Friendship and Politics

Political conversations can be tricky, and even trickier when friendships are involved and tested. This seems a particularly tricky time as the Trump administration takes office and moves to implement its agenda. As this completely new kind of political force takes over, friendships are straining, families are quarreling and the country’s divisions are hardening.

I’m as partisan as the next guy, maybe more, and last week an old friend called me out when I posted a snarky anti-Trump picture and caption on Facebook. His exact words were, “Hey Jack, you’ve forgotten what the former president (Barack Obama) said… ‘Elections have consequences.’ You lost. I won. Get over it.”

He was right… not about getting over it, I don’t think I will, but about elections having consequences. He also narrowed my attention and helped me think more clearly about civil discourse when it comes to friendship and politics.

After his “get over it” rebuff, he continued with, “Well, Jack, even though we haven’t seen each other for some time, I’ve always considered you a friend. We just have a few minor differences of opinion. If you ever venture south you’ve always got a place to stay. Cheers, Deryl.”

This is that Deryl. We’re exactly the same age and grew up in Seattle but went to different high schools. Later, we became military pilots, served our time, and then were hired by Pan Am. We were based in San Francisco for a few years, and during those years flew together several times. I especially remember a memorable crew layover and dinner at an outdoor bar in Tahiti.  We haven’t seen each other in years, but we keep up through the Pan Am grapevine and FB.

Today, Deryl lives near the Pacific Ocean in Carmel, California and I live on Lake Washington in Seattle. The similarities would seem to outweigh the differences, but not all. How did those differences come about, I wondered? It’s a bit of a mystery to me, but there are clearly two viewpoints in play. In the spirit of civil discourse, here’s my side.

As far as background goes, I was born into a middle class white family, educated in public schools and attended two state universities. I’ve practiced law, flown commercial airplanes, owned a small restaurant, worked for a public school’s foundation, and managed an international NGO office in Saigon before taking up freelance journalism. Over the course of my life I lived and worked in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Miami, Salt Lake City, St. Tropez, Berlin, Saigon, and Ketchum, Idaho.

I’ve had a life full of adventure and opportunity, but here’s where my politics come into play: I doubt that anything President Donald J. Trump does in the next four to eight years will affect how I live my life, but I care about what his policies will do to the lives of millions of other Americans, immigrants, visa applicants, refugees, and low wage workers.

I believe Americans deserve better than what Donald Trump is offering.

  • As a small business owner with a history of cancer and neurological disease I wasn’t able to buy an individual health insurance policy for several years following the Pan Am bankruptcy. It was not until I was employed by a large NGO that I could obtain coverage. Under the Affordable Care Act I would have had access as every American should. Ryan and Trump are trying to move the clock back. I believe universal healthcare should be a right. We pay more per capita in medical costs but are the only developed nation without a comprehensive single payer system.
  • As a former Marine whose two sons also served in uniform, one in Afghanistan just after 9/11, I know how good our military is. I don’t believe the richest most powerful nation on the planet, needs to increase spending on its military when it already spends more than the next seven nations combined.
  • Neither do I believe we need to cut spending for important cultural programs like the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. These are programs that promote positive human values. We need them to give us balance in an increasingly technocratic world and send a message to the world that our strength doesn’t depend solely on the military industrial complex.
  • The new Trump budget proposes cuts to domestic spending though the candidate promised a trillion-dollar infrastructure program during the campaign. I agree, we need to spend money on infrastructure and education. We need those jobs, roads, and bridges. In addition, we need to ramp up training to prepare Americans for the jobs of the 21st century. I’m just returning from a 2500-mile road trip and I can tell you our roads and bridges are in serious decay, and we are falling further behind the other developed nations in educational achievement and job training. When our own President can’t spell it’s a clear sign that the country’s education system needs improvement.
  • Immigration is one of the most contentious and polarizing topics of conversation. President Trump has promised to build a wall along our southern border and deport all undocumented foreigners. I’m sure a wall is feasible at enormous cost, but I doubt that it will solve the problem of undocumented immigrants. Deportation of 11 million illegal immigrants seems both impossible and unwise. Those 11 million people, undocumented and vulnerable, are the ones who currently pick our fruit and vegetables, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, sweep the halls of our office buildings and schools, change the sheets and clean the rooms in our hotels – jobs Americans don’t seem to want. I’ve spoken to many and know some of their children. Those that are working pay taxes but will never see the Social Security benefits they are paying for. I support legal immigration and agree that we need to seek a sound an fair immigration policy. My hope is that a new immigration law can be enacted that will clarify the status of those currently in the US – perhaps a work-permitted legal status with an eventual path to full citizenship – but I don’t believe in criminalizing 11 million people who came to America hoping to find a better life.

I’m not sure which of these things Deryl would agree with, maybe none. I agree with him that the party in power has the right to develop its own policies – but I disagree if it undermines the basic tenets of our democratic heritage. I have no confidence that President Trump understands those principles or has any allegiance to them. He seems singularly uninterested in policy unless it affects his popularity or enhances his self-esteem.

The levers of government are now in the hands of Steve Bannon in the executive branch, Ryan and McConnell in the legislative. So far, neither of the latter two seems concerned with the direction the executive branch is taking them. At the CPAC conference two weeks ago Bannon articulated his vision of “deconstructing the administrative state,” which sounds like code for a move toward autocracy – favoring the rich and letting the poor eat cake.

I don’t normally broadcast my patriotism although I do have a Marine Corps decal on the rear window of my Jeep Cherokee. On the other side of the same window is a UC Berkeley decal. It’s honest. It’s where I went to law school. My wife always comments on the apparent contradiction of the Marine fighter pilot/Berkeley lawyer intersection, but it seems pretty normal to me. Where’s the contradiction? Both institutions are very American.

Maybe Deryl has similar contradictions; but our political differences and the conversations that grow out of them are examples of what I think of as a good model for civil discourse. Thanks, my friend.



  1. Thanks for your thoughts, Jack. An interesting interview on Charlie Rose last week featured Bret Stephens, the WSJ editorial page editor, who described Trump’s core support as a cult of personality, most similar in recent history to Juan Peron.

    That the GOP appears to have opted for acquiescence to (or complicity with) this singularly undemocratic personality is shameful and another blow to our democracy. Re your friend’s comments that elections have consequences, what does it say about today’s GOP that the elected president in 2016 – Obama – should have his highly regarded nominee to the SCOTUS blocked from even a hearing by Mitch McConnell, who, since Obama’s election in 2008, has led the GOP in refusing to do ANYTHING to cooperate with Democrats in the interest of the nation. Party and power – not country – first.

    The other thought is that we all start with emotions in response to situations, then our brain’s capacity for rationalization to construct a viewpoint to justify our feelings. In regards to this dynamic, perhaps (and I do say perhaps) an approach to create dialogue would be to try to extend our empathy to the other and speak to the underlying feelings that are driving their thoughts. This is tricky, as you don’t want to be condescending, but unless we can talk directly about the feelings that drive our political viewpoint, we will continue to just talk past one another. It would also require that we are willing to be vulnerable and to share our own feelings that underpin our POV.

  2. Well said and fair, whereas I would have been foaming at the mouth – having had a similar experience with an old friend.

    The contrast between an Obama who is a calm, intelligent, articulate family man with a great sense of humor and a Trump who spends so much time tweeting at the level of sophistication of an angry teenager, who brags publically about grabbing pussies, who makes fun of disabled reporters and who had nothing but scorn for a former Navy pilot who was emprisoned and tortured in Vietnam tells the whole story.

  3. Good on ya Jack.

    I’ve long believed that the mark of a good friendship is the ability to disagree without becoming disagreeable.

    Following that belief leads me to the conclusion that I could never befriend a Donald Trump. His style is to always be disagreeable with (to disparage, diminish, belittle or threaten) those who do not agree with him.

    What is most troubling to me is the fact that there is a substantial minority, some of whom I might count as friends, that find his complete lack of character acceptable.

    Pete Peterson

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