Fight Club: Deborah Paul On Polarization

How the president destroyed a 30-year friendship.
Pete and Bob were longtime friends who had law specialties and upscale lifestyles in common. They live in different cities but met several times a year at professional conferences and kept in frequent touch to discuss their legal cases, exchange quips on national news, share family moments, and gossip about their colleagues. They attended each other’s life-cycle events, no matter the travel cost. Another friend, Joe, more boisterous and opinionated, was included in their inner circle, as was my husband, the most reserved of the foursome.
I have changed their names to protect whatever personal integrity they have left after I tell you their story. Politically, Pete is as far left as a person can get without falling off the California coast. Bob and Joe are conservatives. You see where this is headed. During the heated presidential campaign just past, their emails were ablaze with articles forwarded from The New York Times on one side and right-wing blogs and websites on the other. Trump was mentally incompetent, a cheat in business, a demagogue. Hillary was dishonest, took huge speaking fees while pretending to care about the little guy, bungled Benghazi. Things were transpiring this way until Pete became both confident in Hillary’s win and fed up with the escalating language. On the night before the election, he sent a note to Bob and Joe, copying my husband, who stayed out of the verbal warfare. “Get over it,” Pete said. “This is done.”
Joe is an equal-opportunity offender who once roasted my husband at a conference in a way that made Don Rickles look like a sweetheart. Bob, on the other hand, is a nice guy: good friend, good husband, good grandpa. This time, though, Bob couldn’t let it go. The day after the election, he called Trump the lesser of two evils and the outgoing Obama “scum.” Joe, unable not to be Joe, said worse. Pete, who felt disrespected for his liberal leanings, was incensed. “They were taunting me,” he later confided to my husband. The story ends sadly, as the friendship among the three buddies ended: kaput, forever gone, a memory. No more couples’ dinners out, confabs by the pool at meetings, stand-up conversations at cocktail parties, invitations to kids’ weddings, or fun and funny afternoon phone calls.

I do not like confrontation and believe men’s brains are better wired for war than women’s. However, I am as guilty as the next guy of perpetrating bad karma.

My husband tried to patch things up to no avail. Before he even took office and further divided the country, Trump had managed to destroy a 30-year personal alliance. I’ve seen couples pick sides in a divorce but had never seen friendships end over an election. There were too many layers between these guys and the guy in office. How could it be? But it was.
I like to think of myself as a pacifist. For example, my sister and I make keeping peace between us a priority. The worst fight we have had in the last 20 years was over a basket of rolls at a dinner party. I (allegedly) placed a roll on her plate, (allegedly) buttered it, and (in fact) ate it. Ironically, the person on my other side claimed I had taken her plate and, as such, her roll. Spats such as these are allowable and even entertaining. Beyond that, no thanks.
I do not like confrontation and believe men’s brains are better wired for war than women’s. However, I am as guilty as the next guy of perpetrating bad karma. Over the years, I was required to fire a couple of employees, which did not go well. I never forgot finding a half-eaten Girl Scout cookie on the desk of one who was asked to leave immediately. A more aggressive worker once told me to burn in Hell. I did not easily recover from that episode, either.
On occasion, I have been known to shoot off my mouth when I shouldn’t, such as the time I relayed my displeasure over the omission of a beloved family member’s name from a printed program at a religious ceremony. While I was speaking my mind, my niece, less emotional than I, stood behind the object of my rant making slash marks across her neck as a signal for me to stop. Did I? No, I did not, and the parent of the celebrant did not speak to me for years. Some things are better thought but not said.
Way back when, I let the editor of The Indianapolis Star have it—calling his publication “Pravda”—when the paper printed the awards it had won in an important journalism contest but not those won by this magazine, which at the time I edited. Beyond that, I have let words spill to service people about floor tiles that crack, trees that die, hot water heaters that don’t heat, and air conditioners that don’t cool. I have since learned that altercations can break but rarely
fix things.
In my family, I witnessed firsthand the clash between my father and his brother, who were in business together and eventually fell out over a spouse’s interference. The two ceased communication until my uncle came to make peace with Dad—too late—in a nursing home.
My younger son’s political views diverge sharply from mine, so we don’t discuss touchy matters. I wish our friends Pete and Bob had subscribed to that theory. Presidents can break up political parties, which is to be expected. We should not, however, allow them to break up friendships. The cost of conflict is too high.
Editor emerita Deborah Paul’s personal reflections on culture, society, and family have graced the pages of IM since 1981.