Donald Trump‘s surprise victory in the 2016 presidential election came just weeks before the second-most significant event in American political life: Thanksgiving, the one time each year when Americans come together to eat turkey and debate matters of national consequence with their relatives. Ahead of that year’s Thanksgiving, I encouraged such a dialogue, arguing that you’re actually more likely to change hearts and minds in the context of familial company—far more than screaming at people on Twitter, at least.
I was wrong.
It’s not that discussing politics with family is an inherently problematic enterprise: As I noted in 2016, face-to-face engagement tends to afford better opportunities for civil conversation than the de-individualized nature of of digital communication; the familiarity of blood relationships can offer a much-needed perspective when contrasted with the personal bubbles of confirmation bias that we often build for ourselves in our daily lives. That is, of course, if you let them: Roll into the dining room with a slew of statistics and chances are you’re the one everyone’s dreading seeing.
But two years after that Election Day, Trump dominates virtually every aspect of public life. Ceding the Thanksgiving table in service to civic engagement isn’t just a losing battle, but a surrender of our final sanctum of private life to the suffocating ubiquity of Trump.
The family gathering has been a fixture of Western civil society since at least the Enlightenment, when the constellations of salons that created the modern “public sphere” catalyzed a parallel transformation in the private home with the emergence of the parlor. Observing the evolution of the European home during the 17th and 18th centuries in his perennial The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, sociologist Jurgen Habermas wrote that the development of the individual in this newly public context “left less room for the family as a whole” as the “‘public’ character of the extended family’s parlor … was replaced by the conjugal family’s living room, into which the spouses with their smaller children retired from the personnel.” If the Enlightenment was built on cafés, restaurants, and salons, so too did the home change to reflect the shifting boundaries between public and private.
“Festivities for the whole house gave way to social evenings; the family room became a reception room in which private people gather to form a public,” Habermas wrote. “The line between private and public sphere extended right through the home. The privatized individuals stepped out of the intimacy of their living rooms into the public sphere of the salon, but one was strictly complementary to the other.”
While the salon and parlor are appropriate vehicles for Habermas’ inquiry, the encroachment of the public sphere on the primordial architecture of the family is no longer defined by physical spaces: The very design of social media induces us to live publicly all the time, to throw ourselves into digital salons through an engineered cycle of fleeting dopamine hits—even when, as Habermas accidentally predicted decades ago, “only the name salon recalled the origin of convivial discussion and rational-critical debate in the sphere of noble society.” The image of the smartphone-addicted family, staring at their iPhone screens as they sit around the dinner table, is tired and well-worn—but it’s also accurate. The tech-driven inattention that’s normally reserved for strangers on the subway is now a piece of the family dynamic.
What does this have to do with Trump? The president embodies publicness, and not simply because of his political role as commander-in-chief. Indeed, Trump has become the subtext of every national political and cultural “conversation” for years now, thanks to his combative rhetorical style and his freewheeling Twitter presence. He hangs over Roseanne and Saturday Night Live as much as he does the Beltway; he is a godsend for cable news and the foremost champion of the culture wars. It’s said that authoritarian governments only become totalitarian when they achieve total domination over all elements of life beyond mere public politics. Trump has entered into our lives not by brute force or propaganda, but by digital media. Trump said it himself exactly two years after his election, admitting to reporters, “It’s called earned media.”
This isn’t to say that the president’s name should be barred from the family home. But Trump has come to dominate so much of public life through the exploitation of its core nodes of power; what’s really to be gained from bringing the war out there to your dining room table?