I originally submitted this piece to the brand new York Observer where I am an editor-at-large and a columnist on media and culture. Editorial decided it could now not accept columns of this nature on this topic. I have the utmost respect for the leadership at the Observer, but I respectfully disagree with that decision.
Dad, let me start this letter by saying that it is not my intention to embarrass you. I find that I can express myself in writing better than I can when we talk on the phone (in reality, if anyone likes this piece, that might be, in its own way, a compliment to you — I developed as a writer sitting alone in my room as a kid, trying to find ways to answer your overwhelming parental logic) and so once i heard that you were leaning towards voting for Donald Trump, I felt inclined to put my thoughts down so they can be clear.
It’s fitting that I would write to you here anyway, because the Observer has its own father issues in relation to Donald Trump (Mr. Trump is the publisher’s father-in-law.) It is a newspaper that, despite its sincere and passionate reporting on anti-Semitism and its frontline investigations on the rise of Russia as a national security threat, has found itself endorsing and defending Trump… whilst he veers dangerously towards courting anti-Semitism and justifying Russia’s authoritarian methods (when he is not complimenting the tactics of Saddam Hussein). Having been related to my very own fair proportion of controversial people, I empathize with the position, Jared Kushner, the paper’s owner, must be in.
I get that elections are complicated. Yet I cannot help but feel that the suitable choice has become increasingly simple. Not easy, but simple.
The choice is straightforward because it’s hard for me to consider a single one who violates more of what you taught me as a child. The case against Donald Trump as a candidate — even as an individual worthy of two seconds of anyone’s serious attention in our busy lives — is clear to me precisely because of what I learned from you, Dad.
I remember the trips we took us to Angel Island within the San Francisco Bay. This is where people like Grandma and Grandpa first arrived in America, you told us. It was here that they stopped on their solution to the American Dream, fleeing the terror of their homeland and hoping for a greater life. You taught us that it was honorable and brave to be an immigrant and that what made America special was that we opened our arms to these people.
Do you remember taking us to the Civil War battlefields and explaining how many of the men who fought and died in that war were fresh off the boat, paying for their citizenship to this country in blood — dying to eradicate the scourge of slavery, a plague they had nothing to do with creating in the primary place? That was what made America great, you said.
But you didn’t just teach us to admire white European immigrants either. It was from you that I learned to respect just how hard Latino, Asian, and Middle Eastern immigrants worked to make a life for themselves here. You told me what it was like picking fruit within the California heat, and explained how they took jobs that other people weren’t willing to do — because they wanted to support their families identical to everyone else.
You also took the time to clarify what number of immigrants were entrepreneurs — starting restaurants and small businesses from donut shops to car dealerships (we’ve invested together in just a few of those small businesses) and the way their efforts made the world better for everyone.
When I used to be in Austria just a few years ago, I called Mom and had her perform some research to seek out the location of the refugee camp that Grandpa was sent to when he was just a little younger than I’m now. It is an apartment complex now, which I guess goes to show how quickly we can forget the form of thinking that creates such horrors. Experiences like these — they color the best way I see the world, which is why, I imagine, you encouraged us to travel and study history.
Those trips are why I find it so repulsive to hear Donald Trump talk about how Mexicans are “rapists” and the way his solution is building a literal wall– “We’re going to have a big, beautiful wall that nobody’s crossing”–to maintain these kinds of individuals out. I find it disgusting to hear him speak about banning Muslims from America. That is not what you taught me. That is not how this country is purported to work. Mom and half our relatives wouldn’t be here if it was.
I told you that a couple of weeks ago we had someone out on the house to repair some damage from the floods. As I was walking the property with the guy, he asked me if I owned a gun. I said that I did — this is Texas in any case. “
Good,” he said, “you’ll must have something when them sand niggers come and try to take this country from us.” Then he told me about how he was glad Donald Trump was speaking the truth and taking things in the appropriate direction.
I do know you don’t agree with this man. And I do not think it’s fair to carry a candidate accountable for every fringe group that attaches themselves to their platform. But does not it alarm you to see a candidate who seems to stoke these kinds of fires — directly or indirectly? Surely you have to be shaking your head at Trump’s repeated refusal to distance himself from these people.
As a police officer, you worked for a time in the hate crimes division. You’ve seen the horrible things that prejudice and ignorance can do. I remember you once told me that the best way the Ku Klux Klan recruited people in our hometown was by convincing white those that they were being attacked and that their way of life was under siege.
C’mon Dad, is that not eerily much like some of Trump’s campaign tactics? Why else would he have refused to immediately disavow the support of David Duke and other white supremacists? What possible purpose did he need to insinuate that President Obama was a Muslim, that he was not born in America? Or question a Mexican-American judge’s loyalty to the law and to the Constitution?
A number of years ago, Donald Trump went on live television and talked about nice his daughter Ivanka’s body was, saying how if he wasn’t her father, he’d probably be dating her. It was disturbing then, but we all say things that come off utterly differently than intended. Except last year, speaking to a Rolling Stone reporter, Trump said the exact same thing again. “Yeah, she’s really something, and what a beauty, that one,” he told the journalist. “If I weren’t happily married and, ya know, her father…”
You’ve a daughter (and now a daughter-in-law). Are you able to imagine saying anything like that about them? What would you say to one among your friends who uttered something half that creepy? You’ve been married for thirty years. You taught me about respecting women, in regards to the importance of marriage and fidelity. This man, he doesn’t stand for any of that. Quite the opposite, he refers to women he doesn’t like as “fat pigs” and “dogs.” He attacks them and when they press him on the problems, says it is because they’re probably menstruating.
You’ve protected presidents and other heads of state as part of your job. Can you imagine any of them behaving that way? I remember our family trip to the White House in middle school — regardless that you disagreed with the man who was President, you spoke of the office with such reverence and dignity that we felt honored just to go to. I left that day with precisely the sense of admiration and respect for the office that I believe you hoped we might feel. I remember another trip to New York where we walked by the Trump Tower. What’s that, I asked? You just shook your head and said, “Tacky.”
Before he died, Grandad gave me his copy of John McCain’s memoir Faith of My Fathers and said that I might like to read it. It wasn’t until years later that I got around to it. Do you know that when John McCain was trapped in that horrible North Vietnamese prison, his captors offered to let him go several times? McCain’s father was the commander of all US forces within the Vietnam theater and the Vietcong thought by giving his son an easy way out, they might show that Americans were cowards.
Despite the repeated torture that he’d already undergone, despite the fact that McCain ached to go home, he refused. He stayed because he refused to embarrass his country or abandon his comrades — death was better than dishonor. I feel that is the type of lesson that Grandad was trying to pass along to me. I know you voted for McCain in 2000 and in 2008 in part for that very reason. I do not agree with a lot of McCain’s politics but I hope that when tested, I could exhibit one iota of the courage that that man has.
And yet here we’re discussing a Republican candidate who insulted John McCain in front of the whole world–claiming that John McCain isn’t a hero because he was captured and spent time in a POW camp. Donald Trump, who got out of serving with a series of draft deferments, said he only likes the veterans “that weren’t captured.” That this pathetic encounter has been nearly forgotten in the campaign shouldn’t be because Donald addressed it or apologized, but rather because nearly every day since he either said something worse or piled on with another obscene gesture or gaffe.
Would not just a single one of those remarks have run a candidate out of the race in a normal election cycle? Wouldn’t have these repeated and ridiculous lapses in judgement effectively end the campaign for anyone in any election anywhere within the civilized world? I’ve tried to consider why we have been so forgiving of Donald Trump. Is it because his opponent is a woman? Does it say something about us? Have we all collectively lost our sense of where the road is and we’re just hoping that someone will finally draw it for us?
I realize that most of those issues I’ve brought up are personal ones, but isn’t all politics personal? That is a lesson I learned from you, too. I remember asking whether you supported the Republican or the Democrat candidate in some local election when I was a child, having heard some friends’ parents talking about it. You told me that folks got too caught up in party affiliation and that what really mattered was character and whether you might work together with the person (and whether they may do the job). That’s how I’ve tried to think all my life. I’m desirous about it now that it really matters.
The baffling reality is that when it comes to Trump, it’s difficult to critique him on much besides his personality and (lack of) character — because that is all there is. Maybe you may make an exception for a few of these comments, I’ve certainly said dumb things before. All of us have. Maybe we chalk them as much as media mischaracterizations as among the Trump supporters I do know have (given what I write about on this column, I’m the last one to think the media is totally fair or trustworthy). But even making allowances for that, I do know for a fact, it doesn’t matter what the talking heads on TV try to tell moderate conservatives, is that you and he stand very far apart on many of the economic principles and civil policies through which you’ve got always believed.
I remember long trips in the car and the conversation we had about civics and governance. The fundamentals you taught me concerning the free market, about capitalism, about the government staying out of individuals’s business. Now that I’m an adult, I’ve come to fully understand and truly appreciate why you taught me these lessons. I see how they’ve contributed to my own success. I also see how the few policies or firm beliefs Trump might even have fly in the face of all of them.
Besides repeatedly donating money to Democratic (and Republican) candidates from whom he tried to get favors, Donald Trump has said publicly that there ought to be “some type of punishment” for women who get abortions (though he later backtracked under pressure). He is advocated economic policies that the experts say will start trade wars with China and Mexico. He cheered Brexit because it would drive traffic to his Scottish golf courses (the definition of a conflict of interest), has hinted at using federal resources to go after personal enemies like Jeff Bezos, admits he would continue to let his children run his numerous international businesses while in office, supports “opening up” our libel laws to scale back freedom of the press, and apparently believes that global warming is a lie created by China.
I suppose it can be one thing if these beliefs came from some unique ideological framework but we both know they don’t. He is a man who reacts, a man who speaks before he thinks (something you always taught me to avoid). These aren’t the meticulously crafted positions of an educated leader surrounded by qualified and informed policy experts — as Trump famously said, he advises himself. There’s a quote I read from Winston Churchill recently. During World War One, someone asked why he was reading the work of a certain anti-war poet. “I am not a bit afraid of Siegfried Sassoon,” Churchill said, “That man can think. I’m only afraid of people that cannot think.”
I feel that’s why I’m so scared, Dad. That is why I am writing you this letter. I don’t think this man has done a lick of thinking in years — except about himself and the irrational prejudices and fears which rule his increasingly erratic and bizarre life.
If my understanding of where you sit it is correct, you might be inclined to agree with many of the criticisms I’ve just made and yet are swayed by very few of them. As is true for a variety of Americans, I know you have been disturbed with so much what Trump has said and wish sincerely that someone else was running in his place. The problem is, the reason you can’t help but feel pressure to give him the benefit of the doubt or vote for him reluctantly is that you’re feeling a profound and real distrust towards Hillary Clinton.
I wasn’t old enough to experience the anger and disillusionment that the Clintons dropped at the White House. I get the sense that you simply see them as thoughtless, careless self-aggrandizers who believe themselves to be above the law. Given the evidence, this is a greater than fair assessment. You’ve gotten real, negative experiences with the last administration and the vague memories of the scandals and noise of that era probably makes another four years seem unappealing. I get it.
It was J.K. Galbraith who said that politics was a matter of selecting between the disastrous and the unpalatable. I do not disagree with you we’re coping with less than ideal options. But surely, unpalatable is best than disastrous.
Then again, no one is saying you have to vote for Hillary. I’m just asking for those who could not vote for Donald Trump. Vote for a third party candidate. For a write-in, you possibly can take a page from Trump’s people, who when they initially had trouble finding people to speak on his behalf at the convention, apparently just put “George Washington” in as a placeholder. Or, what about just not voting on this election? Is that not a powerful statement in its own right? One does not must endorse disaster simply because they resent unpalatable.
Mitt Romney has said that he was finally motivated to become involved on this election when his son asked him, “When the grandkids ask ‘What did you do to stop Donald Trump?’ what are you going to say?'”
I used to be so happy to have the ability to tell you a number of weeks ago that you’ve your first grandchild on the way and that he’s expected to arrive just three days before the election. I feel that is why I am scripting this letter too, as my way of asking myself what am I going to do to ensure the world he enters is just a little bit better than the one I came into thirty years ago. I assume I’m penning this letter to ask that you, as his grandfather, do what you possibly can to ensure the same.
In order that when he does ask, not that many years sooner or later, looking back at what was hopefully only a painful aberration in this nation’s history, we both have a superb answer to how we faced this challenge in front of us. And that we acted — despite any personal feelings, or complications or doubts — with principle and courage.
Dad, please don’t vote for Donald Trump. Everything you’ve got taught me about what is wrong on this planet is everything that man represents. And if you will not do it for me, do it on your grandchild. Give him something to be proud of — and thankful for.
Your Loving Son,
Ryan Holiday is one of the best-selling author of Ego is the Enemy and three other books. He’s an editor-at-large for the Observer, and his monthly reading recommendations are found here. He currently lives in Austin, Texas.