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What Donald Trump Taught Me About My Own Mother

Photo: Courtesy of Amber Macdonald.
The author and her mother.
Amber Macdonald is a speechwriter at West Wing Writers in Washington, D.C., and former senior adviser to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell. The views expressed here are her own.

For most of the women in my life, the sorrow of Trump’s election has been palpable. We are in mourning; still cycling through the stages of grief on an endless loop. But back home, in middle America, where a majority of white women supported him, there is rejoicing. They are praising God for this change. My friends ask how this betrayal could happen, how any woman could vote for a man like that? I don’t have to ask. They are the women who raised me — my aunts and cousins, my Sunday-school teachers and babysitters and field-trip supervisors. They are my mother.

When I was growing up, my mom was a fighter. As a single parent, she worked multiple jobs late into the night, hustling to pay our bills. After she married, she was still the one who kept us all afloat. She was resourceful and smart, but always a step behind.

My mother raised me to work hard; to love unconditionally; to see Christ’s love in everyone. She taught me kindness, compassion, and service.

Even in our soup-kitchen days, I watched her generosity. Whether it was a meal for our family and friends, or a donation we could barely afford, she gave freely. The heaviness of our financial insecurity weighed on all of us, but she and my stepfather always made it work. “God will provide,” she would say. And through her determination, he always did.

She raised me to work hard; to love unconditionally; to see Christ’s love in everyone. She taught me kindness, compassion, and service.

And yet those values took us down wholly different paths.

Years of hardships chipped away at her. The shrinking paycheques and disappearing jobs. The loss of her retirement savings. The hysterectomy she paid for on her own. Debt and debt and more debt. They calcified inside her.
And while she will welcome anyone to eat at her table, she cheers for a wall. While she fights discrimination against her black friends with righteous anger, she calls for the rights of her own gay family members to be rolled back. While she will give you her last cent, she sees injustice in programs that help other families buy food or pay their hospital bills.

President Obama has become the embodiment of her tormentors. She sees nefarious motives behind every action. She feels in her bones that he hates her and people like her. She hears evil in his smooth speeches, his soaring rhetoric.

Meanwhile, I felt a calling in progressive politics. I went to work in Washington and became a political appointee for the very man she despises, in the Department of Health and Human Services. I fought for the Affordable Care Act, thinking always of her. I collected stories of people, just like my mother, who had been uninsured for years, whose lives were literally saved by “Obamacare.”
At first she refused to sign up, but a year after the exchanges opened, I finally persuaded her. In March she fought cancer with the help of that insurance. And on Election Day, by voting for Trump, she voted to repeal the law that gave it to her.

Like many women, I watched this election in horror as the various indignities of my life were replayed on a national stage. Every time I was overlooked or silenced at work. Hearing my ideas praised when they came from a man. The dismissal of my experience, my skill. Once, a boss asked me who wrote one of my speeches, assuming it was too well-written to have come from me, the only speechwriter.

Once, a different boss asked me why I wanted a promotion when I had “two beautiful babies at home.” Once, a stranger reached up my skirt and grabbed me — and my male friends told me not to make too big a deal out of it. Once, my manager thought he, too, could do anything because he had power, and assaulted me while my coworkers laughed.
Again and again, I watched my humiliations thrown at Hillary Clinton, Carly Fiorina, Megyn Kelly, Alicia Machado, actresses on Twitter, activists on Twitter, my friends and family.

But I saw something amazing over the last few months as well.

I saw a woman stand up to a septic ocean of misogyny, with unbelievable poise and grace. I saw her work harder than every man around her. She was all of us, bearing our injustices with measured dignity, graciously smiling at insults, calmly explaining why we belong. Demanding a seat. Speaking softly and carrying an arsenal of unbreakable courage.

And I saw the women in my life draw from her strength. Slowly and quietly at first. In secret. We began to lean on each other. We began to name the violence we experienced that we hadn’t before. We cheered her on. We saw how brave and strong we could be. We saw hope. We hoped. For maternity leave and affordable daycare and reproductive justice and better health care and less college debt and equality for all and a Listener in Chief. We saw hope for ourselves and our daughters.
But my mother never saw hope. She saw corruption. She saw rigged systems and lies. She saw dismissal and derision. She didn’t see a sexual predator or a violent bully; she saw a man who would break the system that oppressed her. She didn’t see a con man working his grift; she saw revenge on the people she thought took her dignity, her safety. She made her own connections, found her own support groups. They unearthed secret plots against her. They affirmed her fears. She shouted into a swirling cloud of pain and anger and fed off the reverberations that came back.

I don’t believe the world she saw was real, but in the end it was all perspective. We were standing on opposite sides of a canyon, trying to communicate through fog. I couldn’t convince her that her own eyes weren’t telling her the truth. I couldn’t convince her that my work was for her, that my America — in progress and unpolished — was for her.

My mother voted for cynicism. She voted to tear it all down. And it might mean she loses the health care I fought so hard to get her. It might mean she has to wait years longer for help from Social Security. It will mean her beloved granddaughters have to grow up in a nation where a man who has allegedly sexually assaulted multiple women, who calls women pigs and mocks and derides and humiliates them in public is elevated to the highest office in the nation.
It feels like a betrayal, of me and my daughters, of my lesbian, chronically ill sister, of my diverse community of friends and family. And yet I can’t let go of the idea that we — all of us — are stronger together.

I voted for hope. And in the face of defeat, I will hold tight to it. I will give unconditionally. With all of my strength, I will fight for the people I love: for my gay and lesbian friends, for my immigrant friends, for my friends of colour, for all of the people who feel like they are drowning right now. And yes, I will fight for those white women who let a wolf in our home.

I won’t change her mind; I’ve tried too many times. But I will listen. I will come to her side of the canyon. I will keep working to make America work for her. I will fight for my mother, for her health, for her financial security, for the dignity of her beautiful, brave, angry, wonderful life. I will be courageous and generous and kind. I will love harder than I ever have. It is the only thing left to do.