I was stunned to discover a few years ago that my friend was a Trump supporter. How could this have happened? I’ve known this guy for the better part of my life and there is nothing in his background that would suggest that Donald Trump would be the kind of President that he would be attracted to. Even now when I think back on the revelation I can only shake my head. There was a period in the 1980s when I liked Donald Trump too before the world got a chance to see who he really was.
I liked his roguish New York city swagger when he was just a run of the mill television personality and so-called real estate mogul. So, let me make my intentions clear this essay is not about Donald Trump. I won’t lie it would be easy, and I do mean very easy to give you five thousand words of Trump-bashing, but that’s not what I’m going to do. This is about my friend, the person I thought he was compared to the person he really is. For years I have watched with a certain amount of morbid fascination and horror the slow evolution or devolution depending on one’s point of view of my friend Alan.
Alan’s not deplorable as Hillary Clinton famously called all Trump’s supporters during the 2016 presidential Campaign. I was convinced back then that there was no way I could ever be friends with any of those so-called deplorable people. At least not the ones I’ve seen on television screaming and yelling red-faced at one of Trump’s ruckus campaign rallies rabidly pumping their fist in the air screaming,
“Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!” or jeering at the fake news as Trump and his supporters called them. I watched their angry bloated faces hooting and hollering at just about anything Trump said. He had tapped into white working-class grievance and fear. I had no idea that my friend was so grieved and afraid of the changing demographics in our country.
“Is this who almost half the country is?” I would find myself thinking as I watched the clip-on MSNBC or CNN, or ABC, anywhere but Fox News. No self-respecting liberal would ever get caught watching Fox News. Who are these Trump supporters? Theoretically, some of those very people voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary in 2016. My friend Alan was one of them. Alan had none of the stereotypical characteristics one would come to associate with a Trump supporter. He isn’t a racist, he isn’t a bully, he has empathy for other people, he believes in a person’s right to their own religious beliefs, and he believes in equal rights for all.
I know this because I’ve known him most of my life. Alan is a good dude. Over the years though, I have seen a change in my friend, as slow and deliberate as it may have been, it was a change nonetheless and not for the better. During the Obama years and during the economic disaster of the housing bubble burst and recovery my friend who is an electrician found himself out of work a great deal of the time during this period. He worked construction and there wasn’t much construction work during that period. He is a member of a union, I won’t say which one, but this union provided him with pick up spotted work which would have him driving long distances to work for a week here or there, but it was never constant work. Eventually, the work dried up. These were hard economic times for him and his family, but he was and is hard-working, so he along with his wife always seems to manage. It was hard sometimes but they did manage. It was around this time that I noticed a hardening of my friend, a bitterness creeping into his personality, he was starting to blame other people for his situation.
Then Donald Trump was elected on his platform of nationalism and racial grievous. It is those people’s fault that you are in this predicament was Trump’s essential message to his supporters. The Hispanics, the Arabs, the gays, the blacks, the others are taking America away from you. Anyone that doesn’t look, act or pray like you should be your enemy white-working class folks. Sadly, Trump’s message found a home with more American’s than I would have ever guessed possible, and more shocking to me was that his message found a home with my friend Alan and many in his family.
Alan is a reasonable man. How could this have happened to him? How is it that I didn’t see it coming? My wife and I have been through our share of financial hardships just like everyone else, but what we didn’t do was point the finger. We became reflective. We looked at ourselves and our predicament and made the requisite changes to rectify our situation. Some situations are out of your control for sure, but what you do, and how you handle it is within your control.
I am an African American liberal and not some cartoonish socialist who believes that government is the answer to everyone’s problem although there is a role for the government in people’s lives. I don’t believe in open borders. I believe in the second amendment. I don’t believe a person should be able to walk the streets with a machine gun, but I also don’t believe that the government will come in to take everyone’s guns away either.
Alan is white and a rock-solid Donald Trump supporter, to say that our relationship has become complicated in the era of Trump would be an understatement. The rise of Donald Trump on the political scene has exposed a fissure in our relationship that I don’t think neither one of us knew was there. Alan and I were friends long before either of us had ever heard the name, Donald Trump. We will likely be friends long after he’s gone.
The Early Years
Ferry Elementary school on the east-side of Detroit on Ferry street, is where I first met Alan way back in 1976 in the 4th grade in Mrs. Drum’s homeroom class. It’s been a long time since I sat at the table near the rear of the class with Alan and Ramone, I can honestly say that Mrs. Drum was no doubt the meanest teacher I have ever had. I will admit that I learned a lot, (how to control my fear for one) of valuable life lessons in Mrs. Drum’s class that semester.
I arrived late to class that cool September morning. I don’t remember why I was late, but I was. I remember standing in the hall looking through the small window of the class I would be attending that semester. The students looked terrified. I didn’t want to go in. In those days I was a small, almost frail, and sensitive boy. Not many would recognize that skinny shy kid today, but that’s who I was back then. Mrs. Drum was standing with her back to the class writing her name in large letters in white chalk on the blackboard. I looked down the empty corridor. The floors were buffed and shiny. I wanted to go home.
I looked at the hall clock it was 8:15 in the morning. I had been standing there for five minutes. Mrs. Drum was now standing in front of the class with her hands behind her back speaking to the class. The students sat rigid in their seats with there eyes wide and fixed on the elderly woman standing in front of the class barking out instructions. I waited for her to finish before I opened the door. I cautiously entered the class was so silent that I could hear several of the children in at the tables in the front breathing, then and the students started to murmur. I could feel all their eyes pressing against me as I walked the green mile toward Mrs. Drum’s desk.
The classroom was filled with an assortment of brown, tan, and white faces behind me. Mrs. Drum slowly turned to me. I stood there frozen and hugging my brand-new notebook shifting my weight from one foot to the other waiting for something, anything to happen. The first thing that I noticed about Mrs. Drum when I entered her classroom was her eyes. Her eyes were the coldest and bluest eyes that I had ever seen. If she turned those eyes on you when she was displeased, which was most of the time it was like having icy cold water throw in your face unexpectedly. She was an elderly woman, but at nine years old, fifty seemed elderly to me. She was certainly older than that, but how much older is hard to gage.
Her deeply creased granite-like face was powdered and overly made up and her lips were paper thin and turned down at the corners and painted blood red. Her hair was cut short like Mia Farrow’s in “Rosemary’s Baby,” but stark white and her perfume was loud and smelled too sweet. It was so overwhelming that it snatched the air right out of your lungs if you stood to close. She wore gaudy costume jewelry on both of her skeletal wrists which dangled and clanked every time she moved her arms. Mrs. Drum always wore a shawl or silk scarf thrown over her narrow shoulders or around her neck almost every day.
Looking back as an adult I can now see that Mrs. Drum wasn’t happy. She seemed bitter and openly hostile and on some occasions when she deemed it necessary, she would not hesitate to pull her paddle from the bottom drawer of her desk and dish out a little capital punishment. Believe it or not, rather you agree with it or not, back then teachers were allowed to lay a little wood on you if they deemed the occasion called for it. I remember watching many class clowns walking solemn-faced toward the front of the class where the gallows and Mrs. Drum awaited with her paddle dangling loosely in her right hand. It was always the same boys, usually Bobby Gravatt, Artist Couch, Mickey Blevins, Richard Trendar (White Ricky) as we called him back then and his best buddy Richard Pope (Black Ricky), and a few others. It was like clockwork, this weekly execution, a few of the names changed on occasion, but for the most part, the cast remained the same.
The punishment was always dealt out quickly. Mrs. Drum would grab the accused by the shoulders, turn him to face the class, then push his shoulders forward forcing him to bend at the waist, and then “BAM, BAM, BAM”, three quick blows that would leave the punished warped and wobbled. She would then give the punished a slight push toward the class and he would walk back to his seat on shaky unsteady legs. The whole class would sit in deathly silence averting our eyes as the punished student passed making his way back to his seat. Mrs. Drum would stand in front of the room staring at the class with those artic eyes, and we would squirm under the weight of her glare.
Fortunately for me and Mrs. Drum, I was never on the receiving end of any of her paddling’s. My mother would have simply never tolerated that. Mrs. Drum was either burnt out or doing a job she never expected or wanted to be doing. I obviously can’t be sure if this was the case but looking back on that time now with the experience of four decades of life behind me it sure seemed to be the case.
She was a taciturn woman who ruled her class with an iron fist. Late assignments and homework were refused, and tardiness was simply not to be tolerated. When the class bell rang you were expected to be at your table waiting for the class to begin. I was tardy. I had broken cardinal rule number one. I was not making a good first impression. My older sister Rachel had been through Mrs. Drum’s gauntlet like our older sister Carmen before us and they had both survived Mrs. Drum. I had been warned about being late for her class. I could hear Rachel’s voice echoing back to me. Her voice high and on the verge of laughter,
“Whatever you do Lukie boy, don’t show up late for Mrs. Drum’s class. She hates it.” I didn’t know at the time if she was just messing with me like older sisters tend to do with their little scared brothers.
Standing in front of Mrs. Drum with those eyes burning through me made her warning seemed prophetic. Mrs. Drum stared at me with her thin lips drawn into a tight pucker. She stuck out her boney age-spotted hand and rolled her long stick-like fingers out toward me. Her nails were as red as her thin downturned lips. I stood there stupidly staring at the floor trying to avoid those eyes.
She sighed deeply and wiggled her finely manicured fingers indicating to me that she wanted my attendance slip. I could hear the other children snicker and laughing under their breath at my bone-headiness.
“Your attendance slip, I need to see it,” she said in a slightly annoyed voice. I unfolded my arms and reached into my coat pocket and pulled out the crumpled piece of paper. Her brows knotted in her powdered and creased face. She took my slip and looked at it then back at me, then back at the wrinkled paper in her hand, and then back at me. She stared at me for a long moment.
“ Do you know what time this class starts,” she asked. I nodded.
“ And what time is that?” She asked.
“ Eight O’clock,” I said.
“ That’s right,” she said, “Eight o’clock. Do you know what time it is?”
“ No,” I said shaking my head.
“Eight fifteen, Mr. Wilson tardiness is disruptive and disrespectful to me and the students that managed to get her on time. Do you understand?”
“Yes Mrs. Drum,” I said quickly.
“ Don’t disrupt my class again,” She said as she looked away.
“I won’t,” I said.
The class started to snicker again, and she quickly turned her icy beams on them. Her stare had the medusa effect. The class instantly fell silent and still. Those eyes were her weapons and she knew how to use them. I mean, it doesn’t take much to intimidate a class full of 4th graders, but she knew how to do it. This was not the class I wanted to be in. I thought about pretending to be sick so that I could go home and plead with my mother to change my class. My mother wouldn’t do it. I knew she wouldn’t, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask. The thought of having to come back to this class for the whole school year almost made me physically ill.
“Your sisters made it through okay, and so can you,” I could already hear my mother saying it.
“But mom,” I was going to plead, and she would say, what she did eventually said later that night when I got home and pleaded with her to take me out of Mrs. Drum’s class.
“Go in, and do your schoolwork, and if you don’t get in there and start monkeying around, you’ll be fine,” and that was that.
My family is a typical American family. My father worked at Ford Motor Company for 30 years and my mother was a homemaker. I had six siblings, six sisters, and me. We grew up in a house that was neither rich nor poor, we were solidly middle class. My mother is a lovely woman who could become a drill sergeant when the situation called for it, and trust me, there were many times when the situation did call for it.
We were not the Walton’s or the Brady Bunch. The Walton kids and The Brady Bunch kids were well behaved and got on perfectly with one another. We are the Wilson’s and we weren’t perfect, and we weren’t always well behaved, and we certainly didn’t always get on with one another.
We weren’t bad kids, we didn’t get into much trouble, but the bickering, my god the bickering, had to drive my mother nuts and from time to time that volcano that was my mother’s temper would erupt and my sisters and I would go scurrying off to our rooms feeling guilty and ashamed for upsetting her.
“Why are you late,” I heard Mrs. Drum’s voice filtering through the fog of my memory. I stammered a response and she cut me off before I could finish. The class snickered behind me again. Mrs. Drum exhaled deeply and shook her head.
“Don’t let it happen again,” she said as she turned her icy beams on me.
“ I won’t,” I said. Mrs. Drum put my slip in her black binder and closed it and sat back in her chair.
“Find a seat,” she said dismissively. I just stared at her not comprehending at first.
“Sit down,” she said again. Her raspy smoker’s voice was sharp and filled with annoyance this time.
She motioned toward the class with her head. I turned to face the class all eyes were on me. Deadman or in this case boy walking is how I felt. I slowly made my way down the narrow aisle leading to the six or eight tables spread diagonally throughout the classroom. Each table had four to six students sitting at them staring at me. The boys and girls had separated themselves into groups as boys and girls of that age tended to do. The little black boys sat with little black boys. Little black girls sat with little black girls. The white children form themselves into similar groups. Then you had the nerdy kids forming themselves, you had the group of overweight kids, a mixed group of black and white boys and girls. Then you had the miscellaneous group of children made of black and white mostly boys and a handful of nerdy kids, this is the group Alan and I was in.
I stepped forward looking for a welcoming eye. I didn’t find one. Now that I look back on it reminds me of that scene from Forrest Gump where Forest gets on the school bus and none of the other kids will let him sit with them until Jenny offers him a seat next to her. I walked toward the unwelcoming faces of my schoolmates. Some kids looked away indicating that I wasn’t welcome there. Other kids stared coldly at me daring me to sit, I wasn’t welcome there. Still, other kids pulled the chairs close to the table with their feet so that I couldn’t sit down, I wasn’t welcome there either. I turned back toward Mrs. Drum and found her watching with faint amusement.
“Come, come, Mr. Wilson,” Mrs. Drum said impatiently, “ Find a seat. Hurry up now.” She clapped her hands.
“ You can sit here,” I heard a barely audible voice coming from behind me. I had passed the table with the little white boy with the ocean blue eyes and blonde hair which was parted down the middle and feathered on both sides like David Cassidy from the Partridge family. You have to remember that this was the seventies, and in the seventies, David Cassidy was all the rage for a certain subset of the population. I leaned more toward Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, but David Cassidy was alright too.
Alan was sitting with his class book and notebook pile in a small stack in front of him. He was sitting with a little black boy named Ramone. Ramone was an aloof kid. In Ramone, I had never seen a more uptight kid in my life. He looked on the outside like how I felt on the inside. He looked like he was on the verge of exploding. Alan would tell me later after we had become close that Ramone’s home life wasn’t the greatest. His parents were very strict and very demanding. I remember Alan telling me once after we had become friends that he wasn’t allowed to go over Ramone’s house.
“Why not,” I asked expecting some off-handed racist remark.
“I’m just not allowed to that’s all,” he said.
“Oh,” I said turning away from him.
“His mom and dad don’t want him playing with white kids,” he said matter-of-factly.
“ What,” I said turning back to him shocked, “Why not?” Alan was trying to put on a brave face, but I can tell that it bothered him. Hell, it bothered me.
“ I dunno,” he said shrugging while doodling in his notebook. “It’s cool though, we can hang out on the playground or in gym class.”
“ My mom and dad don’t care if I play with white kids,” I said. “You can come over to my house and play if you want to.”
“ They don’t care?” Alan asked with a voice hyped with excitement.
“ They never said so,” I said, “ have yours?” Alan shook his head.
“No, they never said so either.”
That weekend our parents met for the first time and Alan spent the night over my house a few weeks later. The next weekend I spent the night over his house, and so it went. We would spend the night listening to music, playing board games, pining over each other’s older sisters, and so on. It went that way until we were graduating from middle school.
“Hurry now,” Mrs. Drum clapped her hands again. The three of us, Alan, Ramone, and I snapped our heads in Mrs. Drum’s direction.
“ Come on,” Alan said in a low voice and motioned to me. “You better take your seat. I looked back over my shoulder and all eyes were on me.
“Okay,” I said and walked over to the table and took the seat across from Alan. Ramone glared at me as if I were intruding.
“ Hi,” I said. Ramone ignored me and turned back to the book that he was skimming.
“ I’m Alan,” he said then motioned toward Ramone. “ This is Ramone. He lives across the street, can you believe that? I bet he doesn’t have to get up too early do you, Ramone?”
Ramone looked from his book. His eyes fell on me then quickly shifted to Alan.
“ I get up early, earlier than you I bet,” Ramone said smiling. I can remember thinking when I first saw Ramone that his dark skin was too shiny.
“Too much lotion,” I thought and looked down at my own shiny brown skin. “Too much lotion.” These were the random thoughts of an anxious 9-year-old.
“Not as early as me,” Alan said grinning. “How early do you get up?” Alan asked turning to me.
“ I get up pretty early too,” I said.
“ Not too early, you were late,” Ramone said glancing at me.
“My sister Pam…” I started but Alan interrupted me
“What’s your name,”
“I’m Luke,” I answered.
“ I heard she’s tough,” Alan said. “ My brother Scott had her last year and he says she doesn’t like it when kids come late to class. She gave him a dose of the “Attitude Adjuster” for coming late once, it left a mark for two days. You’re lucky you didn’t get it.”
“My sister says this class is hard,” I said.
“She gives out six-grade work to do,” Alan said.
“I’m doing seventh-grade work at home,” Ramone said with pride. I glanced at the nerdy kid’s table.
“ He belongs over there,” I said to Alan motioning toward the table of nerds.
Alan sat back in his chair and grinned, and I sat back in my chair and grinned, and Ramone, well, Ramone didn’t grin. He looked at Alan for a second then turned and glared at me, then turned back to his book without saying a word. Ramone was one of the smartest kids I have ever known, a high achiever. He was the kind of kid that would pout for days if he got a 97% on a test. He wanted that 100% and most of the time he got it. He would attack the next test like a madman, he wanted that 97% blot wiped off his record. He wanted to be a doctor. In the fourth grade, this kid knew what he wanted to be in life while most of us were still drawing pictures of Godzilla or superhero’s this kid was talking about becoming a doctor.
The Great Divide
Alan and I have been friends for over four decades and over the years our families have grown to become as close as two families could be. For instance, when I was learning to drive my father also took Alan and his brother out driving so that we could all get our practice in before our road test. Alan’s father and my father would sit and share a few beers together in the summer, not all the time, but when both men were available. Our mothers got along well as did our siblings. The night before Alan’s father died, he sent for me and I visited with him in his home. A couple of days before my father died Alan went to see him in the hospital. The point being our families were close.
I can’t begin to count the number of birthdays, barbeques, marriages, divorces, deaths in both families, triumphs, and tragedies our families have shared. As I’ve stated, we have known each other for many years and in all that time we rarely discussed politics or politicians in any serious way. Alan just didn’t seem to care, at least I know now that he didn’t care to talk to me about it. To be fair I never really spoke to him about it either. Avoiding minefields, Alan, and I are very good at managing our friendship. For instance, we have never roomed together, because we knew that our personalities weren’t suited for cohabitation.
We knew without having to discuss it that we wouldn’t mix very well in that sort of an environment. We’re both very headstrong and like things a certain way. It wasn’t something that we needed to discuss; it was just something that we knew. Politics fell into that category for us until recently.
When Trump first announced that he was running for President I found it amusing. Donald Trump had toyed with the idea before, I figured he wanted to get himself, and the Trump brand a lot of free publicity then faded back into the New York woodwork. Full disclosure when he was just this roguish, slightly crooked real estate mogul I got a kick out of him just like everyone else. I thought,
“Who in the hell wouldn’t want to walk in that guy’s shoes, he’s rich and he dates all these beautiful women, I mean the guys living the life so we thought. I always suspected that he might not have been a billionaire, but who cares, being a millionaire would have been fine with me. It was the eighties, a time when being super-rich was enough to make you a celebrity. The recent Trump, the bitter, vindictive, thin-brained racist in the white house now is the Trump that gives me pause. I look at the things he says, the way he behaves, the way he treats people and I ask myself who looks at this guy and says yes, this is an appropriate way.
Everything I know about Alan, well, everything I thought I knew about Alan would have suggested that he should be repelled by this guy, but he’s not. What is it about Donald Trump the makes otherwise rational decent people support and defend him so wholeheartedly? I don’t know. The first time I truly notice the shifting in Alan’s attitude came a few years back during the Kaepernick kneeling episode. Trump, his supporters, and the Republican party lost their collective minds. Kaepernick in a peaceful and lawful protest against the continuous violence and murdering of unarmed minorities decided that he was going to take a knee during the national anthem. My friend’s response was startling and disappointing, to say the least.
“So, what do you think about Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem? He asked.
“ He’s protesting police brutality and murder. He’s got every right to do that,” I said expecting my friend to agree with me, but he didn’t. When I think back on it, I think my response caught him off guard, just as much as his response caught me off guard. We have been friends for so long that we often don’t see each other through a racial lens. This episode brought that reality back very quickly. Why is it that no one had a problem with Tim Tebow when he took a knee, but there is a problem when Kaepernick does it? I think the answer is obvious. From there Alan went to the very familiar and now Trumpian talking points about how Kaepernick was disrespecting America and the men and women who served and how he should stand and honor the flag no matter what.
Over the years Alan and I have had many debates over Trump’s policies and his behavior as President. I don’t understand Trump’s supporters. I don’t see what they see in him, but speaking from my own personal experience I don’t believe that they are all bad people. My friend Alan certainly isn’t. I do not agree with Donald Trump or his supporters on almost anything, but I know that not all his supporters are racist or bigots, or homophobes. They are not all bombastic bullies with rigid beliefs who are unwilling to hear another person’s point of view. Alan is a very reasonable man who is always willing to listen to both sides, that’s not to say that he can be convinced to change his point of view, but at least he will listen and sometimes you can’t ask for more than that.