Our relationship is strained.
It feels like it has been for a while. For the last four years, there has been an elephant in the room—I’d joke and call it an orange elephant, but I’m nervous that might end this earnest conversation before it even begins.
Have I changed? I mean, yes, of course I have. I’ve gotten older. I’ve had two children. I’ve tried to read and learn as much as possible, just as you taught me.
In fact, that’s sort of the weirdest thing. I don’t think I’ve changed much. I still believe, deep in my bones, all the fundamental things you not only talked to me about, but showed me when I was little.
I believe in character.
I believe in competence.
I believe in treating people decently.
I believe in moderation.
I believe in a better future and I believe in American exceptionalism, the idea that the system we were given by the Founding Fathers, although imperfect, has been an incredible vehicle for progress, moral improvement, and greatness, unlike any other system of government or country yet conceived.
I believe this exceptionalism comes with responsibilities.
Politically, I’m pretty much the same, too. Government is best when limited, but it’s nonetheless necessary. Fair but low taxes grow the economy. Rights must be protected, privacy respected. Partisanship stops at the water’s edge. No law can make people virtuous—that obligation rests on every individual.
So how is it even possible that we’re here? Unable to travel, banned from entry by countless nations. The laughingstock of the developed world for our woeful response to a pandemic. 200,000 dead. It hasn’t been safe to see you guys or grandma for months, despite being just a plane ride away. My children—your grandchildren—are deprived of their friends and school.
Meanwhile, the U.S., which was built on immigration—grandma being one who fled the ravages of war in Europe for a better life here—is now a bastion of anti-immigrant hysteria. Our relatives on your side fought for the Union in the Civil War. Great-grandpa fought against the Russians in WWI, and granddad landed at Normandy to stop the rise of fascism. And now people are marching with tiki-torches shouting, “the Jews will not replace us.” What is happening?! Black men are shot down in the streets? Foreign nations are offering bounties on American soldiers?
And the President of the United States defends, rationalizes, or does nothing to stop this?
I’d say that’s insane, but I’m too heartbroken. Because every step of the way, I’ve heard you defend, rationalize, or enable him and the politicians around him. Not since I was a kid have I craved to hear your strong voice more, to hear you say anything reassuring, inspiring, morally cogent. If not for me, then for the world that will be left to your grandchildren. This does not feel like a good road we are going down…
Look, I know you’re not to blame for this. You hold no position of power besides the one we all have as voters, but I guess I just always thought you believed in the lessons you taught me, and the things we used to listen to on talk radio on our drives home from the lake. All those conversations about American dignity, the power of private enterprise, the sacredness of the Oval Office, the primacy of the rule of law.
Now Donald Trump gushes over foreign strongmen. He cheats on his wife with porn stars (and bribes them with illegal campaign funds). He attacks whistleblowers (career army officers, that is). He lies blatantly and habitually, about both the smallest and largest of things. He enriches himself, his family members, and his business with expenditures straight from the public treasury. And that’s just the stuff we know about. God knows what else has happened these last four years that executive privilege has allowed him to obscure from public view.
I still think about the joke you made when we walked past Trump Tower in New York when I was kid. Tacky, you said. A reality show fool. Now that fool has his finger on the nuclear button—which I think he thinks is an actual button—and I can’t understand why you’re OK with this. I mean, the guy can’t even spell! You demanded better of me in the papers I turned in when I was in middle school.
I know you don’t like any of it. If you’d have had your choice, any other Republican would have been elected but Trump. You’re not an extremist, and you’ve never once said anything as repulsive as what people now seem comfortable saying on TV and social media (and in emails to your son, I might add). Four years ago, I wrote to you to ask you not to vote for Donald Trump. But this time around, that’s no longer enough.
At some point, just finding it all unpleasant and shaking your head at the tweets, while saying or doing nothing more about it, is moral complicity. You told me that as a kid! That the bad prevail when good people do nothing.
A while back I emailed a friend of mine who is an advisor to the administration. I said to him, why do you think my dad’s support of Trump bothers me so much more than yours? Because it does. This is someone who helped put Trump in office and wants to keep him there, but we’re still friends. Talking to him doesn’t hurt my heart the way it does when politics come up over family meals.
The man’s answer was telling, and I am quoting. He said, “Because I am irredeemable, but your dad ought to know better.”
Does that register with you at all?
One of the things you taught me well was how to spot a scam. Double check everything, you said. Do your research. Look at what the people around them say. Look at their history. Remember when you used to quote Reagan’s line to me, “Trust, but verify”?
I’ve been lucky enough to make a few trips to Washington the last few years. I’ve sat across from Senators and Congressmen. I’ve talked to generals who have briefed the president, and business leaders who worked with him before the election. This is a guy who doesn’t read, they said, a guy with the attention span of a child. Everybody avoided doing business with him. Because he didn’t listen, because he stiffed people on bills, because he was clueless. He treated women horribly. He’s awful, they said. I thought this was a particularly damning line: If Donald Trump were even half-competent, one elected official told me, he could probably rule this country for 20 years. I have trouble figuring what’s worse—that he wants to, or that he wants to but isn’t competent enough to pull it off. Instead, Washington is so broken and so filled with cowards that Trump just spent the last four years breaking stuff and embarrassing himself.
I learned from you how to recognize a dangerous or unreliable person. If you don’t trust the news, could you trust what I’m bringing you, right from the source? Let’s trust our gut, not our political sensibility. Based on what I’ve told you, and what you’ve seen: Would you let him manage your money? Would you want your wife or daughter to work for him without supervision? I’m not even sure I would stay in one of his hotels, after what I’ve read.
Watching the RNC a few weeks ago, I wondered what planet I was on. What’s with all the yelling? How is this happening on the White House lawn? Why are his loser kids on the bill? His kid’s girlfriend??? And what is this picture of America they are painting? They are the ones in charge! Yet they choose to campaign against the dystopian nightmare that is 2020… which is to say, they are campaigning against themselves.
Look, I agree there is crazy stuff happening in the world. The civil unrest is palpable, violence is on the rise, and Americans have never been so openly divided. Sure, rioting and looting are bad. But who is to blame for all the chaos? The President. Remember what you told me about the sign on Truman’s desk? The buck stops here. (May we contrast that with: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”)
In any case, what some crazy people in Portland are doing is not ours to repeatedly disavow. What the president does? The citizens are complicit in that. Especially if we endorse it at the ballot box come November 3rd.
Besides, what credibility do we have to insist on the ‘rule of law’ when eight of the president’s associates have faced criminal charges? His former lawyer went to jail, too! And then the president commutes their sentences, dangles pardons to keep them quiet, or tries to prevent them from cooperating with authorities? When he’s fined millions of dollars for illegally using his charity as a slush fund? When he cheats on his taxes? When he helped his parents avoid taxes, too?
I remember you once told me the story of a police officer in your department who was caught filling up his personal car with gas paid for by the city. The problem, you said, wasn’t just the mistake. It was that when he was confronted by it, he lied. But the cameras showed the proof and so he was fired, for being untrustworthy most of all.
Would you fire Trump if he worked for you? What kind of culture do you think your work would have had if the boss acted like Trump?
As for the lying, that’s the craziest part, because we can, as the kids say, check the receipts: Was it bad enough to call John McCain a loser? Yes, but then, of course, Trump lied and claimed he didn’t. Bad enough to cheat on his wife? Yes, but of course, he lied about it, and committed crimes covering it up (which he also lied about). Was it bad enough to solicit help from Russia and Wikileaks in the election? Yes, but then he, his son, and his campaign have lied about it so many times, in so many forums, that some of them went to jail over it. Was it stupid that, in February, Trump was tweeting about how Covid-19 was like the flu and that we didn’t need to worry? Yes, but it takes on a different color when you listen to him tell Bob Woodward that in January he knew how bad it was, how much worse it was than even the worst flu, and that he was deliberately going to downplay the virus for political purposes.
I’m sure we could quibble over some, but The Fact Checker database currently tallies over 20,000 lies since he took office. Even if we cut it in half, that’s insane! It’s impossible to deny: Trump lied, and Americans have died because of it.
A friend of mine had a one-on-one dinner with Trump at the White House a while back. It was actually amazing, he said. Half the evening was spent telling lies about the size of his inaugural address. This was in private—not even for public relations purposes, and years after the controversy had died down. That’s when he realized: The lying is pathological. It can’t be helped. Which is to say, it makes a person unfit to lead.
Politics should not come before family. I don’t want you to think this affects how I feel about you. But it does make it harder for us to spend time together—not just literally so, since Trump’s bumbling response to the pandemic has crippled America and made travel difficult.
It’s that I feel grief.
I feel real grief—were the lessons you taught me as a kid not true? Did you not mean them? Was it self-serving stuff to make sure I behaved? Was I a fool for listening?
Or is it worse, that my own father cares more about his retirement accounts—and I’ll grant, the runup of the market has been nice for me, too—than the future he is leaving for his children? Are you so afraid of change, of that liberal boogeyman Limbaugh and Hannity and these other folks have concocted, that you’d rather entrust the country to a degenerate carnival barker than anyone else? I see all this anger, what is it that you’re so angry about? You’ve won. Society has worked for you. My own success is proof.
So what is it? Because it can’t possibly be that you think this guy is trustworthy, decent, or kind. It’s definitely not about his policies… because almost every single one is anathema to what Republicans—and you—have talked about my entire life.
The one thing I hold onto is hope. I believe in America. I believe in the goodness of hardworking people like you and Mom. I know that this is not what you wanted to happen, that this is not the America you grew up in nor the one you would like for me and my kids to grow up in.
I hold onto hope that you’re tired enough to draw the line. That you are not irredeemable as that Trump advisor allowed himself to become. The right thing is always the right thing, you’ve said. Even when it’s hard. Even when it goes against what your friends think, or what you’ve done in the past.
The right thing is obviously to end this. To cancel this horrendous experiment with its cavalcade of daily horrors and vulgarities and stupidities and historical humiliations.
America is a great nation. The world depends on us being great. Your grandchildren deserve that greatness.
You know this has not been it. You know this goes against everything you’ve ever asked or expected of yourself, and your children, and anyone you’ve ever led or worked for.
I need you not just to not vote for Trump this year, Dad. I need you to speak up. I need you to do something.
Your loving son,
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