My Mother Loved Donald Trump
This most unique of presidents has always had the gift for making his supporters feel as if his wins were theirs.
When the results of the Iowa caucus started coming in last Monday night, I found myself monitoring the county-by-county results more closely than common sense would dictate. After all, every poll showed the overpowering strength of Donald Trump in the Hawkeye State, and the call for Trump came so early that I could have safely tuned out, logged off, and watched replays of NFL wild-card matchups.
But, long after the outcome was certain, my eyes kept going to the result maps on Fox News and the New York Times website—and to one particular county on those maps: Woodbury County, which is home to Sioux City, which had once been home to my mother. As Woodbury County turned and stayed red for Trump, my heart was gladdened.
The former president had no greater fan than my mother, and this was the first Trump-era electoral event I had watched in her absence: My mother passed away on September 28, following a sudden diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer.
It had been many, many decades since my mother lived in Sioux City, where she was born and raised, but I can never see a reference to the city without thinking of her: It was where she went to school, attended church, met and married my late father, and was instilled with the values that would one day lead her to support the former president.
By the same token, I can never see or hear about Trump without thinking of my mother. You see, my mother held Donald Trump in such high esteem that it seems impossible I can ever disentangle the two in my mind. She thrived on his energy, respected his fortitude, laughed at his jokes, admired his walk, his suits, and his overcoats, and—at least one friend said—came to adopt the rhythms of his Queens-derived plain-spoken patois.
My mother loved Melania, for her grace and beauty as well as her regal disinterest in becoming part of the political scene; Trump’s assorted children, for their fierce loyalty to their father; and the buildings that bear the former president’s name, for their magnificence.
I simply cannot perceive these things without thinking of her. These days, when I hear the latest on the assorted bogus cases being brought against the president, my first thought is to give my mother the skinny. When I happen upon one of his rallies or speeches, my first thought is to tell her to drop whatever she is doing and tune in. And when I read one of his social media postings, my first thought is to bookmark the post and show it to her later.
How did it all begin? When I look back on the 2016 presidential election, it is with a considerable degree of personal sheepishness: Even though I was the one who had established himself as a writer in various right-of-center magazines, my mother was the one who first saw the promise and logic of Trump. Like millions of others—but before me—she recognized his announcement speech at Trump Tower as something almost never seen in our political culture: a man operating under no obligation to any person, party, ideology, or standard of behavior or speech, who was willing to call balls and strikes on the issues of the day, including immigration, trade, what we then called political correctness.
I squinted and saw the appeal, but I thought Trump was merely another expression of the sort of transitory populism that had briefly animated, in earlier election cycles, the candidacies of Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul, or Rick Santorum. Back then, I clung to an earlier vision of Republican dignity—the Romneys of the world—and I saw Trump as belonging to a different species.
Yet my mother also recognized this was no time to wax nostalgic about ghosts of Republicans past. She said to me, at least a hundred times, that if the country had not been in the state it was in after nearly two terms of Barack Obama’s far-left presidency, there would have never been a need for a Trump-like figure: a man wealthy enough to reach his own opinions independent of donors, gurus, and think tanks, and uncouth enough to express them. Yet the country was what it was, and my mother never wavered from her instinct that—to paraphrase her preferred candidate—Trump alone could fix it.
Sometime after Ted Cruz’s hilariously accelerated announcement of his vice-presidential pick (the unfortunate Carly Fiorina)—and Cruz and John Kasich’s pitiful team-up to somehow preserve the possibility of the much-discussed “contested convention”—I accepted reality: Trump was going to be the nominee. But more than that, I started to think that Trump should be the nominee. Our family was united as we soaked in the debates between Trump and Hillary Clinton—laughing at the coup de grace of Trump having invited Bill Clinton’s accusers to the town hall forum—and stayed up late as Trump emerged victorious on election night. She was on cloud nine the next morning.
Because of the way Trump connected with my mother, I came to see how he connected with his supporters writ large. Yes, his charisma and celebrity were part of it, but he marshaled those attributes to do something critical to a functioning democracy: He boiled down issues that had long been rendered needlessly fancy, complex, or intractable by professional politicians. His slogans, catchphrases, and rallying cries were once mocked—and are now laughably described in apocalyptic terms by our woke cultural commissars—but they had the practical effect of making political creatures out of people who would otherwise tune out politics.
Although she had strong opinions on any number of topics, my mother had once fit into this category. In the past, she had always followed other pop-culture goings-on besides politics—say, the Oscars or the British royal family—but after Trump, she lost interest in much of them. This was due in part to the undisguised radical leftism that had overtaken the mainstream media since Trump’s arrival—no longer was watching a late-night talk show an apolitical experience—but it was also because, as Trump himself said on multiple occasions, other personalities and happenings tended to pale next to Trump and his rallies.
His rallies! My mother never went to one in-person, but I am certain she saw, on television or the internet, nearly every Trump rally from both the 2016 and 2020 election cycles, and she managed to find many of the post-2020 rallies, even after they had been consigned to the bizarre internet channel Right Side Broadcasting. My mother patiently endured innumerable pre-rally interviews with Mike Lindell, but she would never want to miss the opening strains of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.”—since Trump adopted it, her favorite song—and the emergence of the president whose unflappable countenance and habit of singling out fans in the crowd by pointing towards them reminded her of my father.
Of course, it is my father’s death that looms over all of this. Having felt that life was so out of her control after the loss, my mother found a measure of confidence, of forward-looking brio, in Trump. My mother never knew hardship in the way that so many Trump supporters do, but she knew the sadness and pain that follows an unexpected death. Watching her watch him, I saw, for the first time in my life, the way that a political leader can, through his assertiveness and optimism, buoy his supporters.
Some people who knew my mother were baffled by her enthusiasm for Donald Trump. She was an extraordinarily elegant woman whose tastes were refined and discerning. She loved classical music, ballet, and poetry. She revered Grace Kelly, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Suzanne Farrell. She raised her sons to have good manners, dress well, speak clearly, and avoid bad language. Yet she also would have been the first to say that she didn’t want to be president—that such a job, in these days, required someone rough and tough.
At the same time, I think that she saw in Trump signs of a more genteel nature underneath the brashness: She always commented to me on his wholesome rapport with rallygoers and the touching affection with which he spoke of his parents (and, I might add, his late mother-in-law in his remarks in Iowa last Monday night).
Last year, when I thought about the gauntlet facing Trump until Election Day, I sometimes wondered if my mother could quite handle the intensity of the forces he was facing. She was horrified by the Trump “arrests.” But, deep down, I know that she would have drawn confidence from Trump’s own confidence. When she was in the hospital, she saw the mugshot from Georgia on TV, but this time she smiled and said he had probably been thinking for weeks of how he wanted to look in that photo.
When Woodbury County went for Trump, it felt less like Trump’s victory than my dear mother’s—but, then, this most unique of presidents has always had the gift for making his supporters feel as if his wins were theirs.