Essay: “Dinner with Trump and the Art of (Im)potent Rage” by Janet Mercel

Janet Mercel

Dinner with Trump and the Art of (Im)potent Rage

My niece brought her boyfriend back east last summer to meet all of us. He was sweet and placid and quiet enough that I wasn’t sure he was paying attention until he’d had enough cocktails to loosen his lips. Later in the evening he told me how intimidated he’d been to be presented to the women in our family.

You’re all so different, he said. But you’re all somehow the same. You all have this combination of—he struggled for a moment to put his impression to the right words—ambition and rage. 

I live by my rage, or used to. My ex-husband said before we were married that his favorite thing about me was my unbridled enthusiasm. He would grow to regret that. Unbridled everything.

Perhaps I thought by losing my temper, I made up for being silly and fancy, that perhaps I’d be taken as seriously as we all took my father when he lost his. Eventually I realized that inspiring fear is not the same as being taken seriously. 

I think of this when I watch the current president speak. I don’t even need the sound on: the news clips silently climb the sides of my laptop screen, but I know already that I will be offended, nauseated and saddened by whatever is coming out of his mouth. Even before we all became universally familiar with his resentful cadence and irritated lip twists, we knew that nothing good could come out of a man who flaps his hands in people’s faces to interject his point and jabs his finger accusingly at anyone who opposes him. I’ve known men like that all my life—men that bully, interrupt and patronize. I am intimately familiar with men that condescend and presume, that attack with guns artlessly blazing, their points of argument rife with irrelevancy. But they’re exhausting, they wear you down, and eventually you acquiesce because it is easier than holding your head up straight against the onslaught, which was their goal all along, of course. The wearing you down.

A few years ago, before I turned thirty, I had a pair of boxing gloves tattooed on my bicep, upside down, hanging from their string. Hang up the gloves, I’m tired of fighting. There is a certain degree of showmanship in throwing a temper tantrum. It is, by nature, designed for an audience, and people doubt your validity because they’re sitting there wondering if you’d bother to be this expressively angry with no one watching. (I assure you I would be.) Sometimes I worry that no one should care as much and as hard about absolutely everything as I do. Other times, I worry if it is artifice. I do not want to be someone who resorts to bluster to make myself heard. I want there to be something more than emotion behind my arguments. If you’re a passionate person, however, it is very tempting to bulldoze forward, and your strongest traits manifest dramatically, however unflattering. Maybe you become a bully. Perhaps you’ll be labeled a hysteric, or a cry baby. Everyone reaches a point where they want to kick someone’s teeth in, or at least I imagine they do, but I know there is a better way of communicating. There has to be.

I was only beginning to understand how I wanted to approach the world as an individual in normal circumstances, when the emotional temperature of my country changed almost overnight. Anger became the prevailing language and blame the accepted norm. What I know of this kind of social unrest I know from the movies. Scenes of families ripped apart by politic divide; somebody’s son announces at Thanksgiving Dinner that he joined the Black Panther Party or protested the Vietnam War, and they’re told to leave this house and never come back. Families torn asunder. But to me they were historical, it wasn’t This American Life, it wasn’t my life. Not really.

It took me years to realize that my sister and I are mostly interchangeable to the larger world. You would never know our family had given us such clearly defined roles all our lives: thoughtful vs reckless, intelligent vs decorative, measured vs volatile, unless you were to come across us back under our parents’ roof or in the rare company of our brothers. I grew up believing my sister and I were opposites in every way. Now, the chasm between our personalities seems much less vast sitting side by side at our neighborhood bar in Brooklyn. The four years between us evaporates, and a lot of people ask if we’re twins. 

But those roles, however seemingly irrelevant, however outdated, were established for a reason. They have origins and we have our extremes. She veers her way, I veer mine. The first time our father kicked me out of our house I was in high school, and my sister had brought her first girlfriend home from college. She never felt any need to sit our parents down and say, Mom, Dad, I’m gay, any more than I did to say, Mom, Dad, I’m straight. She didn’t plead her case. She didn’t defend or argue. They showed up together one weekend and we all had a lovely time. It was only after they left I overheard our father relaying his Catholic angst to our mother; his doubts, his perceived failure as a parent. The white-hot shock of rage I felt over this betrayal took my breath away. This was his child he was discussing. This was my sister. From my point of view, any ideological platform he had to stand on should have been abandoned the instant there was a face and a name of someone he loved attached to it. The words you are disgusting most definitely came out of my fifteen-year-old mouth after I’d flown down the stairs at him. I never told my sister and it was years later I realized she would not have cared, anyway. She did not feel the need for me to go to bat for her against an adversary she dismissed immediately on principle.

I slept at her apartment, two blocks from mine, the night of the 2016 elections. Our eyes met across the room when we woke up the next morning at almost the same moment, and filled with tears before our heads had left our pillows. We went our separate ways that day without speaking, there was nothing left to say. We’d been fretting for months about our individual and combined concerns—gay marriage rights, reproductive rights, health care, the nameless, myriad fears of life as women and all that might come to mean in this new political environment. Her pain was my pain, and mine, hers. My mother was not having such an easy time of it, either. She was one of the many women of her generation who had long ago resigned herself to the cliché of men for what they are, their bad behavior and prejudices merely something to be borne, who had been deeply affected by the presence of Trump and all he represented. Something mean and horrible was sparked in her, decades old and forgotten, and she, too, suddenly found the existence of the president and men like him intolerable after a lifetime of acceptance.

My father did not seem to recognize how troubled we were, that our pain was real. I spend a lot of time at my parents’ house, but after the election it was difficult for me to be there. He swanned about the house for weeks waving victory articles in our faces and crowing loudly to his conservative friends on the phone, until I began dreaming almost nightly that I had stabbed him. He was genuinely confused when my mother and I both started crying one night at dinner and begged him to change the subject.

My sister avoided their house entirely. We had long conversations about how she knew it was wrong, she knew she held some responsibility as a member of the gay community to begin at home, to use her voice and go from there in an attempt to affect change at large, but she hated those conversations. She knew I had never stopped, would never stop, trying to make my father expand his worldview, to understand where he was coming from when he spouted good ole’ boy rhetoric, no matter how hard it was to stomach. It had taken me years to come home again after an unceremonious ousting and major conflict over my own lifestyle. I wasn’t about to lose my father once more even when he staunchly defended Mike Pence. Perhaps I will never understand how he can love his eldest daughter unconditionally, and still support the right of a small-town baker to refuse to make her a wedding cake, but I will probably never stop trying. My sister told me she knew she’d always left me alone with the burden of family conflict because I volunteered for the job so readily. But I think about it all the time, she said. I will try harder not to leave you alone.

There’s four of kids us altogether; me, the youngest. Something happens when you get a group of grown children together as adults, especially if you all rarely find yourselves in each other’s company. Whoever you are as individuals in the world evaporates and you become something else—the youngest, the oldest, the middle child. My brother came to Manhattan for a conference in the spring and the four of us sat down to dinner alone together for the first time in I have no idea how many years. Admittedly, I made the mistake of reading Margaret Atwood that day. My skin was translucently thin; I never should have been discussing politics. I’ve lost the chain of exactly how things escalated, but escalate they did, and suddenly the two people in front of me were not my brothers, but two faceless, boorish, dominating men incapable of hearing. They did not appear to understand what it was about the president’s policies that upset me so.

There is only one person at this table who has, in fact, been negatively affected by this administration and it isn’t any of you, my visiting brother declared.

His statement seemed so illogical I couldn’t begin to understand what he was talking about. My brother, a strapping, Ivy League educated former athlete, with a lovely and successful brood of young blonde children I adore, felt victimized by the Trump administration? I realized after a moment that he was referring to why he was in town at all. This was in April, the president had passed an executive order the day before proposing limitations to the immigrant workforce from Canada and Mexico, and the always-beleaguered agriculture industry was in an uproar. My brother was as concerned as ever about the economics of how to keep the heart of America pumping at a healthy speed while large scale farms across the country continued their constant struggle to stay afloat and produce. I knew he was stressed out. But when I realized what he was saying I almost choked. In the months following, Trump would come to attack my health coverage under The Affordable Care Act, my reproductive rights, (I was the only person at that table to which this was remotely relevant), and push an agenda that eradicates anti-discrimination laws from protecting the gay community, not to mention that my eldest brother is married to a first-generation Turkish Muslim woman with a family that resides largely in Çeşme, although he personally didn’t seem affected by this in the slightest. How, I thought, how could one compare economy with basic human rights?

I argued furiously. That train of thought segued into a financial row, one in which my eldest brother made it clear he did not expect us, as his sisters, to ever reach his heights of success and that he fully expected to support us in our old age if I refused to remarry and my sister ended up with a woman or no one. Blind rage.

I knew I was losing my train of thought, becoming too emotional to make a flawlessly rational argument. The awareness of it only made me panic. I looked to my sister. I knew she felt as threatened and oppressed as I did, if not more so. I’d heard every fear and doubt about the current state of affairs come spilling out of her mouth for months. But she was looking down at the table, at the ceiling, anywhere but my eyes, and all the fight drained out of me, like cold blood. Sitting in the middle of a crowded restaurant in Flatiron, I couldn’t stop myself. The tears ran fast onto my plate, and immediately rendered me what they already thought I was: a hysterical, useless female. It was easy, after that, to dismiss what I had to say.

It would have taken one word from my sister—older, calmer, disengaged to the point of apathy—to diffuse the situation, to protect me. But family dynamic is a powerful thing. It has always been as though I was raised with three brothers, instead of the palpable presence of another girl child. It was beyond the obviousness of her tomboy nature, or the fact that growing up we never borrowed each other’s clothes or fought over a boy. Something about her bearing and sexual preference, however subliminal, impervious to any ideological conflict, granted her a certain validity. She was received with the same gravity and respect in our family as the boys, (except perhaps by our eldest brother, whose contempt for all other humans is gender blind), while I stood by arguing with my mother over permission to wear her pearls.

On the sidewalk after dinner, we considered our avenues home. I had not been able to completely stop crying since I began, and I stood openly weeping beside them, hiccupping like a child. This was unlike me; I am not a big weeper. But something about the nature of their united attack, so baseless, so useless, had destroyed me a little. Bloodsport.

My two brothers were headed to the same apartment uptown, the host and his houseguest. When the younger of the two mustered a hearty goodbye, (Well! Wonderful to see you both!), it was so unnerving to me, this shaking off of reality, the return home with reports of a pleasant visit with the family, that I thought I would vomit into the street. My distress was as disposable to them, as inconsequential, as though I were a small dog straining on my leash.  

When the boys turned to go, I did, too, in the opposite direction of the subway home to the same Brooklyn block as my sister. I’m going the other way, I said.

She turned to see me backing away from her, and there. There it was—the mocking smirk she’d promised she would never use on me. She shrugged dismissively, scornful. Whatever. For the first time in our lives I wanted to physically wipe it off her face.

I made it half a block before I fell apart. My boyfriend told me days later that when I’d called him on my solitary walk home, he’d never heard me cry before. You were crying so hard when I answered the phone, he said, I thought someone had been shot.

I’ll probably come across my brothers sooner rather than later. I’ll probably forgive them for tearing me apart. After all, I’ve always had higher standards for the women in my life than the men. Maybe that’s the problem.

Janet Mercel is a designer and content/copywriter in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Whoa Magazine, The Amorist, and some other random places. Her first book, The Limelight, is a recovery memoir slated for publishing with Bauer & Dean in 2019.

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