THE BLOG
11/25/2016 07:40 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2017

Family Feuds: The Wall Trump Built

I have been an online counselor for the past six years and have helped over a thousand individuals address personal and relationship problems. Until now, the impact of political affiliations on client's relationships has never been mentioned by anyone. But, the election of Donald Trump seems to have changed that and I have begun to receive requests regarding how to handle anger towards family members, friends, or work associates who voted for Trump. In some cases, I have worked with clients who were Trump supporters and have been vilified and ostracized by their children, siblings, or friends.

Political actions, including voting preferences, do not predict how people conduct themselves in face-to-face relationships. An extreme example of the disparity between the political and the personal may have been Adolf Hitler, at least as depicted by Hitler's last private secretary, Traudl Junge. Hitler was unfailingly polite, remembered everyone's birthday, and never made sexual advances. It was only after the war that Junge understood what else he was doing, because she only experienced Hitler as a kind boss.

Mohandas Gandhi, on the other hand, was Hitler's opposite. Acclaimed for his devotion to non-violent methods to achieve India's independence, he was by all accounts very hard to like as a person.

Political behavior, whether by a voter or politician, also is often divorced from daily life because its effects do not necessarily impact on those the actors know. It is noteworthy, therefore, when a politician, such as Senator Rob Portman, who had consistently supported legislation that discriminated against gays, suddenly discovered his son was one. This unexpected personal experience led him to view his bigotry and voting record in a different light.

However, "conversion" by personal crisis is very rare. People generally maintain ideological positions because they deliberately avoid experiences which call them into question. They typically associate with others who share their beliefs and almost never consciously subject themselves to evidence and arguments supporting alternate viewpoints.

Voters support candidates for many reasons. They might not subscribe to every position their favorite takes, but there is usually at least one factor that tips the scales. They downplay, or ignore, the rest. Once in office, however, victors choose their own priorities. Yet, their voters are partially responsible for whatever they do, unless the candidate never addressed an issue in the campaign (e.g., G.W. Bush's invasion of Iraq; torture).

The extreme polarization during the 2016 election which has jeopardized long-standing personal relationships is certainly related to the candidacy of Donald Trump. He has said things and promised actions that have broken with the traditional use of "code," clearly signaling his allegiance to white supremacist ideology and sexism. His open bigotry makes it impossible to be surprised if he enacts policies targeting non-whites and undermining women's reproductive rights.

Moreover, Trump has openly shown contempt for democratic traditions, the rule of law, and civility. In his private life, he has stiffed countless investors, contractors, employees and consumers and is an admitted sexual predator. While some of his supporters truly believe all the charges are false, many accept at least some are true, but voted for him regardless, because of one or more of their preferences, e.g., low corporate and personal taxes for the wealthy, deregulation of industry, reviving US manufacturing, policies designed to curb immigration and deport millions of undocumented workers and family members, ending legal abortion, opposing any gun control measures; a conservative Supreme Court. Or he was a male, or not Hillary Clinton. Finally, about 20 percent of those voters who indicated in exit polls they thought Trump was unqualified to be President voted for him anyway.

The anger those who opposed Trump feel towards his supporters stems from the difficulty they have accepting an excuse of ignorance regarding the President-elect's ideology and intentions. Even if Trump changes direction once in office, it won't be sufficient for many to forgive and forget. Yet, the clients I have spoken to who have been attacked and ostracized for their votes seem puzzled and hurt, because they believe they still are the "same" people they were before Trump's campaign. They define their continuity solely in terms of the warm and caring way they have always interacted with those who now shun them. They view voting preferences irrelevant as a criterion for maintaining a hitherto loving relationship.

Time may heal the rifts, but the process can be sped up if the recipients of anger come to understand that for some, virtue is not limited to how people treat those they have face-to-face contact with, but also others they will never meet, but whose lives are impacted by the choices voters make. It requires developing empathy for "others": learning about their world and how it was shaped by history, so one can imagine the consequences of an election outcome. For those who are angry, empathy for the objects of their wrath is critical too. Trump supporters have biographies situated in history as well, though those they choose to scapegoat bear no responsibility for their circumstances.

But before empathy can happen attention must be paid to values and facts. What are Trump supporters' priorities and why? What is the distinction between fact and opinion and how can the former be established in the House of Babel we live in?

Overcoming these obstacles to reconciliation is hard enough, but there may be an additional barrier to the restoration of amicable relationships. There is growing evidence from scans that the brain structure of conservatives differs from that of liberals. Their amygdala is larger and this produces more fear-based learning; liberals have larger volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, which may allow them to veer more easily from impulse to rational problem solving. However, the structures in the brain can be altered by new life experiences. The amygdala and its fear-based learning grows because of both direct experience and exposure to frightening messages, invariably based on exaggerating dangers. Those who wish to change the Trump voters they once bonded with and restore what has been lost need to devise creative approaches designed to reverse this process through Socratic dialogue, and exposure to new thoughts and experiences. But, it takes two to tango.