Two years into the Donald Trump experience, with midterm elections coming up this week, political fault lines deeper than the San Andreas and political rhetoric flaring like a California wildfire, I got into my car and drove to Temecula.
That was the deal I made last year with Dana Martin, proud Trump supporter, and I’m a man of my word. Two years running, we met at a Denny’s in Redondo Beach, a two-man exercise in political civility. Martin had written in 2016 to tell me he was canceling his subscription to The Times because he thought we were out to destroy Trump.
“Thank God for Fox News,” he said.
At Denny’s, I learned that Martin, a hardware salesman, supported reasonable gun control, and gay marriage, and believed in a woman’s right to choose, and was quite fond of his Latina daughter-in-law, who recently delivered Martin’s first grandchild.
All right, I thought. He’s not such a bad guy.
But why Trump? Martin liked the Donald on the economy, taxes, trade, tariffs and immigration.
It occurred to both of us that if we were going to meet a third time to share our political differences, we might need something stronger than coffee. So for Round 3, we decided on lunch in the heart of Temecula Valley grape country, at Avensole Winery, 10 minutes from where Martin lives.
Martin and I caught up on family stuff, his job and our love of vino, which we proved by ordering large glasses of the stuff. We were dragging things out a bit because in a twist on our routine, we were going to be joined by Dana’s wife, Cheryl, whom I’d heard a lot about but had not met.
Cheryl retired from the retail industry and volunteers at an Assistance League thrift shop. When she arrived, the first thing she did, before joining in the wine consumption, was proudly show off photos of her Latina granddaughter. And the Martins said they worry about the environment and about climate change, which their president has called a hoax, especially after they traveled to Glacier Bay and saw a bunch of melted ice.
So I know what you’re thinking.
Have the Martins finally dumped Trump?
No. They still love him, for the most part.
“Some of the things he says, I cringe,” said Dana.
But Dana says the economy is humming, unemployment is low, and he attributes that to Trump’s policies.
“I think he’s been good for giving American companies parity in the marketplace and I give him high marks for that,” said Dana.
“I like what he’s doing with immigration,” he added. “It’s a problem and I believe we’re a proud nation that opens its arms to immigrants because we’re all immigrants. But you know, we’re a land of laws, so we’ve got to have legal immigration.”
Cheryl took it a step further.
“I believe we need to build a wall. Let’s give jobs to people who are already here,” she said. “I love that our country is diverse, but I grew up in Santa Ana and, OK, Santa Ana High was horrible the last two years because of immigration. Half my class left our high school and people were being extorted by gangs…. I have some strong feelings about all that and how it ruined our schools.”
On the economy, I think we’ve got big problems and deeply entrenched disparity despite the strong stock market and a growth in jobs. The problems developed over many years on the watch of politicians of both stripes, due largely to the growth of a global economy in a changed world.
When I asked Dana what Trump’s tariffs have done to the hardware industry, he said some American companies that manufacture overseas are beginning to raise prices on their products.
So how’s that good for us?
Dana said he believes it will lead to the rise of new companies that manufacture locally and compete globally.
“In our industry, people are hiring, people are expanding. Business is good,” he said.
Even if we stipulated that Trump is good for business, why are the Martins and other proud conservatives willing to forgive and forget so many of his worst qualities?
All politicians make empty promises, but central to Trump’s campaign for president was the claim that we’d all have better and cheaper healthcare, and he said making it happen would be easy. When does that start, and what about the millions who are losing their insurance?
Trump has vilified our own intelligence agencies and fawned over Russian leader Vladimir Putin during the campaign-meddling investigation despite more than 100 criminal counts against three companies and 32 people — many of them Trump buddies. And conservatives love him?
This is a man who insisted Barack Obama was from Africa, insulted the intelligence of black people including LeBron James and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, refers to brown immigration as an infestation, had an affair with a porn star, she says, paid her hush money and then called her “Horseface,” which isn’t entirely surprising because he attacked both Carly Fiorina and Sen. Ted Cruz’s wife for their looks.
And was it appropriate for Trump to mock a woman who claimed she was sexually assaulted by a Supreme Court nominee but didn’t remember every detail of the encounter?
“You don’t need to go to a rally and say what he did, but it was true,” Cheryl said.
In the same week, Trump promised a middle-class tax cut that didn’t happen, made wildly false claims about the Central American caravan, acted as if all those brown-skinned people were coming to rape and pillage, claimed Californians were rioting over immigration policy and insisted the media were the fake news enemies of the people.
Even if we were trying, we couldn’t match Trump for lies. The Washington Post has documented 5,000 cases of false or misleading statements by Trump in less than two years in office.
Cheryl said she hadn’t heard all of that, but believes “the media definitely hasn’t been honest … and is definitely out to get Trump.”
The waiter asked if we wanted more wine.
Being at a vineyard, I wondered if we could order by the barrel.
California may be bluer than any other state, and it’s leading the charge against Trump. But where the state is red, it’s as red as Oklahoma or Texas. And that doesn’t mean that the Martins or anyone else who likes what Trump is doing, especially on the economy, shares his worst qualities.
The Martins strike me as people who live in a great country that did not prosper, to their thinking, with Democratic leadership and policies. They wanted change, and they’ve gotten some, if not all, of what they were hoping for, warts and all.
As we aired our different perspectives, Dana and Cheryl noted that there’s a divide in their family, too, that models the national schism. Cheryl has twin brothers, and they described one as way left and the other as way right. They suggested I talk to both of them, so I did.
Her brother Brian, who lives in Idaho, told me he’s a libertarian, and he sounded mixed on Trump.
“I think he’s keeping his promises,” Brian said. “I mean, like fixing taxes, fixing trade, those types of things. Working on immigration issues. I think all of those are positive.”
But Brian, a career firefighter, said he’s not a Trump man.
“I think he’s a little crass,” he said.
His brother David, a Southern California chiropractor, told me he was a conservative Christian and registered Republican who changed his thinking in part after his son came out as gay.
“In order to substantiate their belief system,” he said of the right, “you almost have to cave in to conspiracy theories, deny the science of global climate change, and anything in the world that goes wrong, for them, it’s George Soros’ fault. None of it makes a lot of sense.”
He said he thinks the right is “holding the country hostage for electing a black man.” And Obama makes for a curious conservative target, David said, given that “he was a great father, a great husband…. The right pretty much said he was Satan, and then they’ve got the … grabber who has multiple affairs with porn stars and he’s the coming Messiah. There’s a disconnect.”
David said he couldn’t really explain the political views of his sister and brother-in-law, other than to say they watch Fox News “all the time.” But he said he enjoys their company, loves them both, and loves his twin brother, too.
Which I think is a pretty good note on which to close out my third encounter with the Martin family, whose civility in the face of deep differences inspires the question: Can’t we all just get along?
Probably not, but we can all go to the polls to make our voices heard.
The Avensole wine was a big hit, by the way.