Over breakfast at a Bob Evans in Clearwater, Florida, my father-in-law tells us that John McCain needs to “crawl into a hole and die.”
Steve utters these seemingly blasphemous words during those few months between the 2012 election and the start of the 2016 campaign. This is before anyone could’ve guessed that a vulgar reality television star called Donald Trump could galvanize America’s angriest voters and tweet his way to a likely nomination. So Steve’s brutal assessment of a Senator his party once nominated for president, surprises us. His rhetoric feels like something a Republican shouldn’t / couldn’t / wouldn’t say. Then again, I once thought it impossible to be a Republican and demean Megyn Kelly, so what do I know?
When we first met, Christina warned me about her father’s politics.
“He’s like uber-conservative,” Christina said. “He bought my brother an Ann Coulter book, but I threw it in the pool.”
When I met Steve, he told me Obama was the worst President ever. Over hot wings, he praised the flat tax and blamed America’s decline on Medicaid and unemployment insurance. Christina hadn’t exaggerated her dad’s conservatism, but I got the sense Steve’s primary goal was to needle his liberal daughter. He’d talk about drowning government in a bathtub, then apropos of nothing, quote the movie Caddyshack.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but if I kill all the golfers, they’re gonna lock me up and throw away the key.”
Steve is funny in the way that all dads are unfunny to their kids. Still, you make the most of those corny moments because they stifle politics—a topic my wife insists we avoid. I don’t agree with Steve. His politics, I believe, are not only bad for America in general, but also bad for Steve in particular. The feeling is mutual. Steve thinks my politics are somewhere to left of Che Guevara, but that’s only because I’m from California, a state Steve calls “doomed.” Still, Steve and I get along great. We both love Christina, we like our hot wings mild, and comedies screwball. Steve’s near-encyclopedic ability to quote ‘80s comedies makes him a righteous dude in my book.
So it’s pretty easy to avoid politics, or change the subject when the shadow of red and blue talking points casts a dark cloud over brunch. But this year feels different. Recently, my wife and I visited her family in Florida. As we packed, a terrible fear consumed me. Who had Steve voted for in the Florida primary?
“It better not be Trump,” Christina said.
That was my fear too. We consider Trump a demagogue, so the idea of Steve voting for him was troubling in a way that previous votes for Romney, Bush, and the aforementioned better-off-dead McCain never were.
On the eve of our trip, I reminded Christina about the Bob Evans Declaration. When Trump called McCain a “loser” because had been captured during the Vietnam War, we had even joked that Steve might be penning speeches for The Donald.
“You’re dad was way ahead of the anger curve,” I said. “Maybe he’s political savant, like Frank Luntz, only you know, he mostly just tells goofy jokes and eats at chain restaurants.”
Christina looked worried. I phoned my brother-in-law to check.
“I don’t talk politics with dad,” Zach said.
On the plane, I decided I needed a game plan in case Steve turned out to be a Trump supporter. I’d have to say something, wouldn’t I? I’d already vowed that if Trump won the nomination, I’d go door-to-door and donate money to stop him. That is a lot of political action for a guy who usually just votes and tells others to do the same. Yes, I decided, I would have to confront my Trump-in-law. But what could I say? How could I call Steve’s candidate a demagogue without ruining a family trip to Disney World, the happiest place on Earth?
Over buffalo shrimp and iced teas served in glasses nearly big enough to require both hands, we danced around the angry elephant in the room. We talked about the flight and the weather. I studied Steve, trying to imagine him pulling the lever for Trump, or more accurately, flushing America down the toilet.
Back at my in-laws, Steve punctuated his usual criticism of Washington with quotes from ‘80s comedies. I played with Gus, a Scottish Terrier Steve had adopted because George W. Bush had owned the same breed when he was President. Then my phone buzzed with a news alert. Trump had won another primary, but I didn’t want to tell anyone. I had vowed to say something, but when the opportunity presented itself, I picked peace over politics. Maybe Steve was a Trump supporter, but if that was the case, I decided I didn’t want to know.
Then Steve broke the news about Trump’s primary win. I gulped for air. Our nation’s long-running political train wreck had barreled into my in-law’s den.
“You didn’t vote for Trump, did you, dad?” Christina asked.
I looked down at Gus, unable to make eye contact with Steve.
Steve spat the Texan’s name like it was a dirty word.
“Only conservative running,” he explained.
Sweet relief! I consider Cruz to be a sampler platter of vile ideas, many of them as dangerous as mayonnaise left to rot in the Florida sun. But still I was elated to discover that Steve had held his nose and voted for Cruz. The demagogue hadn’t fooled my father-in-law! Steve and I could return to our mutual political loathing. To paraphrase Bill Murray’s character from Caddyshack, we’ve got that going for us, which is nice.