I am a feminist, a liberal, living in central Kentucky. My dad is 75, non-college-educated and still living in the sleepy southeast Missouri town where he was born. Sadly, our story is not unique. In 2016, my dad was not only a Trump supporter, he was the GOP’s dream constituent: Retired from driving a potato chip delivery truck, he helped drive cars from the local dealership to other dealers in nearby states, which meant hours alone listening to conservative talk radio. Mornings, he would meet his buddies at the Country Mart coffee shop to rail about sissy liberals and laugh at the latest jokes about Hillary Clinton. He posted hateful memes on Facebook and watched “Hannity” every night and NASCAR on the weekends.
With the exception of exchanging pleasantries at a family wedding, we have not spoken in almost three years. Until now.
It is Saturday, Nov. 9. I’ve driven 300 miles for a visit. My stepmother, whom I call my second Mama, has late-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — the same sickness that killed my mother in 2002 — and I’ve been promising to come over. I still haven’t talked to my dad, but Mama is so sick now that she no longer leaves the living room couch except for doctor’s appointments. She is 72. She is on 24/7 oxygen.
When I arrive at noon, Dad’s in his recliner, and Mama’s on the couch. Their TV is set to the Lifetime Movie Network. “This is all I watch anymore,” Mama says. “Besides our soaps, we watch this and ‘CBS This Morning,’ and that’s it.”
When I say except for NASCAR on the weekends, Dad says: “Can’t remember the last time I watched a race. All the guys I liked retired.”
An hour later, my dad and I take a drive around the new parts of Jackson (population 15,000) in his truck. He wants to show me street after street of new home construction. Every few minutes, an alarm goes “beep beep beep beep” because my dad, never a rule follower, refuses to wear a seat belt.
“All these fancy new houses,” he says, turning the radio, tuned to classic country, down to almost silent. “These lots gotta be, what, 40 grand, with a $200,000 house? Where the hell do these people work?”
The beeping is making me nuts, but I recall a line by poet Mary Oliver: “Once my father took me ice-skating, then forgot me, and went home. . . . He had simply, he said, forgotten that I existed.” This, I think, is what the past three years have felt like — like we forgot each other. I look over at my dad, his hand steady on the wheel, and decide to let the beeping go. I’d offered to drive, insisted even, but he’d said he couldn’t remember the last time he drove his truck and something about the battery going bad. Still, I can’t help but notice how happy he is to be out, to be showing me around, to be driving somewhere besides the grocery store, the pharmacy or a doctor’s appointment — surely a form of prison for a man who used to spend his days on the open road.
How happy I am to be with my dad after those three lost years. And lost over what? Yet I know I am not alone. How many loved ones have you stopped calling, blocked, unfollowed or unfriended? How many friends and family members do you simply avoid these days, choosing to skip your niece’s wedding or make other plans for the holidays? How many of you, like me, just stopped going home?
In Kentucky, Amy McGrath, a Democrat who’s hoping to defeat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is running a political ad in which she says: “How did it come to this? That even within our own families we can’t talk to each other about the leaders of our country anymore without anger and blame?” No matter what you think of McGrath, she makes a good point. Maybe even “the” point. How long until we all decide that neither our adoration nor our disdain for Donald Trump is worth abandoning the people we love?
My dad drives me around the parts of town that used to be creeks and woods, now totally unfamiliar to me, paved over with wide streets. He cracks his window, shakes a cigarette out of a red pack labeled “Exeter” and lights up. “Look at all this concrete,” he says. “Not a one of these yards has a tree in it. And you got California out there burning to the ground. There’s something to this man-made climate change, I don’t care what anybody says.”
To say I’m shocked to hear my Trump-train, it’s-all-a-hoax dad say the words “climate change” is an understatement, but once that political door is cracked open, he keeps on. What do I think about Kentucky’s Republican governor, Matt Bevin, losing? If I had to pick, which Democrat do I think will get the nod in 2020? What’s the difference between the health-care plans of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren? Do I think this impeachment process against Trump has any legs?
“You still like Mexican?” he asks, turning back toward the center of town. “There’s a new one where that steakhouse used to be.”
It’s late for lunch, so we’re one of two tables in the place. Dad orders a beer, the first I’ve seen him drink in 20 years, and for the next hour he tells me how worried he is about Mama, about his daily routine of giving her meds, what they do for meals, that she recently didn’t recognize her son but tried to play it off, and how she fell off the couch in the middle of the night last week and scared him half to death.
He’s worried about the future of health care and the price of prescription medication. He’s worried about whether he should keep the house he has owned for 40 years or, when Mama’s gone, rent a smaller place. He tells me how Facebook is his sole means of escape during the long days trapped at home, adding: “But I don’t trust anything on there anymore. Not the Republicans and not the Democrats. Trump’s the biggest liar, but I think they’re all a bunch of liars. The whole country’s going to hell in a handbasket, and you can’t tell me a one of ’em really gives a . . .”
He orders a second beer and keeps talking. I mostly listen, though when he asks who I like so far for the Democrats, I tell him the truth: “Granted, it’s a year off, but I’m not all that excited about any of them.”
After he pays the check, he says, “I can’t tell you how good it is to be in a restaurant having a meal, talking to somebody with some g-d--- sense.”
On our way home, we stop at the Hardee’s out by Country Mart and the Dollar Tree, across from Roy’s Tire and Auto, to grab a cheeseburger for Mama. We’re sitting in the drive-through line when he asks me what I think about open-carry laws.
I tell him I think they’re stupid. He says, “But if a guy is willing to show off and open carry, I got to think he knows how to use it.”
When I roll my eyes, he puts down his cigarette and pulls a holstered gun from under his seat. “I have this,” he says, turning to blow smoke out his window, “but if there was a guy coming at us right now, walking toward this truck ready to shoot, what the hell would I do? Sure, it’s loaded, but I can’t remember the last time I shot the damn thing.”
I think about how many dozens of articles I’ve read lately about suburban women leaving the Trump train, and I wonder how long before, if ever, the GOP catches on that it could lose its surest thing, men like my dad, too. It’s not altogether likely; Washington Post-ABC News polls show that Trump has maintained particularly high ratings among rural white men, who appear just as supportive of him as they were early in his presidency — 75 percent approval for him in combined polls in 2019, up a bit from 2018 and 2017. But if my dad can turn, anyone can.
At the drive-up window, Dad tells the boy, “You have a good one,” hands me the small paper bag, tucks his gun back underneath his seat, lights a new cigarette and checks the clock. “We still have a minute. Have you seen the new high school?”