Students return home for Thanksgiving amid lingering political, family tensions


GVL / Sydney Lim

Joseph Poulos, Staff Writer

Following the results of this month’s midterm elections and the announcement of Donald Trump’s candidacy for president in 2024, many families have had to deal with the divisive nature of dinner table conversations this holiday season.

While many families share political or religious beliefs, it is important to note that there are many families who don’t see eye to eye on philosophical or moral issues. For these folks, it’s often hard to return home.

Ethan McNeilly, 25, originally from Saranac, graduated as an economics major at Grand Rapids Community College and is one of many across West Michigan who struggle with this. McNeilly, who considered himself a conservative in the intense political landscape of 2016 and 2017, has since found himself identifying with liberal social beliefs, as well as contesting the reality of religion and creationism specifically.

This did not sit well with his family. He recalls a family holiday party in 2020 that went off the rails, right around the time that he changed his political beliefs and started questioning his religious upbringing.

“2020, by far, was way crazier than this year, especially for holidays and that sort of thing,” McNeilly said. “Just because of the distance I have been able to have, that is bound to reduce conflict. The media landscape is less toxic than it was then.”

His family was unaware of his recent change of heart, and the surprise shocked them quite a bit.

“Unfortunately, my family was not prepared ahead of time, because everyone is and always has been conservative,” McNeilly said. “There was never any rule against talking politics, because typically everyone would agree. Of course, things change, and no one was prepared for that.”

The disagreement descended into the chaos of a heated disagreement between family members.

“It was definitely a verbal argument,” McNeilly said. “I remember more of Christmas 2020 because that was directly around the insurrection.”

When he and his stepfather began to go back and forth, trying to express their very different opinions, attacks on his character were made.

“As the discussions got more intense, when he couldn’t attack my ideas, we actually got to the point where my stepdad actually began to get personal with me,” McNeilly said.

His stepfather ridiculed him for spending so many years in college, and not yet receiving his degree.

“For me, it’s not enough that he felt bad for it,” McNeilly said. “He didn’t feel bad for insulting me. It’s just that he understands he broke a social code somewhere by being mad at a Christmas party.”

This disagreement was one of the final straws in the dissolution of their relationship.

“Things were already on the rocks at that point,” McNeilly said. “It was more like one more thing to add to the pile of ‘Yeah, I don’t want to be like you in any way’ type of situation.”

Though this argument was memorable, McNeilly remembers a simpler time when they got along, largely due to their shared political and religious beliefs.

“I do think we got along better when our political views aligned,” McNeilly said.

For McNeilly, one of the main points of disagreement stemmed from his newly found questioning of his family’s religious beliefs.

“We have recently had some deaths in the family, and it has been hard trying to work through that,” McNeilly said. “Talking about death, and life after death, it almost makes it more difficult to grieve with someone because you might say something and then they might express a different viewpoint, and you end up having a disconnect even when you’re trying to grieve with someone.”

McNeilly said he recognizes it might be easier to convert back to conservatism and creationist faith, if only for the convenience of blending in with his family, but he also realizes this is faux and is not conducive to his current worldview.

“There have been times where I have wanted to change back,” McNeilly said. “I know it would be so much easier and I wish I could connect with people the same way that I had before. Every time I try to take that approach, I wouldn’t be intellectually honest with myself.”

While growing and changing in his own life, McNeilly has begun to feel more comfortable with himself and his beliefs.

“It’s all about being authentic to who I am and what I understand and what I have learned about myself these past few years,” McNeilly said.

Though the announcement of Trump’s 2024 candidacy seems to be the divisive topic on everyone’s minds, McNeilly is both optimistically unconcerned about his prospects of reelection while also troubled by the lingering tension that still exists and may continue to permeate family dynamics across the country.

“Considering how the midterms went, I am actually feeling decent about that,” McNeilly said. “Trump lost in 2020, and I’m sure there will be no shortage of tension that arises from that.”