My cousin J Cruz comes over. He drives up from south of Denver to help me install some window shades, by which I mean he comes over to install shades while I watch. He is prepared with the appropriate tools, including safety goggles and a step ladder because my cousin is that kind of guy: capable, efficient. His Google profile says, “Hi, my name is J and I like to build stuff.”
He’s a big man, big work boots, booming voice, salt-and-pepper hair and goatee, the chubby cheeks of his dad, the wide smile we share. We eat breakfast and talk. He says he visited our cousin in New Mexico. She’s doing well. “Can’t talk politics with her, though” he says. “Probably can’t talk politics with you, either.”
He’s a Trump supporter. So are his mom and dad. So is my brother. And probably at least three cousins and an auntie or uncle on my dad’s side of the family. I’m not really sure — not even of my brother — because politics is a topic we avoid with each another. I glean my clues in the same place everyone else does: Facebook.
My cousin’s remark troubles me. It troubles me in the same way it troubles me to hear people castigate those who support Trump as racists, as stupid. Swept up in that condemnation are members of my family, and they are not stupid. They are college graduates, government employees, business owners, doting parents, good, funny, generous people.
For the life of me, I don’t understand how they could vote for and continue to defend Donald Trump. And, it seems to me that if I can’t grasp why the people closest to me made that choice, then I am missing some critical part of the American experience.
“Here’s the thing, J,” I tell him. “It’s my job to understand other people’s experiences, why they think the way they do. I should be able to have that conversation with you.”
He puts his plate in the dishwasher and tells me that the idea of Donald Trump as president fills him with hope. His eyes are bright. His voice buoyant.
I think, “This is going to be harder than I thought.”
I call J a couple days later to ask if I can talk to him for an Inauguration Day column about why he supports Trump. The election is over. Trump will be president. I need to understand how we got here. He says sure, and tells me to come down to his Englewood shop. He builds giant metal fireboxes called mobile thermal oxidizers into which the toxic gases of freshly emptied oil refinery tanks are vented and burned. In the bad old days, all those chemicals were released into the atmosphere.
“So you owe your job to the EPA?” I ask him, teasing. “Yeah,” he says not the least bit sheepish. He is self-aware enough to understand the nature of his own contradictions. He is a civil libertarian who favors some sort of Muslim registry “though that’s a slippery slope, it can end up like Japanese internment camps.” A limited-government man who wants universal health care. “I know how ridiculous that sounds,” he acknowledges. “It’s like one of those any government protesters holding up a sign saying, ‘Keep your government hands off my Medicaid’.”
He tells me I can talk to his coworkers while I am at it. They’re Trump supporters. No thanks, I tell him. “I don’t love them.”
J is 11 years my junior, one of the younger cousins on my mom’s side of the family. I used to babysit for him and his sister Kelly when I was a teenager. We love each other in the way of close families, raised in love, raised to love, not knowing we had any other choice. But we are not children any longer and we all understand the person who exists perfectly formed by blood and memory within our hearts may not be quite the person who stands before us now. And we might not like the person who stands before us now. Learning that is a risk my family, by and large, will not take because we cannot imagine what would make it worth taking.
What that means is that my conversation with J will be only as honest as necessary. Yes, I will ask him how he can support a man who has proven himself not only to be a truly awful human being, but also someone who threatens our country’s founding principles — freedom of the press, freedom of religion — and who, in the interest of self over country, downplays the documented interference of a foreign government that seeks our destabilization.
And, yes, he will tell me the mainstream media is completely untrustworthy and in the tank for the Dems, and that Hillary Clinton is corrupt through and through and maybe she didn’t arrange for the murder of Vince Foster but she sure as hell did everything she could to undermine and demean the women with whom her husband cheated. And then there was Whitewater and Benghazi and the Clinton Foundation pay-for-play and the emails. Always, the emails. Just questions on top of questions, so many that what he saw was not a person but a hollowed-out opportunist.
But we don’t say that all at once. Instead, we agree we are all political hypocrites, creatures of the convenient truth or the well-told lie. People are capable of rationalizing almost anything.
“It’s not good,” he says at one point in the conversation. “You accept things you might not ordinarily accept. How do you reconcile it? I don’t know. You pick your poison. That’s what it comes down to. You pick your poison.
“You like to think you will live your life on your terms, you won’t compromise your principles, you won’t compromise anything for anyone, but every choice is a compromise. Every day you feel like you give up a little bit of yourself.”
J and I share a family, but not an upbringing. He grew up in rural Utah, a speck of a town where I spent a couple summers slopping the pigs and splashing in the swimming hole and learning to ride bareback. My aunt and uncle had a horse named Horse and a root cellar laden with preserve-filled Mason jars. Almost everyone was white and Mormon.
I grew up in small-town New Mexico where more than half of us were Hispanic and Catholic. His dad is Mormon and Republican. His mom, my mom’s younger sister, is a Catholic and used to be a Democrat. My parents were both Democrats. I grew up knowing I would go to college. He did not. He didn’t have the grades. He didn’t have anyone around who talked about college. He joined the Marines right after graduation in 1993 in part, he says, because he looked up to my brother and that’s what my brother did.
“I knew if I had stayed there what was waiting for me,” J says. “I’d either wind up working as a hired hand on some farm or I would be standing in line at one of the three good places to work there: the lime plant, the beryllium mine or the power plant, and those jobs are hard to get, a lot of competition for them.
“I knew what was there for me, and I had enough. I wanted more. I wanted something different. I wanted to see a bit of the world before it passed me by.”
J was not particularly interested in politics for a long time. His first vote was likely in 2008, he can’t remember, and while he was jazzed about Obama, “a cool, young black dude who wanted to make change,” he’s pretty sure he voted Libertarian.
“Small government, states’ rights, individual freedoms, individual responsibilities. That always appealed to me.” But by this past election, he’d switched his affiliation to Republican.
“I wanted to have my voice heard. I wanted to have my vote mean something. You can vote Libertarian all day long. You can vote Green Party. They get 2 percent. I always voted my conscience and that’s good, but at the same time, I wanted to be part of the process.”
He was drawn to Trump for the same reasons so many others say they are. “He was an outsider. Outside of the Beltway. Outside of the political process. Outside of the machine. The swamp. Outside of that.”
Which is not to say, he adds, that Trump isn’t compromised. “He’s a wealthy, powerful businessman so that comes with its own politics, its own dirty business. So, it’s sixes. It’s just a different kind of dirty.”
Because Trump is a showman, a reality TV star promoting his brand, “there is a certain aspect of being a buffoon, being a clown, being an asshole, but at the same time, I feel like, ‘Yes, he’s an asshole, but he’s my kind of asshole.’”
What does that mean, I ask.
“He says what’s on his mind. If he’s thinking it, you hear it. There’s no political doublespeak. None of the gobbledygook.
“He says, ‘Hey, China is ripping us off.’ Well, any thinking middle-class person knows yeah, that’s been happening for a long time. He says NAFTA is a bad deal and we need to rethink this. Absolutely, I agree. He says that illegal immigration is a burden. Well, I agree with that. He doesn’t soft around things. He says this is how I see it, this is what I think should be done.”
I’m here to listen to J, not argue with him. But I can’t let that one go and I tell him Trump offers no solutions, just sound bites, nothing that bears any semblance to reality or constitutional legality. A wall. A registry. A ban.
“No, I understand that and I agree with that,” J says.“But it makes me hopeful to think that maybe by him saying these things, then maybe he, his team, his people, will start working on solutions. It’s like a bargaining. ‘Hey, I want to buy that thing, I will give you 100 bucks for it.’ ‘Well, I don’t think it’s worth that. I will give you $25.’ We start at the extremes and we work our way to a middle point. I hope that’s where it is going.”
We cover the ground you might expect.
The refusal to release the income taxes. “I know he’s dirty. You don’t get to that position and not be dirty. He has dirt. It’s there. That’s a foregone conclusion.”
Russian interference in the election. “I don’t believe it. The FBI leadership has become politicized. The CIA and NSA have been suffering from brain drain since the Bush years.”
The grabbing. “Donald talked about it, but Bill did it, and Hillary covered it up.”
The wall Mexico is going to pay for. “I don’t think there will be a physical wall, purely from the standpoint of environmental damage it would cause, but I think he will enforce the border.”
I ask J how he could reach a point where he was so fed up that he would overlook flaws he might not otherwise to support Trump’s presidency. And the words come in a rush.
“Eight years of Obama and being promised so much and delivered so little,” he says, reciting a list that begins with getting out of the Middle East and closing Guantanamo and includes Obamacare, which J supported in concept.
Eight years “of seeing the slow erosion of civil liberties and the destruction of the middle class and Goldman Sachs getting richer and richer. And after ’08, bankers getting paid bonuses out of bailout money, and just all of that, just seething over that.
“You know, tax time rolls around and like you said, I make a very good living and I work very hard for it, I’ve busted my ass to be where I am at and you know, the tax bracket I am in is preposterous. And to see my money go to pay Goldman Sachs and Citibank and all these guys who rigged the housing market, sold bad loans, took insurance out on them, loans crashed, paid themselves. Out of my money? And then I see schools that are falling down and roads you can’t hardly drive on and infrastructure that is falling down and for what? Where is my money? … I’ll happily pay my taxes if I can see that I am getting something for them.”
My cousin ascribes to an idealized version of the U.S., the one in which opportunity exists for all if you just work hard enough. “My view of my country, my patriotism, is like a Norman Rockwell painting,” he says. “I gloss over all the dirty shit and just look at the mom and apple pie. But that’s my ideal, and ideals drive you. Without them, what do we have, we’re just monkeys and fools scratching in the dirt.”
And sometime during what he saw as the corruption of the Clinton years and the status quo of the Obama years, somewhere in the resentment over having to play two-party politics to get into the game, to choose from candidates he believes failed to live up to American ideals, at some point in the drive over potholed roads and worn-out bridges, in the fear that our generation hit the peak of the dream and that his young daughter will not inherit the country he did, my capable, successful cousin began to feel powerless. Powerlessness turned to anger. And an improbable, deeply flawed candidate, heard the anger and somehow turned it into hope.
Hope is born equally of aspiration and desperation, of faith and fear. But it is still hope. It is still fierce.
I had my hope-and-change president. And now J has his.
Photo of J Cruz Robinson by Tina Griego