June 29, 2019

My Sister, My Uncle and Trump

They loved him and were sure he’d win. I couldn’t share their jolliness, but I respected their rebellion.

It was four years ago this week, June 16, 2015, and a great professional gift was given me. I had just watched Donald Trump’s announcement speech and was pondering its impact. This guy isn’t going to be president; we’ve been reading about his tabloid antics for 30 years. But he’ll have some impact, some support. Who? How much?

At this point my phone rang. It was my elder sister Cookie, formerly of Staten Island, N.Y., now living down South, a person who’s lived a hard life and gotten through it with a spirit she does not fully see or credit. She’s not particularly political, not at all partisan.

She didn’t even say hello. She just said, “I loooooove him.”

I was startled. Who?

“Donald Trump. Did you see it?” She’d watched the announcement live. “He’s going to win.”

Cookie had voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and told me he would win, so I knew I was hearing something.

“Honey, tell me why you love him.”

“He’s telling the truth!” He described our political life as she experienced it: Washington doesn’t care about the people, both parties are full of it, they don’t even care enough to control the border. “He’s the one who can break through and clean that place up.”

We hang up and the phone rings again. It’s Uncle Patrick — early 80s, Brooklyn Irish, U.S. Marine, worked at a bank on Long Island.

He doesn’t introduce himself either.

“So how do you like my guy!” He’s pumped.

“Would that be Donald Trump?”

“Yeah! D'ja see it?”

We talked, the beginning of many such conversations between me and Pat and me and Cookie.

Their gift was alerting me, honestly and early, that something was happening in America, something big and confounding, something that deserved concentrated attention — and respect.

They were patriots; they loved America. They weren’t radical; they’d voted for Republicans and Democrats. They had no grudge against any group or class. They knew that on America’s list of allowable bigotries they themselves — middle Americans, Christians who believed in the old constitutional rights — were the only ones you were allowed to look down on. It’s no fun looking down on yourself, so looking down wasn’t their habit.

But they were looking at their country and seeing bad trend lines. In choosing Mr. Trump they were throwing a Hail Mary pass, but they didn’t sound desperate. They always sounded jolly. And I realized they hadn’t sounded jolly about politics in a while.

Below the jolliness I sense the spirit of the jailbreak. They were finally allowed to be renegades. They were playing the part of the rebel in a country that had long cast them as the boring Americans — stodgy, dronelike, nothing to say. The lumpen working and middle class, dependable heartland-type boobs. Everyone else got to act up and complain. They were just there to pay the taxes, love the country, send the boys to war.

Now they were pushing back, and hell it was fun. It was like joining a big, beautiful anti-BS movement. It was like they were telling the entire political class, “I’m gonna show a little juice, baby, brace yourself.”

As the months passed they wanted me to be jolly too, to join them in the rebellion. Here I came to experience real grief. (I suspect a lot of the tension and estrangement of the early Trump years had to do with people feeling grief and showing it in anger.) My heart was in sympathy, but my head? I’d read too much history, even lived it, to be jolly about it. Or to think this ends well.

Early on I’d said to Uncle Patrick, “I think we have to think twice about putting the American nuclear arsenal in the hands of a TV host.” I meant screwball, not TV host, and he knew it. It gave him pause, but he rallied: Mr. Trump will confer with the generals and diplomats if there’s trouble. I said I thought the matter was more complicated than that, and more dangerous. We let it go.

But it is a weakness of Trump supporters now that they still cannot take seriously the unreadiness of the White House for a sudden, immediate and high-stakes crisis. They do not see the chaos and the lack of professionalism of the unstaffed government as a danger. It is, a dreadful one.

Still, our conversations convinced me that something that had long been a preoccupation — the idea that those who govern America do not really care about, or emotionally affiliate with, the people of their own country — was right, and would bring electoral shocks.

And I remembered, as I watched Mr. Trump’s announcement for re-election on Tuesday, that day four years ago, and how important Pat and Cookie were to my thinking.

This time the president said two things that were not generally noted but will have impact down the road. He emphasized social issues in a way that Democrats cannot and will not. Those issues will have power. On abortion: “Virtually every top Democrat also now supports taxpayer-funded abortion, right up to the moment of birth.” He painted that grim fact grimly. Democrats and members of the media put their hands over their ears and sing “la la la” on this issue, but it is real and gives real discomfort. To some degree it will be a pusher in Trump’s direction.

Second, he revealed the underlying theme of his re-election effort: the runaway train. If Democrats win the White House and Congress, their governance will be deeply radical — a runaway train that will crash the country.

He of course has big things going against him. Among them: From the beginning he has had peace and prosperity — both relative, both provisional, but he has them — and it doesn’t show. They’re everything. He shouldn’t be polling in the high 30s and low 40s, he should be breaking 50. He’s not.

One reason is that in his speeches he rarely tries to persuade the uncertain, he only tells the certain they’re right. He does antagonism and aggrievement. But the American people are not only about those things, and young people with searching minds are not those things. He needs to give a sense of striving for something larger, if only to provide the idea we can strive for anything together, that we’re not so blasted to bits that we can never again have a common mission. He will not do this because he doesn’t have the tools, and thinks it’s for sissies.

He has many possible supporters but he exhausts them with his oddness. His embarrassments and crudities, his making trouble that doesn’t have to be made, his sloppiness and lack of professionalism — all give a sense that there’s no there there if trouble comes. He exhausts you not into submission but into ultimate aversion.

He has not, in three tempestuous, trouble-seeking years, lost his core.

Cookie and Patrick are still for him, as much as in the past. She texted: “He is a marauder, a maverick.” She occasionally texts “Hail Trump” to torment me, so I hereby retract my gratitude. Patrick said, “He has his imperfections,” but “he knows how to rev up a crowd!”

The core will stay. Everyone else, 16½ months out, is in play.

Reprinted by permission from peggynoonan.com.

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