Betsy Hartmann: Talking to the elderly about Trump’s victory

  • President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally in New York on Nov. 9, 2016.  AP FILE PHOTO

Thursday, November 17, 2016

In the wake of the Nov. 8 election, a spate of articles offers progressive parents advice on how to talk to their distraught children about Trump’s victory.

Seizing as he did the moral low ground, fanning the flames of racism, nativism, and sexism, Trump came to symbolize all that is wrong about the country. To have him assume the presidency is a powerful blow to children’s sense of justice and their hopes for the future.

At the other end of the age scale, there’s another demographic struggling with the news – the elderly with diminishing physical and mental faculties. That includes my mother and my father-in-law, both in their mid-90s and longtime liberal activists.

My mother broke the mold of her Republican family by embracing FDR’s New Deal. In the 1960s she joined the civil rights movement, a cause to which she remains passionately committed.

In their political work in the community and at the state level, my parents modeled the values of selfless public service and common human decency, teaching their children that all people are created equal.

My husband had a similar upbringing, and his father is still a pillar of the Unitarian Church. He closely follows current events and was especially excited about Bernie’s candidacy.

My mother and father-in-law both suffer from the kind of short-term memory loss common at an advanced age. But when it came to the election, their minds were sharp. They watched Trump’s ascendancy with mounting unease, and were shocked by his pejorative statements about Mexicans, Muslims, women and people of color.

They saw his threat-mongering for what it was – an appeal to the basest instincts of the white electorate. They hadn’t forgotten the history of fascism.

“Trump can’t win, can he, Betsy?” my mother asked me anxiously. My father-in-law was more optimistic. “Don’t worry,” he tried to assure me. “In a few months he’ll just be a footnote in history.”

Excitement about Hillary becoming the first woman president helped to temper my mother’s anxieties. My sister and a friend took her to the local Democratic campaign headquarters. On the top of her book shelf she prominently displayed a Hillary button and bumper sticker. But she kept asking nervously whether Trump could win.

On Nov. 10, her voice was shaken when I spoke to her on the phone. I felt a deep sadness that she would spend what might be her last years under a Trump regime. We talked about how she had to stay alive to see him defeated next time around.

But there was no denying that he represented everything she had fought so hard to change during her lifetime. While her moral compass has remained steadily on the greater public good, his revolves around only me, me, me.

I could pretend to my mother that I think it’s not going to be so bad. Ever hopeful, my father-in-law says let’s wait and see what the Republicans do.

But I can’t hide my distress about the impending conservative assaults on health care, climate change policy, immigration reform, reproductive rights, racial justice and the judiciary, to name but a few.

Besides, my mother would immediately see through my sugar-coated dissembling. Her short-term memory may come and go, but her emotional intelligence is still off the charts.

And so I tell her what I truly believe – that her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will do their best to honor her legacy through keeping up the good fight. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. She knows that, but at her age she deserves better.

Betsy Hartmann is professor emerita of development studies and senior policy analyst of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College in Amherst.