The pizza they’ve ordered is half cheese and half meat-lovers, and that on its own says something about Lily Miller, a 17-year-old girl living in Waterloo, Iowa, and her 49-year-old father, Mike.
She’s a vegetarian. He loves meat. She wanted Sen. Bernie Sanders to become the 45th president of the United States. He voted for Donald Trump. They can’t agree on anything — not a singular pizza topping, nor Lily’s political future.
“More power to her,” Mike says when I ask him about Lily’s plan to run for office someday. “Because whether she agrees with me or not, her time spent with me is going to rub off on her, is going to affect how she makes decisions in the future.”
Mike thinks Black Lives Matter demonstrators are terrorists dividing the country. Lily supports the movement wholeheartedly. He thinks Hillary Clinton should be imprisoned. She volunteered for the Clinton campaign after Sanders was defeated in the Democratic primary. They argue about gun control, immigration and education reform, and Trump’s proposed border wall.
Now, for lunch, they’re eating a pie sliced down the middle by their disagreements, at a wholesome sports-bar restaurant playing ‘80s hits at one decibel too loud for a Saturday afternoon. Across the street is West High School, where Lily is a junior. Mike graduated from the school 30 years ago. He was born and raised in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area, two hours northeast of Des Moines, and so was Lily. She is, almost predictably, bored by it. She yearns to pack up her political ambitions and her robust garage-sale vintage jewelry collection and head to one of the US coasts for college. Her dad wants her to go to school in the South.
But for all their differences, Mike and Lily try to avoid — though don’t always succeed — talking about politics at home. Mike works 12-hour shifts at Waterloo’s John Deere factory; they only see each other a few hours a day, at most, and neither thinks that fighting is a worthwhile way to spend that time. Still, their disagreements have come to define their relationship, as made clear to Lily when she told her dad a few years ago that she wanted to go into politics someday, and he told her that he would never vote for her.
It’s an ugly reality that countless teenagers and their middle-aged parents have found themselves in since the 2016 election: For most Americans, the country has never felt more divided — particularly across generational lines — in their lifetimes, and families haven't been excluded from this rupture. In the year since Trump’s inauguration, relatives all over the country have questioned one another’s motives and moral standings over whether they support the president.
But the burden of the country’s bipartisanship can feel even greater for the teenage girls whose opposing relatives are their fathers — the targets of so much adolescent angst already. Trump was elected despite allegations of sexual harassment and assault, and despite dozens of sexualized and critical comments he made on-the-record about women’s bodies, including his daughter Ivanka’s. He was accused of entering the dressing room of teenage girls as they got ready for the pageant he operated.
Young, progressive women like Lily have spent the last year adjusting to a world in which a man they believe to be a misogynist holds the highest office, and their male parent helped put him there. Dads like Mike have had to adjust to a world in which their daughters, who broke down crying on election night, seem to suddenly and inexplicably identify with socialism, social justice, and snowflakes.
It hasn’t been an easy year for anyone.
Lily tells the story like this: A few years ago, she and her now-14-year-old sister moved in with their father full time, after more than a decade of their divorced parents having split custody.
Not long afterward, she told her father she wanted to go into politics. At school, she’d already been involved in student leadership and women’s leadership organizations, the Democrats club, and the gay-straight alliance. Her interest in politics came as no surprise to her dad. But he laughed anyway. When she asked him why he was laughing, he told her, “I’d never thought I’d see the day where one of my kin ran for politics and I didn’t vote for them.” When she pressed him further, he added, “We don’t agree on anything. Why would I vote for you?”
Lily says it felt like a slap in the face. Mike did tell her he’d support her future campaign, and would even donate to it, but he was ultimately honest with her. He told her maybe he’d vote for her if she ran for mayor or city council — more municipal, less political roles — but not anything like governor or president.
“I didn’t know what to do with that information. I just kind of sat there,” Lily recalls. “I don’t think I talked to him for a while after that.” Mike didn’t understand what he said wrong.
“After that I kind of realized it was a losing fight,” Lily says. Changing her dad’s mind “wasn’t something I should continue to pursue, because if he wouldn’t even vote for his own daughter, there’s no way I was gonna be able to convince him otherwise on anything.”
When the 2016 election season began, Lily kept this in mind, for the most part. Living in Iowa during caucuses and the election means being inundated by calls and mailers and commercials and high-profile, town-disrupting visits at a volume most of the rest of the country can’t comprehend. Lily was instantly drawn to Sanders as a candidate. (Her dad hated him.) Mike wasn’t instantly drawn to Trump, but fully came around by the time it was clear Clinton would be the Democratic nominee. He was intrigued by the fact Trump had no experience in what he considered crooked politics. (Lily was horrified by Trump’s lack of experience.)
“I kinda wanted to see if he could do it,” Mike says. “The more I watched and the more I listened, the more I figured, that’s exactly what we need: Someone who isn't a career politician. Maybe they've got some common sense for a change.”
He thinks Trump is a maverick, a smart and self-made billionaire. Despite his hatred for Clinton, Mike doesn’t have a problem with a woman candidate, he tells Lily, though he did make a joke once to Lily about a potential female president making rash decisions on her period. He just has an intense distrust for politicians in general, a belief that all lobbyists should be dragged to the National Mall and “horsewhipped,” and a desire to see the country “get back together” in a time he says is more racially and politically divided than what he saw growing up during the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“There are just too many people willing to play the race card, to say ‘We’re oppressed,’” he says. “And I got tired of hearing the Democratic side spoutin’ off about how stupid we are: that we don’t know enough, that we shouldn’t be allowed to vote because we believe in our religion and keep our guns and we have old-fashioned values.”
It’s been true for decades that many parents and their children disagree on politics; the ‘80s TV show Family Ties, which aired when Mike was in high school, is based on this very premise. But a 2015 study indicated the number of children who “misperceive or reject their parents’ political party affiliations” was much higher than previously thought — at more than half of all US children. When Trump won, he was supported by men over age 49 at a margin of about 56 to 38, while women under 35 voted for Clinton by a margin of 69 to 25. The election took place in a year when polarization (and acrimony) between Democrats and Republicans was at a record high. Weeks after the election, at Thanksgiving, Stanford researchers found that politically divided families cut their gatherings short by 20 minutes to a half hour, compared to previous years. An October poll found that 7 in 10 Americans felt the country was as politically divided in 2017 as it was during the Vietnam War.
And then there’s anecdotal evidence to suggest American families fell into turmoil with Trump’s victory. A Guardian writer published a Q&A after the election with her Trump-voting father titled “How could you betray me?” The website Bustle published 21 messages from women, ages 18 to 37, to their Trump-supporting fathers expressing similar feelings of betrayal, confusion, and disrespect.
“I hope someday I will understand your decision, but for now, I cannot understand how you voted for someone who so outwardly hates women, and therefore your daughters,” one 19-year-old woman wrote.
Still, that was more than a year ago, when wounds from the election were more fresh. What Lily and Mike show is that that for many families, that wound still hasn’t closed, one year into Trump’s first term. What does that mean for the young women who find themselves coming of age in the Trump era? And what happens if the wound never closes?
In late 2017, I tried to answer these questions, interviewing teenage girls across the country who’d felt a rift between themselves and their parents after the election. Before Lily, there was Abby, who in fall 2017 left her small, conservative, farming town in New York state to go to college in Boston — also leaving behind a traditional Catholic father whom she’d spent 2016 fighting with at their dinner table. Before Abby went to college, her dad banned her from talking about politics at home, she said, unless she had “something positive” to contribute. She couldn’t say anything when he made racially insensitive jokes. She had to beg him for permission to skip school to attend a Bernie Sanders rally at an ice dome in Rochester. In her last months before moving away, she felt it was impossible to speak openly in her own home. She lost all arguments by default, her opinions eradicated by the parent-child power dynamic. At school in Boston, she was finding her voice again. Their new distance might have saved their relationship.
Mike and Lily aren’t a typical American father and daughter — there’s no such thing — but when I met them over a long weekend in northeastern Iowa, their relationship seemed to illuminate the state of the whole country. All of that youthful, eye-rolling dissent between a teenage girl and her dad had been amplified by their political differences. But they were also trying desperately to keep a lid on it, to find some normalcy in the chaos of their clashing beliefs, in order to save their relationship — and to make their daily lives of cohabitating with their ideological enemy a little easier. They were stuck with each other and trying, with varying success, to make it work.
Politics consumed Lily; less so Mike. She was a dog with a bone; he was simply waving the bone in front of her. But it wasn’t just Trump’s victory that roused Lily. It was also Clinton’s loss. She didn’t see a woman’s humiliating defeat. She saw a woman get closer to the presidency than any other had before. Lily was agitated, but she was also inspired.
Lily wants to meet at a coffee shop in Cedar Falls, Waterloo’s neighboring town. The cafe is color-clashing and kooky and full of local art and vegan pastries, operating in a different world than the one of the all-American pizza joint in Waterloo her dad suggests the next day. We share a croissant, and Lily says it’s the first one she’s had that didn’t come from a Pillsbury tube. She says she’s a creature of habit.
She used to live in Cedar Falls, Lily says, before she moved in with her dad. Waterloo and Cedar Falls are de facto rivals, like Pawnee and Eagleton of Parks and Rec. Cedar Falls is the Eagleton of the two, wealthier and whiter. Waterloo is bigger with a larger population of minorities, including the highest percentage of black residents of any Iowa city, at 15.6%. In the mid-’90s, more than 3,000 Bosnian refugees fleeing their country’s civil war also resettled in Waterloo. When she moved from Cedar Falls to Waterloo, she switched high schools and now routinely hears Bosnian spoken in her new school’s hallways. At Cedar Falls High School, she only heard “English and hick,” she says.
Lily traces her political awakening back to sixth grade, when she changed her Facebook profile picture to support gay rights. Her aunt, Mike’s sister, is a lesbian, and this was 2013, the same year that the Supreme Court overturned the federal law that refused benefits to same-sex couples. The day after changing her photo, Lily remembers going to school and getting weird looks from her classmates, who teased her about being gay and asked her if she was a lesbian.
“I was confused. Does supporting gay people make you gay? I feel like I probably googled that at one point,” she says. “That kind of deterred me. Is it worth people making fun of me? They weren’t beating me up in the hallways, but I was someone who’d flown under the radar, so having all this attention on me made me a little uncomfortable.”
She considered changing her profile photo back but decided not to “admit defeat,” she says. Instead Lily doubled down on her interest in politics and social issues. She started watching the news more carefully. She told herself she didn’t want to be a kid who didn’t know what was going on in the world. Now she realizes her interest in politics comes almost exclusively from her stubborn streak. She can’t stand the idea of not being able to articulate her thoughts on any given major news story. She sees some similarity in her and her father in that way; they’re both stubborn, averse to ignorance, and drawn to winning an argument.
Lily has a short cropped haircut that looks homemade, at odds with her more composed, adult presentation: a peacoat with a pro–abortion rights “Trust Women” lapel pin she got at a pride parade, and a dark lipstick that doesn’t smudge while she sips her coffee. After a bad dye job last June, she told her grandmother she was considering cutting off all her hair, and her grandmother told her boys wouldn’t like that. The same night, Lily shaved her head.
“At this point I’ve had so many people make fun of me or tell me that I can’t or shouldn’t do things,” she says. “Every time somebody does, it just makes me want to do it even more. Fuel to the fire.”
Lily isn’t the only liberal in her family. Mike’s mother is what Lily calls her “saving grace” and what Mike calls a “wannabe hippie.” Mike, a registered independent, says he doesn’t have a liberal bone in his body, though he supports gay marriage and his sister. But then there’s the union Mike belongs to, which encourages him to vote Democrat. He also voted for former presidents Bill Clinton and Obama — the latter only once, in 2008. When he explains all this, over lunch, he accidentally mixes up the years, saying he voted for Romney for president in 2008 and Obama in 2012. Lily teases him for it.
“Whatever,” he shoots back, “I don’t write down in my journal, which I don’t have, about who I voted for, when, and why. It doesn’t matter because we’re gonna get screwed either way.”
“That could be a fun exercise,” says Lily, smiling.
“No, a fun exercise is squats.”
This is the Miller family banter, fast and witty and marked with deep cynicism. Lily hasn’t yet inherited that last quality.
Earlier this year, she saw a YouTube video about the complexities of becoming a US citizen, and decided she might want to study immigration law in college on the way to becoming a politician. She scored well on her PSATs and is considering applying to the University of California, Berkeley, and Barnard College in New York City. She’s hoping for a scholarship based on her test scores and family history.
Neither of Lily’s parents went to college. Mike is a certified welder; he could have moved out of Waterloo-Cedar Falls years ago, he says, and gotten a job in a shipyard on the coasts making six figures. But he stayed around to be a dad to Lily and his four other children (three from a previous marriage). Lately he’s been suggesting to Lily she look into Vanderbilt University. He loves the South; his family has roots in South Carolina, where his ancestors fought in the civil war. Lily doesn’t want to be below the Mason-Dixon line.
There’s a silent agreement between Lily and Mike about what they can and cannot talk about. When that agreement is breached, Lily says, it “can be catastrophic.”
The biggest political fight they ever had — though it was really a series of fights — was about immigration. Lily told her dad she believed laws should be changed to be make immigration easier and less expensive. “And he got so pissed off,” Lily recalls. Mike told her that undocumented immigrants were ruining the job market. He repeated Trump’s claims that some immigrants were “rapists” “bringing crime” to the country. Lily tried to stay calm; she knew raising her voice to her father wouldn’t end well. But she was getting heated, frustrated. She had made friends on Tumblr who were Latino and shared stories of having undocumented relatives. Eventually Lily gave up, though, remembering the immovability behind her dad’s refusal to vote for her.
“He's just going to keep getting angry — he's a very colorful man,” Lily says.
Mike disputes this description of his argument style. “I've learned over the years to keep a lid on it in an argument — try and see straight and get through it instead of just screaming back and forth the same thing over and over. And she hasn't,” Mike tilts his head over to Lily. “She gets emotional and walks away.”
But Lily thinks her dad doesn’t know her very well. Mike thinks she walks away from these arguments because she’s an anxious and avoidant person, when really, Lily says, she walks away to keep the peace between them. She has no problem getting in arguments at school, or online in the comments of a Facebook post; she’s developed a bit of a social reputation for standing on her soapbox.
But she can’t do that with her dad. It hits too close to home, and there’s too much at stake. She knows no matter how much they disagree, she can’t cut her dad out of her life, like she can do for an annoying classmate or Facebook friend. That sometimes makes her feel powerless.
“All the rest of my liberal friends grew up in liberal households. They don’t understand,” Lily says. “I can't call him out on it. I think that's one of the worst things, too. He's my parent, so I can't really say, ‘Listen here.’”
Lily doesn’t know what the future holds for their relationship. She loves her dad and he loves her, and she can’t imagine any difference of opinion ever permanently dividing them, “but never say never,” she says — there are three more years of the Trump presidency for new disagreements to surface. When she goes to college, she knows there will still be birthday cards and holiday visits and probably a monthly phone call or two between them. Mike raised Lily to be independent, and she will be. But maybe distance will make their hardened opinions of each other’s politics grow fonder.
Lily and Mike might not realize it, but they do have one significant belief in common: They’re both intensely critical of her generation. Lily says she can’t fathom how some of her peers are indifferent to Trump — how they can live their lives like politics doesn’t affect them at all.
“They think, ‘Well, I’m a middle-class white person. My ground is pretty solid. My foundation isn’t gonna move that much, so why should I care?’” she said. “That’s really bizarre to me. I feel like selfish is a really strong word, but how self-absorbed can you be to think that it doesn’t matter?”
Mike believes her generation is entitled and weak. He’s never seen so many “pussies, to put it bluntly, like I did after the election. College kids in the fetal position crying because their candidate lost. What? Seriously?” He derides their lack of work ethic and self-absorption and political correctness; getting your feelings hurt is part of life, he says. “Suck it up, buttercup.”
And this is what Lily has learned from her father, whether she knows it or not: When he tells her that he won’t vote for her, she’s going to suck it up, buttercup. Clinton may have lost, Lily says, but her campaign was successful enough to make Lily feel like a woman could win.
“I realized not everybody's like my dad. There's millions of people in America, and there’s got to be at least one person that would listen to me. One person is better than no person. That one person can build to be two people, and then three people, and then it's just kind of like you’re never gonna know where you get until you try.”
In this way, Lily is the perfect audience for what Hillary Clinton said in her concession speech last year, when she told young people to “never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.”
“To all the little girls who are watching this,” Clinton said, “Never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.”
But the jury is still out on what long-term effects on women in politics came with Clinton’s historic run and historic defeat. Some reports indicate there’s an “army of women” — tens of thousands of them— who showed interest in running after Trump’s victory. But then there’s an October survey by Cosmopolitan magazine that found that 18% of young women said the 2016 election made them less likely to run for office, compared to only 16% who said it made them more likely to run.
Last year, three days after Trump’s victory, I interviewed American University professor Jennifer Lawless, who studies political ambition and women in politics, about what progressive young women were supposed to do next. She didn’t expect to see more young women drawn to political office “because of what they just saw” happen to Clinton — the humiliation of losing to a man widely believed to never have a shot in the first place. Lily worries about this too, given the sensitivity to criticism and setbacks she’s already seen among her teenage girl peers.
“Youth are very impressionable,” she explains. “Twenty years from now I’m probably gonna still think about all the time people told me I couldn’t do something.”
But it won’t stop her, she says. Lily will keep getting on her soapbox, even when there’s no one around to listen. Recently she did the math and figured out that 2036 is the first year she can run for president. When she told her dad to expect to see her name on the ballot in 19 years, he laughed again, she says.
“I was like, ‘You think I’m joking?’” ●
Jessica Testa is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Jessica Testa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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