I took my Trump-loving father to Mar-a-Lago

A couple of weeks ago, my dad and I stood on a Palm Beach sandbar staring at President Trump's Mar-a-Lago golf club and resort. My dad didn't dress up much for the trip. He was wearing his quintessential summer garb of kneehigh white sport socks, a faux polo shirt from the sale rack, and a pair of somewhat saggy khaki shorts.

We used my camera's zoom to see the president's resort because the local police and the red-shirted Mar-a-Lago security guard who was staked outside don't allow commoners an up-close view.

From our perch on the side of the bay furthest away from Mar-a-Lago's front gates, we could catch a glimpse of the the lush green manicured lawns and white tents that workers were in the process of setting up for weekend events. Most of what goes on at Trump's members-only resort happens behind the terracotta walls and requires the recently doubled $200,000 membership fee.

Even though my dad and I were standing on the same sandbar, looking through the same zoomed phone screen, squinting in the same midday sun, and turned away by the same security guard, we saw totally different things.

I saw the disgustingly gaudy property of a self-serving, thin-skinned, unethical womanizer. I saw the home of a man who seems willing to destroy the country for the sake of protecting his ego. I saw the house of a putative billionaire who hoodwinked working-class Americans into believing that he's a fiscally conservative populist and yet spends $3.6 million in taxpayer money each weekend to relax at his estate. I saw the house of a con artist.

My dad, squinching his eyes to see Mar-a-Lago across the bay, saw the estate of a president who deserves and earns all that he has. "He will make my taxes be lesser. I think my sense of America's place in the world will make me feel better," my dad said.

Trump makes my dad feel good. That's why I took my dad to Mar-a-Lago.

My dad calls himself a "socially and fiscally conservative voter...who would like to see the former order of things preserved."  But unlike many Trump supporters who don't have a good answer when asked about the period when America had the greatness they want to go back to, my father is pretty specific. He wants to see things go back to "the way things were during Reagan's second term."

The entire drive on I-95 to the sandbar where we stood looking at Mar-a-Lago we talked politics, like we always do. We talked politics as we walked along the ocean boardwalk after Mar-a-Lago. There were a couple of other things we talked about that day, like my woes about the cost of housing in San Francisco and the tree that fell down on my parents' house during a recent winter storm in Boston, but, like usual, our conversation settled squarely on politics.

We've never talked much about our feelings. My dad tells this story where when he immigrated from England in his 30s, he was about to board the boat to America and his mother shook his hand, pointed to his luggage and said, "Take care of that trunk, son." I was raised in Boston and my California friends still make fun of my aversion to hugging. These are not exactly conditions that are ripe for touchy feely parent-child communication.

But my dad and I can debate for hours about the merits of special counsel appointments and FBI investigations.

My dad still forwards me news articles the old-fashioned way—through the mail—with Post-its that read, "Thought you’d be interested in this one."

Even though we are political opposites, we are also very much alike. I learned from my dad's example that I should pay attention to the world. During the first war in Iraq, my dad hung a National Geographic map on the kitchen wall so that we could see where the battles were taking place that we heard reported about on NPR as we ate breakfast before school.

I don't think he planned on spawning a San Francisco liberal, but dad did help form me. He has always been my strongest, most challenging, and best informed sparring partner.  

For years I've watched Fox News and read the Drudge Report so that I can anticipate my dad's arguments all in the hopes that he might one day miraculously say, "You know what? That's a good point." I'm not sure if he also wants me to see it his way or, deep down, if he enjoys debating with me because it gives us something to talk about.

I can't make my dad see what I see, even when we're staring at the same thing.

As we stood snapping father-daughter selfies at Mar-a-Lago, I hoped we could stand there in the afternoon sun and we would see it the way I do. Instead, especially since Trump won, we don't just have different perspectives on the beauty of the midday sun, sometimes we can't even agree that there is a sun in the sky at all.

****

A few days after our visit to Mar-a-Lago a 4-by-4 sinkhole appeared on the road directly outside the compound's front gate. In reporting the story, some journalists speculated on the role that climate change is playing in Florida and the rest of the country.

My dad doesn't believe that climate change is real. He says that he has read and heard about scientists of "equal stature" including "eminent MIT scholars who are now on committees who say climate change is bullshit. There's nothing to it."

My dad doesn't trust climate scientists' motives because he thinks that most of them are producing false conclusions so that they can continue to receive government funding for their labs.

His prediction was that Trump will call bullshit on the climate change hoax and kill the liberal cash cow. "I think you will see this climate conference in Paris that Trump will simply say, 'When you come up with something real, give me a buzz. In the meantime we aren't going to tax American consumers to prevent something that maybe is just unprovable.'"

Turned out my dad predicted that right—Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement a little bit after our trip, even though, scientists say, Mar-a-Lago and Palm Beach will likely face dire consequences from rising sea levels.

A Guardian investigation showed that Mar-a-Lago grounds already face a high risk of flooding and, over the next 30 years, it could become uninhabitable.

As my dad and I took some seaside photos along the boardwalk at the end of Worth Avenue, the high-end main street of Palm Beach, and my dad admired the natural beauty, I decided to keep my snarky "enjoy it while you can, climate change denier!" comments to myself.

****

Since we couldn't get in to Mar-a-Lago and we had traveled the 40 miles to get there, we spent the afternoon strolling through Palm Beach. As we walked past Chanel and Louis Vuitton on Worth Avenue, I asked my dad, "Do you care that Trump seems to be closing off government from the people?"

My dad says he believes in government transparency and that he wants "to see information published widely and loudly." I am in graduate school studying to become an archivist and recently did an internship at a presidential library where I worked to preserve and make public presidential records. I've filed over a hundred Freedom of Information Act requests since Trump took office. I also want to see information published widely and loudly. Like Trump's tax returns, for instance.

"Oh, that's the old Democratic banging the drum," he said. "I don't care about his taxes. I mean, I know what Trump's taxes are going to show. They are going to show elaborate corporate stuff that will take armies of lawyers to fill out. I understand that."

The way my dad sees it, the complexity of Trump's taxes is the reason he doesn't need to see them. "He isn't a guy filling out a 1099. I mean his taxes are probably 50,000 pages long and it takes an army of lawyers to go through it," he said.

That seemed ludicrous to me. Lately, since our trip, I've been calling my dad and interviewing him about his views for this story, recording the calls with his permission so he doesn't accuse me of spreading "fake news," and he has a whole slew of arguments for not seeing Trump's taxes.

"I don't know that he needs to show his taxes. It's not a law, it's not required. I don't know. Maybe in years to come we will find out that he did in fact make a buck on his business while he was president, but I don't know that and I can't say that at this point," he said one day on the phone, without hesitation. "I don't think we have any right to know what Trump's taxes are."

"I think Trump's taxes are only a ruse on the part of the opposition to try and embarrass him," he said later.

****

We did spend some time trying to get good shots of Mar-a-Lago, circling the block around the front gates a half a dozen times in our attempt to snap photos from the car window. I was driving the rental car, window down, holding the wheel with the right hand and snapping photos with the left.

"Ma'am, no photos. Keep moving, ma'am," the Mar-a-Lago security guard yelled to us from the sidewalk with his arms folded across his chest.

My dad was disappointed that he couldn't get a shot standing in front of the gate. He was hoping to show his friends his exploits over morning coffee at the bagel shop back home.

During one of the loops around the block, I asked him if he was bothered by Trump's lies. "You cared about the Clinton's lies so much and for so long. How come you don't care as much about Trump lying?" I asked.  

"I don't know if I can put my finger on any instance when Trump has said this was a fact when it turned out to be not a fact," he said. "I don't know of anything like that. I can't think of a blatant example where somebody in the White House said this was black when it fact it was white."

It was enough to make me scream. But I was driving so I had to keep it together.

My dad's a smart guy. He used to be a high school history teacher and he closely follows current events. He's one of the few people I know, from any political persuasion, who can find Raqqa on a map. When I hear him say that he can't put his finger on any instance of Trump being deceitful, I wonder if he's trying to antagonize me and get under my skin or if he willfully disregards any facts that counter his impressions of Trump.

If I am honest with myself, I am not entirely immune to this and had a bit of reflexive protection of Obama. I worked for the Obama campaign in 2008. I think Obama, at his core, is a smart, honest, thoughtful guy and that he led from a position of patriotism. I felt that Obama loved the country, warts and all. It is hard for me to admit that he also didn't keep his campaign promise on closing Guantanamo, he cozied up to Wall Street after the recession instead of using the opportunity to hold the billionaire bankers accountable, and he authorized the use of more quasi-legal drones than any other president.

My dad, of course, couldn't see anything good in Obama. He'd give him a "D" overall for his presidency. "I always got the idea that he was a bit sleazy," he said. "Nice speaker, handsome looking man. But I wouldn't vote for him and I didn't vote for him."

Yes, a family of educators, we're the types to give grades to politicians.

"But, dad, come on. You've got to think Trump was lying during the seven years he spread the birther conspiracies?"

"I would not be one bit surprised if in the years to come somebody doesn't expose some of the things that Trump asked," my dad said, defending Trump's nonsense to the end.

Trump, it turns out, is a star student. Every week, my dad gives Trump a B+ or an A-. This week Trump got a B+. "A lot of times campaign camouflage goes on well into the end of the first year as president and we haven't usually gotten to do any of what was promised," he said, explaining the grade. "But this isn't the case with Trump."

"One more try?" I suggest as we both warily eye the guard stand.

"Sure, but be careful driving and taking pictures at the same time," he said.

I wanted to see Trump's Winter White House so that I could try to understand both my father and my country.

****

I had a similar morbid curiosity last June when Trump came to an airline hangar in Sacramento for a campaign rally. I checked it out, from the second row, because I was curious about what it would actually feel like to be at a Trump campaign event. The crowd chanted all of the well-worn "lock her up"s and "build the wall"s, but I also heard some Trump supporters yell out lines that I hadn't heard on the CNN. "Rape her!" (at the mention of Hillary Clinton's name) and "Towelheads" (at Trump's mention of Benghazi).

I sat in my car in the parking lot after the rally and cried. I didn't know then that Trump would win. I was pretty sure he'd lose. Still, I was shaken by the fervor, and what felt like raw hatred, of the crowd.

But, before I drove home to San Francisco, I bought a $20 Make America Great T-shirt from a parking lot vendor who was also selling shirts that read "Hillary Sucks But Not Like Monica."

I bought my dad the shirt because he rarely asks me for anything and on the phone on my drive up the rally, he casually said, "See if you can pick me up a t-shirt." Despite my angst over it, I bought the gift because I thought it would bring my dad some joy and I wanted him to know I'd heard him.

But I couldn't let go of the disconnect, of the fact that my dad, this man who is so smart and who taught me that I should pay attention to the world, could be aligned with something so vile. Maybe that's why I wanted to go to Mar-a-Lago.

I asked my dad on the phone after our visit to Mar-a-Lago if he understands why I have such strong negative feelings about Trump.

"Maybe because you set your heart on Hillary Clinton getting elected and she lost and people simply can not get over it and they cannot accept the win," he said.

"I think he has spent his life treating women terribly," I said.

I was shocked by my dad's response. "That's alright. That is probably a good, legitimate point. The guy needs to clean up his act," he said. It was the first negative thing I'd heard him say about Trump. But it didn't seem to bother him too much and he wondered if it would always bother me.

"I don't know if you can get off the point or not," he said.

****

Back home in my apartment in San Francisco, I listen to the recorded interviews with my dad and cringe. Even though I was trying to be objective and "reporter-ly" in my questions, much of the time I come across sounding like a knee-jerk know-it-all when I asked my dad to justify his views. Ultimately, no matter how I sound when I talk to my dad, he just thinks I am dead wrong.   

He's been a good sport to go on record for this piece even though he thinks that people like me have caused the country to fall into disrepair and dishonor. My dad's views don't make any more sense now than they did before our visit to Mar-a-Lago. But I'd like to think we are committed to continue grappling to better understand where we're each coming from.

My dad implored me to be a "good journalist" and to give him a "fair shake."

"Remember, I'm an old man," he added.

Mary Finn is a public school educator from San Francisco, CA and a writer and FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) researcher with Democracy in Crisis.

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