I was in the last year of my tenure on the Massachusetts Appeals Court when Donald Trump was elected. The courtroom often presents a skewed sampling of society, including many of the least fortunate among us --- but also the aggressive, the obdurate and the self-interested. In order to guard against cynicism and snap judgments, it’s helpful to maintain a belief in the overall fairness and decency of most Americans. But that’s been tough for me to do since the election of Donald Trump.
During the last two years, I have found it hard to regard the clashes in our country as family quarrels. The rancor and hostility so familiar to me in litigation now seem representative of the country as a whole.
My wife Kathleen and I are recognizable types. We live in downtown Boston, drive an aging Subaru and have three post-graduate degrees between us (the extra one is hers). We like to sail and ski, go to the theater and try to play the piano. No one has ever tried to give us a MAGA hat. We are saved from complete typecasting only by our 26-year-old son, James.
James lives in northern Vermont, less than 50 miles from the Canadian border. His go-to movie is “The Blues Brothers” and he favors country music. He owns a shotgun for skeet shooting and a .223 caliber Savage Arms rifle that he takes to the shooting range. But mostly, he’s a car guy. He has owned innumerable large diesel pickups, a motorcycle, an ATV and a classic 1972 Ford LTD (which he bought and sold before he had a driver’s license — don’t ask). He has a commercial driver’s license and, until recently, worked as a big rig driver transporting an 80-ton car hauler on a route through northern New York and New England. Last year, he graduated from demolition derby to racing stock cars, and we recently went to see him race at the White Mountain Motorsports Park in New Hampshire.
As he braced for the embarrassment of visiting parents, James was keenly aware that we would be obvious outsiders at the racetrack. He wanted us to be prepared. “Dad,” he said, “You’re not going to like the food, but you can bring your own.” And: “Also, it’s really loud. You need to bring earplugs.” And finally, “Just so you know, this is serious Trump country.”
Great. I imagined a loud Trump rally with bad food.
The rancor and hostility so familiar to me in litigation, now seem representative of the country as a whole.
On a hazy late summer afternoon, we pulled into a dirt parking lot alongside a large black pickup truck. The driver was just getting out. His t-shirt read: “Stomp My Flag And I’ll Stomp Your Ass.” He gave us a nod. We did our best to act like we belonged as we made our way to the ticket booth, but we soon noticed that, apart from the occasional friendly glance, no one gave us a second look.
It was family night at the track and there were children everywhere, many as young as three or four years old. Some people were outfitted with the kind of industrial ear protection you see on airport runway flaggers. Many had picnic baskets much more elaborate than what we’d brought.
James was in the pit getting ready to race, but he had arranged for the family of his former high school auto shop teacher to meet us, and we were quickly drawn into the middle of a large talkative group. We relaxed, tried to remember everyone’s name, and began to pay attention to the action on the track.
Eventually, 10 or so stock minis — any stripped-down hardtop sedan except Camaros, Firebirds, turbos or superchargers — rumbled onto the track, took several laps and roared off at the starter’s flag, with James in the lead. We leapt to our feet and remained that way for the entire race, as James fended off all challengers. By the time he was cruising through the victory lap, checkered flag held high, nearby spectators were all eyeing the two newcomers making a racket in the stands. One woman kindly told us that when her son won for the first time she did some serious screaming herself.
As it turned out we saw very little of a political nature in “serious Trump country.” The t-shirt that greeted us on arrival was book-ended by a confederate flag on the truck driving out in front of us. Otherwise, there were no signs of much interest in politics of any kind. Our eventual enjoyment of the evening was partly relief, but also just the normal feeling of having an entertaining, relaxed time in congenial surroundings.
An anecdotal evening at the race track doesn’t take away the ceaseless tension that I lay at the feet of Donald Trump and his Republican party, but it helped us to reexamine the character of our country. We were lucky to have this opportunity --which we can claim only because James has pulled us out of our orbit. Most Americans, I fear, are becoming more and more entrenched in circles of the like-minded for all of their lives.
The punishing pace of news that can feel all-consuming is probably of only passing interest to a large part of the population.
The punishing pace of news that can feel all-consuming is probably of only passing interest to a large part of the population. Some are undeniably full of passionate intensity and they will not be won over, not ever. But we should not be misled into thinking that they are most of us. Few Americans are implicated in events of the type experienced in Charlottesville, undergone by families seeking refuge on our southern border, or put up with by members of the press covering a Trump rally. Most people just want to live their lives.
The corrosion at the very top of our government is a slow process, with each incremental substitution of self-importance and greed for honesty and empathy easy to ignore or take for granted. I still fear for the American experiment, because widespread inattentiveness is a considerable danger. It is not, however, the equivalent of a malevolent and vindictive tide.
Perhaps, after all, our ability to just get along with each other need not be swept away by the perversion of leadership in the White House.