Alone last Sunday night, I was writing my live coverage of the Oscars—mostly out of preparation to cover live national events for a career in journalism rather than an inherent interest in the Academy Awards themselves—when Jimmy Kimmel, of all people, made me cry. In his opening monologue, Kimmel called upon audience members to pick up the phone and get in touch with a friend or family member that they vehemently disagree with politically, and try to engage in a civil and respectful discussion. It was then, in the midst of an over-prepared, over-caffeinated and self-imposed vocational exercise that I closed my laptop, and began sobbing in the empty College of Letters library. I remembered that the first person I wanted to call, my Uncle Woods, was dead.
My mother’s youngest brother, Edward “Woods” Robinson, passed away this summer before the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. In many ways, as we’re social beings and define ourselves by opposition, much of my political life and ideology is grounded in arguments I had with my Uncle Woods from middle school onward. They’d often end the same way, where, after debating the merits of the welfare state or civil liberties, we’d have a laugh and he’d say to me, “I may not agree with you, but you’ll have my vote one day.”
As one of the first baby boomers to start using Facebook, Woods was my window into the rise of the Tea Party, sharing political cartoons, memes (though he didn’t know that was the proper nomenclature), and lengthy rants that, despite lacking any kind of factual coherency, nonetheless stuck it to the liberal elite. Going into college, my disagreements with him became increasingly intense, yet always remained respectful and sometimes even bordered on cathartic. On vacation in northern Michigan, it was common for the room to clear out whenever Uncle Woods and I started “talking politics,” which was a damn shame for anyone who wanted to see a show and engage in civics along the way.
Woods was such an enigma to me sometimes that I would often be quick to bring him up as a counterargument. Professor of Earth and Environmental Science Dana Royer even began using a proverbial “conservative uncle” example in his intro to environmental science class after I had asked how I could explain the research behind climate change to my uncle who fundamentally does not believe in science or data that disagrees with his views.
Then Uncle Woods told me he was a Trump supporter.
I should have seen it coming, but it still came as a shock. He had supported outliers in Republican primaries before, such as Rick Santorum over Michigan native Mitt Romney in 2012, but I never could have imagined my Midwestern uncle voting for a blowhard reality TV star from Queens. Yet my uncle—a walking fount of hyperbole and contradictions—was exactly the kind of “forgotten American” to whom Trump was supposedly speaking.
He depended significantly on disability and Medicaid but wanted the government to take its damn hands off his healthcare. His pension depended on revenue from the American auto industry, but he opposed the bailout of Ford, GM, and Chrysler. He would call himself a libertarian when it suited him, but he opposed the right of transgender Americans to use the bathroom of their choice.
Frankly, practically no one cares about my political views, and as I step into a career in journalism, they will become more and more discrete and separated from my work. However, not only did my Uncle Woods care about my political beliefs and my writing, he also served as an example—albeit flawed, like any other human being representing a greater cause—of what it meant to be an engaged citizen. Sure, his Facebook friends hated how he would saturate their news feeds with hot takes, memes, and questionably sourced articles, but he was willing to engage in politics in a social way.
This is where I have to be careful and say that I understand that there is a great degree of privilege in being able to have these kinds of discussions with my late uncle, and to admire him for his political conviction that many, on and off campus, justifiably argue put lives in danger. That being said, my uncle was a perfect example of a Trump voter in that he was deeply convinced that he wasn’t a racist and that his politics came from a love of his country rather than a place of hatred. He saw the neo-fascists of the alt-right to be as foreign as non-Trump supporters saw them, but failed to recognize the same foundations upon which many of his beliefs were built.
Uncle Woods’ outsize presence and endless tolerance for listening to his own voice rendered him to be the largest pro-Trump faction in my life, which includes scores of Facebook friends from upstate New York who revealed their support of the current president in greater and greater numbers after Election Day, when it seemed to be safe to come out of the proverbial and misattributed closet. What set Uncle Woods apart was that he was blood, and no mute button or unfollow on social media could remove him from my life, or ultimately, my own political identity.
So it’s with great pain that I wonder what he would say now, to his aspiring journalist nephew, when he would hear that his candidate and our president called the press the “enemy of the people.” He had vapid justifications for comments Trump made about Muslims and Mexican immigrants, so I have little faith that he would change his mind on the media front, but there was always nonetheless hope with Uncle Woods. Integral to my desire to debate him online and in person was always a mutual desire that we could change each other’s minds and that we would be better off debating than remaining passive-aggressive in avoiding the topic at hand. I still want to hold onto that belief, as fervently as it’s contested in my campus polis.
What I miss most of all—albeit selfishly—is the personal caveat he would make for me at the end of a fiery debate: first, that he would vote for me when the time came, and later, that he would subscribe to whichever publication I landed at when I made the prolonged decision to move away from political activism toward journalism. Everyone else in my family loved Uncle Woods for his exaggerated stories of his youth and for his convivial presence with a glass of scotch in his hand, in spite of his politics, but I loved him precisely because he challenged my politics more than anyone else I know. Ultimately, I will always remember the death of Woods Robinson as a harbinger for the death of American political discourse, which I desperately believed to be alive if only for those lakeside arguments with my uncle.
I hope there’s a chance for rebirth in our political discourse, just as much as I wish that upon publishing this article and sharing it on Facebook, the first like—always within no more than 30 seconds—would be from Uncle Woods, followed by a comment and a jab if it was an opinion piece, stoking the fire for another argument where one of us just might change the other’s mind.
Lahut is a member of the class of 2017.