What Ronald Reagan taught me about talking about politics and Trump

Screenshot 2019-11-23 08.22.02

By Robert Mann

Try holding these two thoughts: President Donald Trump is corrupt, unfit for the presidency and should be removed from office. And, yet, his impeachment will do nothing to solve the destructive partisan divide in this country and will, in fact, make it worse.

That divide didn’t start with Trump and it may not end with his departure. For several decades, leaders and voters in both parties have vilified each other in highly personal ways. The mutual distrust and disdain are toxic. Respected journalists, historians and political scientists worry about civil unrest if Trump is removed from office or defeated for reelection.

In this climate, people on both sides of the political divide have come to blows—sometimes literally. Friendships are cast aside over a political spat. Family relationships are poisoned. The next ten months, leading up to the 2020 presidential election, will be ugly and dangerous for our personal relationships.

I often wonder what degree of blame and responsibility average citizens like me have in the coming reckoning. And, as private citizens, what can my family, friends and neighbors do to heal our nation’s wounds? The answer, for me at least, is lots.

While there’s not much an individual citizen can do about the structural changes members of Congress and other national leaders should enact to improve our political climate, that doesn’t mean we’re powerless to effect change. As with any social movement or reform, change usually starts at home.

As someone once said, “Most people want to change the world, but no one wants to help Mom do the dishes.” For years, “doing the dishes” is how I’ve described the small, incremental work needed on the local level—around the Thanksgiving table, in churches, civic clubs and elsewhere.

Nothing has made the necessity of this work clearer to me than spending three years immersed in the early life of Ronald Reagan. As a liberal Democrat who worked in politics for 20 years, I had written several books about Democrats like Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern.

When I tackled Reagan’s life, some friends scratched their heads. And since my Reagan book, “Becoming Ronald Reagan,” has been published most interviewers want to know what possessed me to write a book—and a flattering one, at that—about a conservative icon.

What I tell them is that while I didn’t start out wanting to like and admire Reagan, I found it disorienting to discover that the politician I had disdained and discounted for decades was far more intelligent and appealing than I had first imagined. And, as I soon recognized, that was a good and healthy thing.

For decades, Reagan had been an abstraction to me, almost a caricature of an ignorant conservative. Studying him closely shattered that abstraction. I now saw a person who was good and bad, right and wrong, well intentioned and horribly misguided. In other words, a person just like me.

My research into Reagan of the 1930s through the 1960s revealed a sincere man who was working out his changing ideology, his views on the issues, and his attitudes about Communism and the role of government.

I do not agree with much of what Reagan concluded about government. History has proved him wrong on many fronts, including his opposition to a strong, well-funded Social Security system and establishing Medicare. He was too eager to confront the Soviet Union militarily in the 1960s, which might have sparked a nuclear holocaust for both countries and others. He was no champion of civil rights.

This does not mean there was little about Reagan to admire. One could disagree with his policies—particularly his shocking neglect of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s or his ill treatment of the poor—and still applaud his immense love for the United States. I learned to respect his faith that he could persuade, not coerce, other to see issues his way because of a belief in the innate goodness of people. Reagan believed in the power of words to inspire and persuade. He believed leadership involved wooing, not bullying. And he did not make his politics personal.

As former President Barack Obama said recently, “The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids and share certain things with you.”

It’s easy to look at politicians—Trump, included—and de-personalize and dehumanize them to the point that you can hate them. I know I have.

I doubt the day will ever come when I’ll appreciate Trump as I do Reagan, but I’m now  a little more open to that possibility. More important, I’ve resolved to not allow my deep partisan differences with friends and family members destroy my relationships with them.

In almost every way, I discovered that Ronald Reagan was a decent, charismatic, and likable man with whom I disagreed on almost everything politically. In other words, he was just like many of my friends and neighbors.

And that’s been the key for me in discovering my path out of this partisan morass. I have Trump supporters in my family. I go to church with them. I socialize with them.

I know that some people feel they have no choice but to end friendships and relationships over the current political tumult. Our disagreements are deep and profound, to be sure. They revolve around issues of morality, and life and death—for both sides.

And, so, if you decide to end a relationship over politics, I won’t fault you. But I will caution you against it.

Life is about much more than politics. Relationships, especially those built and nurtured over the decades, are precious, even sacred.

And Donald Trump will be gone soon enough. If I allow his malign influence to poison my personal life, I’ve given him power I do not wish him to have. I refuse to allow him into my personal sphere.

In politics, as I’ve learned over the years, there will always be something worth my outrage. But my family relationships and my friendships are worth far more to me than politics.

This is why I choose to focus on what unites me with the people in my life who support Trump. This is why I don’t talk or argue politics with friends of a different stripe. I’ll talk sports, or music or even religion, but not politics.

The politics of our time has taken away too much from us. I will not let it rob me of my friendships and relationships.

(That may not be your path and I understand if this approach is not for you. And I’m aware that, as an upper middle-income white person, I’m privileged to live in a community in which most people tolerate the “otherness” of my liberalism. I’ve never known what it’s like to belong to an oppressed minority.)

But if I want to do my part in saving our country and restoring its politics to sanity, then I  believe I’ve got to start “doing the dishes.”

That means while I’ll hope for Trump’s removal, I will also resist the urge to regard my friends and neighbors—many of them Trump supporters—as political abstractions. I will try to treat them, instead, as the decent, complicated and conflicted humans they are—just as decent, complicated and conflicted as me.

5 Comments on “What Ronald Reagan taught me about talking about politics and Trump

  1. Sorry, but your characterizations of Reagan are about as ‘white-washed’ as any white supremacist could possibly articulate. And those who share Reagan’s, Trump’s, or any other low-life, degenerate, inhuman attitude toward the ‘other’ could never be in my circle of friends OR family. I will gladly terminate any such association without the slightest regret. There is no rationalization of such despicable sentiments that could possibly redeem those who express or feel them in my opinion. You can shove your pragmatic, kumbaya nonsense.

  2. I truly appreciate your approach to our political mess. I too have friends who are upper middle class and are ardent supporters of Trump. Although aware and disgusted with politics on both sides, they feel reenergized with Trump. Conversations about Trump are almost impossible to have. These friends are all long time GOP dedicated supporters. I tease them that they are so far right that they’ve never taken a left turn. I also was a member of the GOP until Bush II was elected.

    My position is that we begin on a local basis elected candidates based on their qualifications, not their parties. If we, just as England does elect 10% Independent candidates, this 10% can force the other parties to come to the table. We start at the State and local basis and then move on to Congress.

    It embarrasses me to call Scalise, Kennedy, and Cassidy my representatives in Congress. Only one vote at a time can Louisiana Take Back our state. Thanks for your fine article and I’ll look at your books and consider adding all of them to my library.

  3. Tidings of comfort, if not necessarily joy.

    There is a lot of wisdom in this piece. Though I aspire to take Bob’s approach, I mostly avoid the struggle necessary to do so.

    I began the Trump presidency waking up each morning hoping his election had been a nightmare. I became increasingly incensed with each of his outrageous statements and actions and bombarded the people on my email list with daily reports of his statements and actions from many sources. After about a year of that I realized the following:

    1. I was preaching to the choir and convincing nobody of anything they didn’t already know. Worse, I was boring people and needlessly filling their already-full mailboxes. Any Trump supporters were simply deleting my emails as they came in.

    2. I was increasing my blood pressure to nobody’s benefit, least of all my own.

    Trump supporters are so firmly committed they brook only the mildest of criticisms of him – and excuse those. Except for the elites who seek to expand their power and/or wealth by supporting him, the rest of his supporters seem to be members of a cult. It does not help that they can find support for their beliefs from many sources in this post-truth world – and, of course, from each other.

    My many letters to our U. S. Senators were a complete waste of time unless their staffers were keeping some kind of tallies. The responses were, without fail, cut-and-paste babble concocted by computer programs. I didn’t bother to write my Representative more than a couple of times because he has no power and is a mindless supporter of President Trump, despite an obviously super-high IQ (as the old joke goes, he has more degrees than a thermometer).

    My approach, in daily life, is to immediately change the subject when anybody speaks positively to me about President Trump and I find myself subconsciously (if not consciously) avoiding people who strongly support him.

    I have wracked my brain trying to figure out how intelligent, informed people can possibly support President Trump’s actions – actions that are a clear reflection of the grossly objectionable person he quite obviously is. The only conclusion I have been able to reach is that such people share his persona and I have no reason to feel guilty about choosing to distance myself from them – nor should they from me, for that matter.

    I have lived a long time and have never seen our country this divided. I find hope in Bob’s message and will try to hang on to it. For the next several days, I will attempt to take joy from the holiday season and waste no emotions of any kind on our president.

    • Thanks for sharing this, Steve. It’s struggle, no doubt about it. Here’s an additional thought I should have put in the piece (but it was already too long): Thank God for all the people in my life who think I’m crazy liberal, but love me anyway. Thank God for all the people in my life who think I’m a communist, but who love me anyway. Thank God for all the people in my life who think I vote to elect “baby killers,” but still show up to listen when I teach Sunday school at my church. And love me anyway. There are so many reasons the people in my life could give up on me (regardless of whether I’m right and they’re wrong or vice versa). But they don’t. They choose to love me, or tolerate me. I’m grateful for the fact that people accept me, despite my faults and imperfections (or what they perceive to be faults). Doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that they choose to keep me in their lives. And I choose to return the favor. Or extend the grace. MERRY CHRISTMAS, FRIEND.

  4. Hello Bob – I admire your faith, hope, and charity. But tRump possess no redeeming qualities. He is a grim reminder of Hitler and Mussolini. Hard to imagine having a civil conversation with any of the three of them. tRump is a threat to civilization as we know it. What kind of treatment did his father inflict on him and he on his children? ‘’Hell knows no wrath.’’

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