MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Remember the presidential campaign four years ago, when it seemed that supporters of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton disagreed about just about everything? It probably won't shock you to hear that according to a new poll from the Pew Research Center, those divisions have only gotten wider, especially when it comes to hot-button issues around how race and gender affect people's lives. Other surveys show that President Trump is the most polarizing president in memory.
So with that kind of division, why wouldn't it affect people's friendships - which is why an essay by writer and marketing executive Felicia Sullivan caught our attention. It was published in Medium last week with the title "I Lost My Best Friend Of Two Decades To Trump." When we called her to talk about it, she told me how she and her friend met in college 26 years ago. Sullivan was from Brooklyn and estranged from her mother. Her friend grew up in Connecticut in a family that to Sullivan seemed perfect.
FELICIA SULLIVAN: She enveloped me in her family. Like, I didn't necessarily have a stable family. And she just invited me into her home. I was welcome every Thanksgiving and Christmas. You know, we vacationed together. We went to Mexico together. We went to weddings together. I was part of her children's lives. I loved her children. So this wasn't something that was, you know, we met, we had drinks in college and that was it. It really evolved as we became adult women. And we really were part of those most intimate parts of one another's lives.
MARTIN: So - which has to have made the break all the more painful.
MARTIN: And I also do want to mention something else that you talk about in your essay. You talk about the fact that at some point, you developed some difficulties - well, I'll just say...
MARTIN: ...Some severe personal difficulties.
MARTIN: And you write about how other friends of yours were worried about you. And she was really the only one who could get through to you. And so they called her to say, you got to help us here. That is a really deep connection. What was it that started to change? I mean, did you - were there - was there a sign before that you all were not on the same page when it came to certain things?
SULLIVAN: I think a little. I mean, for as long as we both could remember, I was a staunch Democrat, and she's a staunch Republican. And those differences didn't necessarily divide us. But I think some of the inkling happened when Barack Obama became president, and she was just really displeased. And, you know, some words would come out during the course of holiday dinners. And then we had a discussion where we decided not to talk about politics. Our discussions that were once really respectful became sort of heated.
And she sort of revealed in a conversation that just seismically changed everything - that not only was she a Trump supporter, she had really sort of opposing views on Black Lives Matter. Like, all the things that were really important to me not only as a person but as someone who's also mixed race - I just felt that I could no longer just be polite and complicit and just sort of endure the fact that we had differences. I really had to speak up because I think this is a moment when we have to do those things.
MARTIN: Let me read something from the essay.
MARTIN: You wrote, we had a tacit agreement - no politics. You were a lawyer who would battle to the grave, and I always had to have the last word. We would yell across our caskets if we could.
MARTIN: We sat on either side of the political divide, but I believed we could weather our differences - and then 2016. It started with your opinions on Black Lives Matter and me shouting into the phone and ended with your staunch support of Trump. Our once respectful yet heated discussions veered toward the ugly and profane. I'd lost all respect for you, and you in turn lost respect for me.
I'm trying to figure out what is it about the Trump presidency or Donald Trump as a public figure, as a political leader, that occasioned this - that really broke the truce? I'll just put it that way...
MARTIN: ...That broke the truce.
SULLIVAN: I think, you know, obviously before the election, there were some very clear moments when you knew a lot of what he was thinking was inherently racist and misogynist. And, you know, even though I disagree with her on John McCain, John McCain was a fundamentally decent man. He was a war hero. He was someone that loved America and loved its people. And I could deeply respect that, and I could deeply respect her vote. But this is a man who (laughter) is an opportunist and who doesn't necessarily have the benefit of all American people.
And I think at the core, you know, you want to look at someone and say, OK, they're inherently a decent person even though the politics are different. I can rely that they'll actually do the right thing. And coming into that election, I didn't feel that he would do the right thing for all American people. And she did.
MARTIN: And here's where I have to ask - do you think your friend's a racist?
SULLIVAN: Yes. She would counter and say no, but...
MARTIN: But why...
SULLIVAN: I'd say yes.
MARTIN: ...Do you think she's a racist? Because this is one of the things that Trump supporters complain about all the time and that Trump critics also say in response. Progressives, liberals, Democrats, whatever, think that all Trump supporters are racist. And what Trump critics counter is that it's not that I think all Trump supporters are racists but that his racism doesn't bother you.
SULLIVAN: Exactly. I think there's a difference. I think when people think about racism, unfortunately, they think of the very extreme, right? They think of the KKK. They think of all the things that have directly hurt African Americans and marginalized people in this country. And I think the more insidious ways in which we welcome racism so eagerly into our communities by saying, for example, I want to send my kids to the good schools. We want to live in good neighborhoods - which is coded language, right?
MARTIN: There's also another side to this as well, as you...
MARTIN: ...I'm sure know. Conservatives, including President Trump, have been criticizing what they are calling a cancel culture, which is - they see as a willingness to, you know, cancel people - everything from unfriending them to calling for them to be fired because...
MARTIN: ...Others find their political beliefs to be offensive. And, in fact, there were a couple of essays we found with people saying that - conservatives who say that they've lost friends over President Trump. Like, one of the speakers at the RNC convention, Herschel Walker, said the same thing. They tend to see this as irrational...
MARTIN: ...They consider irrational hatred of Donald Trump. And I just would ask, what do you say to that?
SULLIVAN: Well, first off, I think there is some truth to what they're saying about cancel culture. I would definitely agree that I think in some instances, it definitely has gotten out of hand. But I think what's going on in this country with regard to how COVID was handled, to how immigrants are being treated, to how Black people are being treated - I think those are things that warrant more aggressive attention.
And I don't think we can just be polite and genteel anymore. I think there has to be a time where we have to stand up and say, I'm willing to sacrifice friendships and loved ones in order to make sure that people who don't necessarily have the privileges that I do, you know, get to live a life of dignity.
MARTIN: Well, you know, before I let you go, obviously, it's a painful essay. I mean, it must have been hard to write.
SULLIVAN: It was.
MARTIN: And you say in the piece, you should know this one thing - I wish I could still love you. I wish I could throw open the doors and let the mothballs flutter out, but I can't.
SULLIVAN: That's hard (laughter).
SULLIVAN: It's really hard.
MARTIN: Have you heard from your friend? Do you have any sense of whether she's read your essay and...
SULLIVAN: I haven't. She's not a big online reader. I don't know. Part of me is hopeful that in years to come, maybe we'll reconcile because this wasn't something that I decided on a whim. Obviously, this person's been in my life, and she's family, and this decision was a painful one. And I'm hoping at one point, we could reconcile, right? But at this point, it's a struggle for me to kind of meet her halfway because for her, there is no going to halfway. There is only what I believe and not what I'm willing to sacrifice for the greater good.
And I think that's where our difference lies. I think a lot of what I'm trying to do as a person who lives in this society is think of the larger whole and make those sacrifices. And I think, you know, she has a very clear picture of how she wants America to look and operate, and she's willing to do everything to sort of hold up that ideal.
MARTIN: Well, I hope you hear from her. And if you do, I hope you'll let us know how it goes.
MARTIN: Felicia Sullivan is the author of two books and most recently an essay published in Medium called "I Lost My Best Friend Of Two Decades To Trump." We reached her in Ojai, Calif.
Felicia Sullivan, thanks so much for talking to us about your essay.
SULLIVAN: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.