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If you ask my mother what year it is, she’ll guess sometime in the seventies. 1978, perhaps. I believe that she chooses this year because her mind, unable to generate new memories and having lost the key to all recent ones, perceives the safety and comfort she feels at the old folks’ home, and offers that year as the nearest match it can find. The seventies were good to her and to her family.
In 1978 my parents owned two large, beautiful apartment buildings on the south shore of Massachusetts Bay — an old mansion and its coach house, both ingeniously adapted into suburban use — and my father worked full-time as a senior salesman for Armstrong. (He’d earned his seniority the traditional way, as evidenced by his habit of calling the company by its ancient name of “Armstrong Cork”.) I was an unexpected baby (or a toddler, or not quite born yet, depending on the exact year mom names), and my brothers were entering their twenties: my oldest brother strong and handsome and bound for a U.S. Army officer’s school, and middle brother full of jokey character and potential too. We were rich, in every sense. All our family friends were rich as well, and I have fine memories of visiting their sumptuous homes, where I’d see a VCR for the first time, or a video game.
My family’s fortunes began to gutter about a decade after the years of mom’s current reality-emulation. Bad luck struck: coinciding with the economic downturn of the late 1980s, their eldest received the head injury that not only ended his Army career, but would revert him, ashamed and furious and still possessing the body of a thirty-year-old soldier, into my parents’ dependent. In the same year, a stroke forced dad into early retirement.
Nobody alive today can tell me exactly how all this led to such swift financial ruin for us, but I can extrapolate. My parents had left the landlording business a couple of years earlier, so that income source had already gone. Just the same, they mistrusted any savings or investment strategies beyond real estate: tangible property of obvious utility you can improve through direct work, entirely preferable to the arcane workings of stocks or financial instruments. So when these disasters came, they had three properties, all of which they immediately liquidated. Perhaps deciding that the whole family should retire together, they moved all of us to south Florida, flush with cash but with no savings, investments, or income beyond my brother’s meager disability checks and dad’s pension. Mom had never had a job outside of homemaking and wasn’t about to start now, and my other brother found menial work that let him pull his own weight, but no more than that. My parents didn’t expect me to work outside of school, and so — sheltered and unaware — I did not. They did what they could to make that cash-pile shrink as slowly as possible, but it shrank just the same, inexorably.
Without a doubt, the full story ran richer than this, and I lately feel sorry I never asked my father for the full story before he died nearly penniless in rural Maine, a quarter century after our bad year. But I know that his memories would have been colored and clouded by the fear, confusion, and anger that my parents held since around the time the Reagans left the White House. They could not avoid thinking that, at every level, someone had sold them a bill of goods.
While I spent the nineties going to college (on a full-ride scholarship, to my great fortune) and then making tenuous steps into independent adulthood, my parents watched their cash reserves dwindle evermore. Never losing their nose for the real-estate market, they stretched their bank account by moving frequently, always scanning for cheap property they could inhabit, improve, and then sell at a higher price — a self-employment scheme of their own invention. In retrospect, this had to have taxed them so much in both money and personal energy that it couldn’t possibly have proved profitable to any significant degree.
And all the while, they cursed Bill Clinton and every part of the federal government during his lengthy administration. Decades before, they had grown wealthy under the message that hard work and trust in God and the American system would lead only to success. It worked so well for them, for so long! So, it seemed only natural to meet misfortune and hardship not by adapting their financial stance to acknowledge a new reality, but instead emulating Reagan and staying the course. So here they were, working harder than ever — they frequently felt exhausted from all the moving — but the money would only flow away from them. If the fault didn’t lie with them, and it certainly didn’t lie with God, then it must have come from outside. Without a doubt, the American system had been hijacked by greedy opportunists, upending their culture and embezzling their income. This certainty made my parents furious.
When Bush succeeded Clinton and my family’s finances failed to improve, they found fault elsewhere: people who must have cheated them in real-estate deals. Floods of immigrants somehow unbalancing the housing market. They even left their beloved Episcopal Church, perceiving its increasingly progressive attitudes as merely the national rot spreading into the house of God. They moved house here too; during a phone call once, my mother excitedly described how their joining a splinter sect that met in VFW halls and hotel ballrooms felt like they were re-living the very earliest years of Christianity, keeping the truth secret, Romans all around them.
With Obama’s election, they retained all these fears while adding new levels of frustrated despair, seeing a nation only drifting further in shape and tone from the familiar country of their past. They longed for the comfort and security they remembered, shifted away by forces they increasingly didn’t recognize or understand.
I don’t know whether they voted in 2010, but it seems likely they helped elect Paul LePage, Maine’s current governor, who swept into office on a purely populist platform. Among other notable activities, LePage has a policy of vetoing literally every bill that crosses his desk, no matter its content or merits, promising that he will continue to do so until the state house meets his demand to completely eliminate Maine’s income tax. He was re-elected in 2014.
Last week, LePage became the second U.S. governor to endorse Donald Trump for president, a few minutes into the sneering, swaggering press conference that Chris Christie and Trump held together to celebrate the New Jersey governor’s endorsement. I have no doubt at all that my parents, were they both alive and living in the present, would today follow LePage in vocally, even vehemently supporting Trump.
Like so many other white Americans who felt that something or someone had started intercepting what was due them, my parents had long marinated in the Republican party’s fallen-world picture of America in ruins, a victim of looters from within and foreign hordes outside. I can easily imagine them honing in on Trump’s innovative abandonment of the GOP’s promise of salvation through deeply conservative social and economic strategies, instead making refreshingly policy-free promises that he’ll find whoever did this to us and make them pay for it.
Perhaps I should feel cold and selfish comfort in how present circumstances have made it impossible for me to become the son of Trump supporters. I can instead focus on a brighter side: insight into my parents’ experience, even with all the ways it is obviously unique my family, lets me much better envision the motivation behind Trump’s popularity, which none of the media I listen to predicted six months ago. It comes from all the angry, angry Americans who are not stupid, and certainly not evil, but boiling over with upset confusion over why everything taught to them by their own parents, their schools, and all the mass media of their youth doesn’t seem to work anymore.
They feel in their guts that something changed. Something broke. And no political figure at Trump’s level other than Trump has given them permission to let loose their rage, to feel good about coming together with other angry, disempowered white Americans to bind their anger into a laser of righteous malice, ready to at long last find and burn up the enemy, whatever it may be: at Muslims, at Mexico, at the abstract concept of free foreign trade. At anything. At something. I get mad sometimes too. I can only imagine being mad about reality. I could not say that, blinkered and stressed, I would never take the same path. I know my mother and father would have had a hard time turning it down.
Maybe someday my country’s default personality will complete its shift from boastful post-war pride, through its current confused outrage over who stole all its pride away, before settling at last into clear-eyed humility that America can thrive as a member of the world community, once it’s ready to take a seat. I think it can do it. I think it can even do it in time to help with looming crises that require American cooperation. I’m sorry that the world has to watch us go through all this in the meantime. Every day we get further from 1978 is a day closer to that better future where America has finally let it go.
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