South Pasadena is a quaint little town in Los Angeles County, California. Quiet, honest, small town charm, a haven for mom and pop shops and quaint small businesses supported by a local community dedicated to maintaining their small town atmosphere. It is also very liberal. I attended South Pasadena High School before my time at Illinois Tech, and the young people of South Pasadena are as politically active as they are progressive. So when I arrived at school on November 9, 2016; the mood was palpably somber. Only one person in the school was celebrating that warm fall day. Charles Li is the son of Chinese immigrants to the United States who fled government persecution. He has stringy, jet black hair that covers his head like a muffin top and a pair of large square glasses that he keeps as close to his forehead as he can. He is somewhat stubby, a bit short and has puffy round cheeks. It’s not uncommon to find Charles with his black handbag, walking around in jeans and a flannel. He was also the only outspoken Trump supporter in the entirety of South Pasadena High School during our time there. And he is also a great friend of mine.
Charles is by no means a dull individual. I’ve heard plenty of rhetoric accusing Trump supporters of being stupid, ignorant, misinformed, or just plain dumb. He currently works for a Republican campaign committee in Orange County, and I would go so far as to argue that he’s a promising young conservative. The unwary liberal might step in confidently to the ring of debate with Charles Li, certain their arsenal of “Daily Show” quips will soundly triumph, only to find themselves swiftly outclassed. He is exceptionally well read, and no stranger to debate. One has to be, as the sole dissenting voice in a whirlpool of blue. I’ve seen many a time when an outspoken democrat has jutted into a conversation to challenge Charles on one of his political stances, only for him to smile softly, adjust his glasses and calmly rebut their argument with a firm, but kind tone and a cited source. My father was very nearly one of them. Just being around the guy in high school gave me an insight to what he had to put up with. His calm, measured response to the angry accusations of offended students told me everything. One didn’t need to ask to tell what a tiring regularity it was for him.
Charles was downright infamous in our school. Before I knew Charles Li, I knew “Charles the Trump supporter.” It's the same way I knew of “Alan the crazy guy” and “Nico the pothead.” Talk of the only Trump supporter in the school spread fast. The whole school was bitter after the Democrat’s defeat in 2016 and our ire turned solely to the one person happy with the outcome. So when I first met Charles one day at lunch in early 2017, I was one of those unwary liberals. He was discussing some history with my friend Dashiel when I came by, and I was almost eager to steer the conversation to politics so I could tell him off. It wasn’t hard given the subject. But after we began to argue, I noticed something unusual. We were both rather calm. Charles had been tempered by years of opinionated hotheads, and after years of being something of a social outcast, I had developed a tendency to match the temperament of those around me. That’s not to say our debate wasn’t intense, we both managed to catch the other off guard, although I found myself on the backfoot more often, but we managed to each be mild mannered in our exchange. When lunch ended that day, our debate did alongside it. And that day I did something that I think more of us could strive to do nowadays, myself included. I looked him in the eye, extended my hand and said “even though I don’t agree with your ideas, I respect them and I respect you.” And I remember the perplexion in his eye as I said that. He took my hand, shook it, and said “same to you.” And there was made one of the best friendships of my high school career, one I still treasure today.
I don’t need to say how contentious politics have become in the Trump era. Having existed in liberal circles for essentially my entire life, both in South Pasadena and now in Chicago, I have heard all manner of stereotyping about Trump supporters. I myself have indulged in many of these prejudices. I have always been a very political person, and have always been very liberal. But one thing my father always instilled into me was being humble. That’s not to say I’ve always been perfect in living up to that ideal, but it led me into an unlikely friendship. We Democrats have a tendency to think of ourselves as the party of compassion, with a warmer, more friendly image. But that isn’t always the case. Republicans and even moderates often see us as cliquey, snooty, and self-important; and that can often be the case. Likewise, Republicans can be stubborn, prideful, and dogmatic. Both sides often have trouble reconciling with the other. I’ve seen this divide in my own family. My mother doesn’t always get along with her sister, especially once politics gets involved. This election, just like 2016, has brought these conflicts to a head. While politics has never really been about compromise, that is less so now than ever before. Both parties seek to undercut the other, and that attitude has bled out into America as a society. I’ve seen far too many people distance themselves from each other just because of their politics.
Now I’m not normally one to write political articles. In fact, my weekly video game review won’t be going up this week because I spent too much time on this. The result of the 2020 elections has created a storm of contention that likely won't die down for some time. At the time of writing, the Associated Press has declared Joe Biden the winner, much to my relief. But my relief is to many others' grief, and it’s important to respect why. Not everyone cares deeply about politics, and maligning them for their ignorance won't help. The same goes for arguments had with those that do from the other side of the aisle. This goes for Republicans as well as Democrats. Even as a brash, hard headed teenager I was able to have an earnest debate with a staunch Republican and Trump supporter and understand where he was coming from as the son of Chinese parents persecuted by the communist party. And he, likewise, was able to see where I was coming from as the son of a working class mother and father from a liberal New York family. And if two starry eyed, ideologically locked high schoolers could learn to do it, can’t we all?
After Charles and I became friends, I had a lot of people ask me about him. Interrogate might be a more apt word, but nonetheless they were fascinated how I might come to associate myself with him. Eventually, I started telling them all the same thing. Even though I don’t agree with a word of his politics, he is an incredibly kind person and a good friend. Once Charles and I started to get to know each other beyond our political identities, we found that we had a lot in common. Similar senses of humor, similar interests, even similar tastes. We would still debate politics, and it wasn’t always totally civil. The day after Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord and he went around waving an American flag got quite heated. But at the end of it all we were able to set aside that difference and be friends. And that’s exactly what this country needs, to understand each other. America has a little less than half the population of Europe. And almost every single one of us speak English, know how many stars are on the flag, eat the same food, know at least one “Simpsons” reference, and are either a Democrat or Republican. In spite of our differences, we all share one national identity. We are all American. And we can all get along. It took Europe 12 centuries to do that. In the immortal words of Rodney King, speaking emotionally in one of the most contentious trials during one of the most contentious times in US history, “Can’t we all just get along?”