Some of my best friends are Trump supporters. Some of these ornery critters have been friends of mine for 55 to 70 years.
Long before we had formed antagonistic political positions, we lived in the same neighborhood, or went to elementary school, or high school or college together.
We played on the same baseball, basketball or track teams. We went to church together, served as best men and/or grooms in one another’s weddings. We drank a lot of beer together, teased one another mercilessly, laughed heartily together, grieved at the funerals of one another’s family members.
Two of my oldest friends are retired New York firefighters. One high school friend is a retired Wall Street millionaire, retired at age 50 to raise thoroughbred horses. Another old basketball and drinking buddy is a retired IBM executive. One college friend was formerly Colorado’s commissioner of education and now consults for a conservative think tank, and regularly writes conservative opinion pieces for “The Hill.”
Like me, all of these men were raised in working class Catholic families who had family members who served in World War II, and learned to love God and country. Three of this group, including me, served in the Marine Corps.
Like many men our age, the Vietnam War and civil rights movement sharpened and altered our sense of citizenship, propelling us into opposite political camps. The schism created an even more adversarial relationship with my father. In 1968, as he supported segregationist George Wallace for president, I became active in Eugene McCarthy’s campaign. Whether through divine retribution or basic Karma, my son, a bank executive, is — wait for it — a Trump supporter.
Now, my father was both my nemesis and my hero. My son is one of the greatest joys in my life. Similarly, my old friends are part of my history — the source of cherished memories too valuable to squander over an unworthy politician. A contemporary of the poet Ben Jonson said that he would rather lose a friend than the opportunity for a caustic jest at that “friend’s” expense. I never want to lose my best friends or my loving son to score a political point. My liberal principles help define me, but so do my friends and family.
And let’s be honest: For all the wrangling back and forth, minds are rarely changed. Essayist Thomas Edsall has discussed research indicating that humans are temperamentally predisposed to see the world through a particular political lens. He argues that persuasive ideas or compelling evidence are usually insufficient to nudge a person’s mind from a core belief since nature and nurture have worked their strange alchemy on our emotions as well as our intellect.
Negotiating the crackling tension of these dragon-ridden days is a high-wire intellectual and emotional act. Though I sometimes fail at this, my preference when engaging Trumpist family and friends is to avoid political dialogue entirely in favor of conversations about old times, or sports, or family, or movies or books we’ve enjoyed. If that is impossible, because some of my friends enjoy the occasional dust-up, the safest path is to avoid cheap shots and heated language. Better to ask questions to test the depth and reliability of each other’s sources and information, and then respectfully listen to each other.
It is more difficult to achieve this sort of dialogue with individuals outside one’s circle, individuals who are angry and looking to disparage, or defeat, or even destroy those who disagree with them. The nation is currently afflicted with this potentially deadly political virus, and the prognosis is uncertain.
Watching the Jan. 6 insurrection terrified and baffled me. I saw two groups: “the violent group” — those who attacked and killed a police officer and wounded many more, while trashing the Capitol and sending legislators into hiding, fearful for their lives, and a second “tourist group” — those who walked zombie-like through the halls of Congress, as though they were looking for the food court in search of a Big Mac or a slice of Sbarro’s pizza.
The “tourist group” seemed caught up in the moment and the supercharged atmosphere of the day. The “violent group,” on the other hand, fueled with revolutionary anger, had diligently trained for the event and almost achieved its treasonous objective. The DHS and the FBI have reported that such domestic terrorist activity is rampant throughout the country. Security experts are also warning that “far-right groups are becoming more localized in North Carolina.”
W.B. Yeats, writing about the Easter Rebellion, mourned the death and imprisonment of friends transformed, even dehumanized, by their revolutionary fervor, friends whose minds had become “bitter” and “abstract things.” He saw that “Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart.” He wondered darkly: “When might it suffice?
William Shaw, of Pinehurst, is the author of “Fellowship of Dust: Retracing the WWII Journey of Sergeant Frank Shaw.”