Patriarchy and Politics in Idaho After Trump’s Election
Debra Gwartney Pushes Back Against Her Conservative Family
On a November morning in 2016, the morning after the election, I was alone in the Western Oregon house I share with my husband, still in a bed that’s wedged in an upstairs eave. Blankets were heaped on top of me and I sunk my head into a pillow. I floated there between the cold wood floor and the rain pelting our roof, pretending results announced the night before weren’t real.
But they were real, and I suspected the country would be different now in a way I could only begin to fathom. That meant I would have to be different, too, but how? That question churned in me—as I’m sure it did in millions of left-leaning women that morning—until I had troweled up layers of memory: about the person I’d been for five-plus decades, and mostly how I’d been raised as a girl in Idaho.
The men in my family would balk at my view of the old days, the 60s and the 70s. They’d insist that tough and resilient women had every bit the same chance as men to shine—just look at my youngest sister who climbed atop a horse at about age eight and went on to be a champion bareback rider, or my girl cousin who, among the plethora of ball players in my family, was the only one offered an athletic scholarship.
But I wasn’t like that; I didn’t storm my way in whether they liked it or not. I was a reticent girl who mostly retreated and waited for someone to tell me what to do.
I was not, as my brother was, taught the names of trees and birds in the Idaho woods; no one showed me how to find my way home if I got lost. I had no idea of tools, what they did, how to hold them in my hands, how to make them do what I needed. I was not invited on horse trips, on river trips, on hunting trips. I was told that if a man put his hand up my shirt or down my pants I should be thankful—someone considered me attractive.
As I lie there in bed, I remembered how, when certain women in the family appeared in the wee hour of the night with nose bloodied or eyes a purple-black, they were given a healthy shot of whiskey and reminded not to make a ruckus. I recalled hot whispered rumor of the men’s infidelities. And my grandmothers—I thought about how neither spoke freely about their dead babies because their husbands had said not to, to instead silo grief away like rotting grain, a toxin now trickling through every generation.
I was shaped to go along to get along, to remain in the background, to believe in the men long before I believed in myself.
Visiting my father’s house in Idaho a year or so after the election, I was still ravaged by the country’s politics. I hid my how the fuck did this happen wobble, even when my father pulled out his MAGA hat and offered to send it home with me for my husband. “He’ll want to wear this one,” he said, and I actually accepted the red thing, shoved it in my purse, laughing, reflexively turning into that obsequious Idaho girl who knew her place and issued no challenge. I thought I’d purged her over years of school and work and parenthood and marriage, but apparently I’d done a less than thorough job because there she was, welling inside me with her desperation to please.
My father and I had a long standing and unspoken agreement when it came to politics, one that started when I went against Idaho creed and voted for the peanut farmer from Georgia. (What made me do so, who knows, except I loved Carter’s tenderness, loved his love of his family, loved scrappy, shy Amy). When he discovered this transgression, my father railed at me about the new president’s bumbling and ineptitude. I see now that this was his first attempt to restore his daughter to the libertarian fold that has defined our family for five generations in the West. My part of the deal was to stand there and endure it, let him yell at me and blanch as if I deserved this tirade for choosing against the code of my family and of the frontier.
Every election resulted in the same: my father trying to correct my course. I heard about the wonders of Reagan, the evil-beyond-all-evils of Clinton (not Bill but Hillary). Cheney was praised for his mind and his tactics, his guidance of W. And then came Barack Obama, elected when I was ludicrously old to still put up with a parental lecture. And yet I did put up with it.
One day when he was watching golf or Sean Hannity, he swerved his chair to deliver a preamble that caused me to take a big gulp of wine. I knew what was coming. “You can’t possibly buy his bullshit. . .” Obama, whose election I’d celebrated with hundreds of whooping others on the streets of Portland, a lift of promise and possibility among us, was to my father ruinous. He was wrecking the economy, staunching business practices, over-regulating, over-controlling. He was dead wrong about health care and robbing from the rest of us to pay for entitlements, embarrassing us in foreign affairs, and sullying the reputation of the country’s highest office by letting his wife saunter around the world in tank tops, this woman who, in general, spoke too loud.
I, as I tended to, dissembled. I stumbled through a mild defense of the president and his policies, unable to form a decently cogent argument as if I’d forgotten my own mind. I backed down instantly when my father got riled. No growling or shouting. No catch of emotion in my voice. Banish every temptation to contradict. Do all that is necessary to preserve whatever tenuous relationship might still be possible between a liberal woman and her conservative father.
For a long time, I assured myself that my weak rejoinders and shuffling feet didn’t mean I was bailing on myself—no way. I was preserving a relationship I cared about. Honoring my father as I’d been taught to do. Except that couldn’t hold up after Trump. I could no longer pretend I was acting out of compassion when it was actually fear that drove me. I turned into a little kid faced with my father’s rage and disappointment. I crumpled like I used to when he, or when any man actually, showed displeasure. I got small, solicitous. I performed the role I knew best: that of the good daughter.
When I was in my father’s house, I did not ask him to turn down blaring Fox News. I didn’t request that his friends refrain from jokes told, I’m guessing, for my benefit (“Why should you never play UNO with a Mexican? He always wants the green card”). I didn’t walk out when my father swept a hand at me, as if my opinions were not worth considering. Until I supported the right candidates, and until I did my best to get downright Kellyanne in how I acted and looked, I would remain an outlier.
I don’t want to be an outlier. I want to be a continuation of the strength and determination that made my family what it is. One great-great-great grandfather established one of the first wide-sweeping ranches near what’s now Boise, while another built the first mercantile in that new town and soon after, the first hotel. Across the state another branch of my father’s family settled in Salmon, the town I was born in and where, coincidentally (some miles from the edge of town) Sacajawea had been born more then a century earlier. My forebears worked the early ranches and opened the implements store; started the newspaper, welded tractor parts, hunted in the forests, mined the creeks for gold, built stills in the mountains during prohibition and sold the hooch for a good profit. It’s a legacy I hold to, that I’m not only proud of but that I depend on. I come from mighty stock. My family and my place made me who I am even if I’ve pushed away much of what Idaho stands for and even if Idaho shoves me back, hard enough to sometimes knock me off my feet.
My family: the brawling, rugged men; the flinty long-suffering women. They’d travelled from miles away with basically nothing to make something of themselves in the untamed West, relying on a staunch self-reliance that continues to this day. It is up to you to make yourself worthy, to square your shoulders and endure any blowdown or blow apart. To take care of your own and to never, ever ask for charity. Mostly to keep the government out. The land is ours to hunt, to fish, to graze animals on as we see fit, to organize and control and tend to. No joker in Washington DC was going to say otherwise.
I could see how all that worked fairly well for men, but even as a kid I was confounded by the role of the women. I’d heard when I was young that I was an instant disappointment to my father by being a girl. A boy he could take into the woods and into the shop. A boy he could teach to scout and weld and to stick to the basketball court until every muscle ached. But what was he to do with a skinny, squalling girl? The instruction to me and to two sisters who followed in short order (one story that always brought big laughs at the dinner table: the doctor who delivered the last girl was so afraid to tell our father that he just slipped a note under the door that said Sorry!), was to stay clean out of the way. We belonged only at the edges of basketball games played on a court my grandfather had poured next to the house. We were to remain inside the house with the women while machinery was repaired or lambs castrated. Keep far from the eighty-year hunting camp that my brother was brought to from the age of four: it was no place for girls. The parts of our lives still bound in the Manifest Destiny ethos—you are entitled to the fruits of this land, it is your God-given right to take it—were distant from me, territory that I could hardly comprehend.
When I was fourteen, preparing for the test that would get me a driver’s license (kids drive young in Idaho), my father took me out for my one and only lesson. He drove our family station wagon up a crooked, rutted, dirt road, impossibly steep in my memory. He turned the car around and told me to move over to the driver’s seat. He sat in the passenger seat and yelled at me to go. It was my first attempt at a standard transmission and I had no clue of the relationship between the clutch and the gear shift, the knob of which was slick from the sweat of my palm. My foot jiggered about, looking for the right place to land as we headed downhill and my father shouted, shift! Shift! Hit the brakes! Shift, goddamn it! Turn!
Many years later, I gave him some teasing grief about that day. Remember how mean you were? He stared at me for a long beat and then said, “Well, you know how to drive, don’t you?”
I do know how to drive. I drive well and confidentially—because of him or despite him? I’m left to wonder if this is the ultimate take-away lesson, because it’s true: my father has taught me to withstand any rabble, no matter how loud or withering, and to forge on.
I do still slide backward into my small and scared little self for reasons I need to sort out, but mostly over a stretch of years, I’ve figured things out on my own. When I drive through Idaho now, I might spot a raptor in the Ponderosa pines and recognize it as a golden eagle. I might hear the song of the redwing blackbird and watch it flash its chevrons among the tall reeds. I’ve pulled over to admire a line of antelope jumping over a barbed wire fence, one sleek animal at a time. Last summer, my sister-in-law and I stopped near Stanley to slip naked into a pool of hidden hot springs near the Salmon River, cooking us to the bone, and later on that same trip we spent about an hour gazing at about two dozen big horned sheep clattering up a cliff of rocky scree with Idaho’s brightest blue sky acting as a brilliant backdrop. I wouldn’t have dreamed, as a child, that those things were meant for the likes of me. Now I claim them as my own and refuse to deny any longer what is mine.
So when I was in my father’s house that day post-election and he began to crow about his new president as I’d expected he would, I for once shook myself out of torpor. I let myself feel only liberated. That’s what Donald Trump has done for me, and maybe for a lot of women like me: he’s let us know that there is no call to be the good daughter any longer; we are past the time of the accommodating girl, we are miles beyond the complacent female.
My father swung his chair in my direction on this visit to issue a challenge. “By the end of his first term you’ll be ready to admit he’s the best president this country has ever had.” I shook my head, no. I scoffed. Laughed. And then I knew what to do. I was finally the woman who could get up out of my chair at the mention of this president’s name and walk out of the room.