted a dog, and had our first child in October 1996. He was followed by another son, and then a daughter. I guess our compatibility started to fray a little after we started a family. We had differences of opinion about raising our kids, but who doesn’t?
Along the way, I realized that Eric and I were canceling each other out at the voting booth. He voted Republican or, later, Libertarian, and I never voted for anyone but Democrats. We joked about it, but it wasn’t a major deal.
She said that it bothered her that Eric voted for Bush and grumbled about Obama. But the major shift came with Trump, when her husband increasingly shifted his position in order to keep aligned with Trump, just as she became more convinced that Trump’s policies had to be opposed.
When I heard that Trump was running, I really didn’t think anybody would actually support him, especially in my circles. I said jokingly to Eric, “You better not vote for Trump in the primary,” never considering that he actually might. His synopsis of Donald Trump was simple: “He cracks me up.” I tried talking to him about all my objections: the racism, the misogyny, the blatant egoism, the corruption, the idiocy, the mocking of the disabled! But he didn’t care. He thought that Trump’s actions and words were funny and didn’t believe what the media were reporting.
All the while, Eric made light of my activism, embarrassed me in front of people with his comments, and usually managed to express the opposite of what I believed in.
After a too-long beach vacation with my relatives in August 2018, I was feeling more resigned about ending our marriage. We didn’t get along well during that trip, and I was always worried that Eric would open up his mouth and spout out words supporting Trump, or that sounded vaguely homophobic, or that expressed his inane belief that climate change was a myth. And I noticed he had become so rigid about everything, like an old man I didn’t know. How did I end up here with this person? I couldn’t even look at him anymore, and the long car ride home seemed endless.
For me the telling phrase was that “he didn’t care” when she pointed out Trump’s faults. I have seen that too with some friends who support Trump. The more he is criticized, however justly, the more they feel they must defend him even if it means denying incontrovertible facts. The other side of that conflict can, and will, say that they have always stayed the same and that it is the other person who has changed and become irrationally anti-Trump.
Merrill’s story is a poignant one, one that I suspect is being repeated in many relationships, between partners, siblings, parents and children, coworkers, and friends.