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Don’t Mention Trump On Thanksgiving

President Trump has proven to be a lightning rod the likes of which the world has never seen. He has consolidated the nation’s political conversation in a way even former President Barack Obama could not. He makes a fight about abortion look like bickering over the NFC East. And now he’s coming for your Thanksgiving table.

First, a little backstory. Several years ago, I was interested in what people argued about on Thanksgiving. As part of a broader SurveyMonkey Audience poll, I asked people which hot-button issues were likely to provoke an argument at their holiday tables.1 Nothing ever came of the question; people mostly bypassed options like health care, gay marriage and immigration to choose “other” as by far the most common response, distantly followed by President Obama. This isn’t all that uncommon: You have to ask a lot of boring questions before you stumble upon one that’s actually interesting.

I decided to revisit that poll just over one year after Trump’s election and 10 months into what has proven to be a polarizing first term in office. We asked a second SurveyMonkey panel the same question,2 only we swapped out “President Obama” with “President Trump.” This one ran from Nov. 15-16, 2017, and 948 people who were attending Thanksgiving with their family answered the question.

The shift was massive.

Something changed in America between 2014 and 2017

Which issue is most likely to start a Thanksgiving argument?

ISSUE 2014 SHARE 2017 SHARE CHANGE
The president 11.4% 36.8% +25.4
Terrorism 1.2 2.8 +1.7
Congress 1.6 3.0 +1.3
Foreign policy 1.5 2.2 +0.7
Abortion 0.5 1.1 +0.6
Gay marriage 3.0 3.5 +0.5
Birth control 0.5 0.8 +0.4
Health care 4.5 4.7 +0.2
Economy 4.8 4.3 -0.4
Environment 2.9 2.3 -0.6
Economic inequality 2.8 2.2 -0.6
Immigration 4.8 3.8 -1.0
Personal debt 10.0 6.2 -3.8
Other 49.0 26.2 -22.8
Budget deficit 1.6 Not asked

Source: Surveymonkey audience

In 2014, 11 percent of Americans indicated that Obama was most likely to spur an argument. In 2017, that figure was 37 percent for Trump.

The expectation that Trump would be the subject most likely to hijack Thanksgiving transcended party lines: We asked respondents if they considered themselves Republicans, Democrats or independents, and regardless of party affiliation, the most common answer in each group was still Trump.3 Just over half of self-identified Democrats — 169 out of 319 respondents — said talking about Trump was most likely to start an argument, compared to 34 percent of independents and 20 percent of Republicans.

What’s most interesting to me is precisely what happened to the “other” category this year. People who chose “other” were asked to write in a more specific reason for their Thanksgiving arguments, and we sorted those responses into three broad categories: one, respondents who did not offer any detail or said they don’t argue (I’m calling that “not applicable”); two, people who wrote in a political issue or politician; and three, people who listed something apolitical, maybe a family member or the turkey or the Washington Football Team or a personal grievance or any of the myriad other things people don’t agree on outside of the political realm.

Turns out we don’t have as many non-political differences as we used to.

Apolitical topics are less contentious in the Trump era

Which issue is most likely to start a Thanksgiving argument?

ISSUE 2014 SHARE 2017 SHARE CHANGE
The president 11.4% 36.8% +25.4
Other (fill in response) 49.0 26.2 -22.8
Other, political 4.3 3.2 -1.1
Other, non-political 39.7 8.4 -31.2
Other, N/A 5.0 14.6 +9.6

Source: Surveymonkey Audience

In 2014, 40 percent of all respondents selected “other” and wrote in a non-political issue. In 2017, only 8 percent did that. What on earth happened to that 32 percent of respondents? Well, 10 percent of the overall sample shifted to the “not applicable” category — make of that what you will — but around a quarter of all respondents seem to have shifted from the non-political bucket to the presidential bucket.

There are many ways to read that. Here’s mine: There used to be lots of apolitical things about which people could disagree. And there still are, but something about 2016 nationalized those distinctions, making them into cultural signifiers and in some cases weaponizing them politically. Blame it on whoever or whatever you want — blame identity politics or blame Trump, you made your choice long before clicking on this piece. Arguments that used to be about a job or a profession or football or college sports or television or the food or even the booze are now inextricably connected to presidential politics. And so we’re still fighting about “other,” we’re just doing it under the banner of Trump.

Again, that’s just a theory, but here’s a rule of thumb: Don’t mention the president for any reason whatsoever on Thanksgiving. Regardless of their personal politics, two out of five of the people sitting with you think the subject will start a fight and are already dreading hearing his name.

Footnotes

  1. The survey ran Nov. 21 and 22, 2014, and 860 people who were attending Thanksgiving with their family answered the question.

  2. “Budget deficit” was one of the options in 2014 but was not included as a potential response this year.

  3. After splitting up the “other” category into political, non-political or N/A responses, as described below.

Walt Hickey is FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

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