My family gets through most dinners with no mention of the president. My 8-year-old son, Max, takes up a chunk of conversational real estate by quizzing us on NFL stats. My 6-year-old daughter, Georgia, tells stories about playground drama (“I wanted to play cats, but Ava wanted to play puppies!”). My Mississippi-born husband is always good for a random story involving yet another Southern expression I’ve never heard. Between all of that and my griping about clients (to any clients reading: I’m definitely not talking about you), Trump-talk is edged out.
Inevitably, though, after a particularly ludicrous day in Trumpland, a tirade slips through. As soon as I say, “Did you hear what he did today?” the kids groan and my husband sighs.
Lately, I’ve been noticing how much my frustration makes me sound like my father circa 1981. My dad hated Reagan passionately. Dinnertime conversation was full of declaratives like, “If Reagan’s car broke down in front of our house, and he knocked on the door and asked to use our phone, I wouldn’t even let him in!” I also remember my dad yelling at the television whenever Reagan spoke. When I would ask why he was so upset, he would say something like, “Because deregulation doesn’t work!”
I may have groaned the same way my kids groan when I start in on Trump, but I listened. I took it all in. And a weird thing happened: I found I didn’t really agree with my dad — for reasons that were 100% emotional and 0% percent based on any understanding of policy (which is not unlike the way many adults today vote, but I digress). It was Reagan’s presence that I liked. His speech after the Challenger explosion, for example, is etched in my brain.
If my dad’s dislike for Reagan was comically large and freely offered, my schoolgirl trust of the 40th president was small and secretive. “He only got elected because he makes people feel good,” my dad would say. I failed to see why this was harmful. Compared to, say, the girls at school who would tease me and make me feel decidedly bad, having a president who made people feel good seemed rather nice.
Although I eventually copied my dad’s politics, registering as a Democrat, to this day Reagan remains an exception — a Republican I can divorce from his ideology, and find endearing.
My soft spot only deepened when my dad died four years ago from the same wretched disease that claimed Reagan. We even referenced the old Gipper on my dad’s deathbed. “You can finally tell him exactly what you thought of deregulation!” I said to my mostly unconscious father, as we all laughed, to keep from crying. The whole week that my dad was dying, I had a strange sense that Reagan was somehow there, joining us with his perfect hair. He was the orator of my youth, and if he could talk me down after a space shuttle blew to bits, maybe he could talk me down now.
This all comes back to me as I cut up Georgia’s chicken and threaten to read the latest Trump Tweet out loud. “He has lost touch with reality!” I rant, the knife in my hand. My kids eye me as if I’m the one who has lost touch with reality. But they couldn’t possibly grow to like him, could they? After all, my rants against this regrettable president are nothing like my dad’s. He said Reagan was an actor playing the best role of his life. And just the other night, I said Trump was a TV star in the reality show of his life. But still, no, it isn’t the same. It can’t be. Because Reagan was the epitome of suave. And Trump is the epitome of not suave. Even grade school children couldn’t miss that he’s a clown, right?
Then again, they might need a clown. Is he their comic relief in a dangerous world, full of grownups sulking around? What I rail against as pure unfitness to be president, do they hear as unlikeliness, similar to YouTube stars who come out of nowhere? When I talk about the roller-coaster ride of Trump’s presidency, do they think that sounds kind of fun?
Perhaps my kids will one day feel nostalgic both for my exaggerated sentiments—and the man who provoked them. “Remember when she said she was going to take our life savings and hire the best hacker in the entire world to hack Trump’s Twitter account and make him apologize for every terrible thing he ever said?” Max will say, and Georgia will laugh along, “God, she hated him.”
My memories of Reagan and my dad are sacred, smoothed and styled with Brylcreem— wholly protected from the divisiveness of politics. If my kids come away from childhood with something similar, I guess it won’t be so bad. But I’ll tell you what, if Trump’s car breaks down in front of my house, I’m not letting him in.
Judi Ketteler is a writer in Cincinnati. She is the author of two nonfiction books and a forthcoming young adult novel set in the 1980s.