How Donald Trump Ruined Thanksgiving
In the 10 months since his inauguration, President Donald Trump has been accused of torching everything from America’s stature on the global stage to the country’s most treasured political norms. He “ruined the eclipse,” noted one observer; he “ruined all my favorite TV shows,” lamented another. He’s been accused of destroying workplace morale, irony and Bachelor in Paradise, too.
It’s only natural: To be a leader is to accept your fair share of blame, and then some. No doubt Americans will spend the next four to eight years debating whether or not the president trashed U.S. foreign policy and reality TV and everything in between. But a new study by economists Keith Chen of UCLA and Ryne Rohla of Washington State University seems to have proved at least one point conclusively: Trump really did ruin Thanksgiving.
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With the help of data-tracking service SafeGraph, Chen and Rohla traced the movements of more than 10 million Americans across the past two Thanksgiving holidays. They focused specifically on people who traveled from Republican-leaning areas to Democratic-leaning areas and vice versa, and found that politically divided families spent on average 20 to 30 minutes less time around the dinner table in 2016 than they did in 2015. That added up to a loss of 62 million person-hours of Thanksgiving time across the country—and specifically, the authors estimated, a loss of “27 million person-hours of cross-partisan Thanksgiving discourse.”
To conduct their study, Chen and Rohla first established the cellphone users’ “home” location by tracking where their phone was most frequently between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m., then compared that with where they were between 1 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. Using election records compiled down to the precinct level, Chen and Rohla narrowed the sample to cellphone users who traveled to areas politically opposed to their own, in both 2015 and 2016. They narrowed that further to subjects who were in their “home” district during both the morning and evening of Thanksgiving, and therefore likely had control over the duration of their visit. The results show that those subjects chose to spend significantly less time at Thanksgiving dinner in 2016 than in 2015. The effect more than doubled in areas that saw heavy political advertising, confirming that the shortened family time was thanks to politics, and wasn’t just due to a countrywide epidemic of poor cooking. Chen says he and Rohla collected over 40 billion location “pings” in November 2016, compared to a smaller but methodologically comparable sample in 2015, to build their map of our post-election dinner anxiety.
“It’s not shocking,” says urbanist and social geographer Joel Kotkin of the results of the study. “But it is kind of demoralizing.”
The “demoralizing” nature of last year’s election cycle might be the one thing on which partisans around the table can agree, and that’s not just on Trump—both candidates carried historic unfavorable ratings. Only one candidate, however, could inflame tensions on both sides by the sheer mention of his name alone. With emotions running the gamut from elation to dread in the first few weeks after his shocking victory, Trump seems to have given many people a reason to avoid breaking bread with their political opposites.
Journalist Alaina Boukedes is one of them. She calls Chicago, one of the country’s bluest cities, home, but she was raised in deep-red Alabama and returns there for Thanksgiving each year. For Boukedes and her sister—a bureaucrat at the Environmental Protection Agency—the election was deeply personal, with Trump specifically targeting each of their professions. And while it had never been unusual for them to find themselves at political loggerheads with their father, a staunch Republican army veteran, over Thanksgiving dinners in the past, Trump’s unique derision for their callings deepened what had previously been a navigable divide.
“It was strange to think that my dad prioritized certain things that I couldn’t fathom in the first place,” Boukedes says. And so, the sisters cut the post-turkey discourse short. “We knew any conversation we tried to have would hit a brick wall.”
John Jost, a political psychologist at New York University who studies the way politics interacts with and shapes the family dynamic, wasn’t surprised by Chen and Rohla’s research. In his own 2007 study, he found that families and close friends bond over shared politics, and that political differences can cause deep rifts. That was in the pre-2016 world we’ve left behind. Trump, with his heretical talk of travel bans and ditching trade deals, has blown up the political system we thought we knew, further deepening partisan divides and leaving even members of previously harmonious families eyeing one another warily for dissent.
Just ask Elizabeth Greenaway, a never-Trump Republican who served as a Ted Cruz delegate at last year’s Republican National Convention. At last year’s Thanksgiving dinner in Pennsylvania, her Trump-supporting relatives chided her for her inability to hold her nose and support the man who accused her preferred candidate’s father of aiding the JFK assassination, among other things.