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In three weeks, the country could get rid of Donald Trump. According to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll, 86 percent of people in battleground states who voted for him in 2016 plan to do so again. But there is a small sliver — 6 percent, to be exact — who’ve had a change of heart.
Some saw the light about Trump’s faux business savviness. Some scorned Trump’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests this past summer. Some disapprove of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic that has put more than 214,000 in the grave.
This week I tell the story of one such American voter. He happens to be named Don.
A few weeks ago, in a suburb in southern California, an 87-year-old veteran named Don asked his daughter, Kathy, if he had gotten any mail. She checked on things like that for him. She knew what his question was about. But no: the ballot hadn’t arrived. Her father had good reasons for impatience.
Politics had always mattered to Don. Kathy remembers sitting around the family dinner table in her youth and hearing her father’s Republican politics clashing with the reality of a changing country. A conservative, William F. Buckley, Jr., said, is “someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” Well, that was Don. When the hippies were protesting in the 1960s and ’70s, Don’s attitude was straight out of the scene in “Born on the Fourth of July” when Ron Kovic declares, “I served my country — and they just want to take from it — just take, take! Love it or leave it, that’s what I think.”
But Kathy and her two siblings and their parents loved to talk about their convulsive times. “We grew up with a mother and father that tolerated and enjoyed debate, even though it was understood at the end of the debate, you should be on my dad’s side, OK?” Kathy said, fractionally kidding. Debate had its limits, of course. “There was not even consideration of voting for a Democrat,” Kathy said.
Don and his wife, Katy.
Like all children, when Kathy eventually left home, she copy-and-pasted some of that inheritance and simply cut other parts of it. As she moved through her undergraduate years and then law school, she became a moderate Democrat, and, funnily, she credited Don for her evolution: “I would always tell my father that he taught me to use my own mind.” Indeed, Don did so himself. Though a reliable Republican, he was pro-choice and socially liberal.
Two decades ago, Don was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Year by year, the disease began “to ravage his body and his brain,” Kathy said. And she noticed a strange development. Don spent more and more time on the computer, trawling for news and for information that purported to be news. And her rock-ribbed, moderate Republican dad began to be something else. Kathy would receive emails forwarded from her father, spouting conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama’s birthplace and the like. “That really bothered me,” Kathy said, “because my father had always been a reasonable man and educated, and even though we differed in where we came out in our political views, he was a wise, reasonable man.” Often the content of the email wasn’t an article, just some text of unknown provenance passed from sympathizer to sympathizer. Sometimes the emails consisted only of cartoons. Kathy deleted them.
In the spirit of her childhood dinner conversations, she tried to challenge Don to grasp reality. But she was up against forces bigger than them. In addition to the emails and endless browsing online, Don and his wife, Katy, had taken to Fox News. After a time, it was all they watched. Kathy felt her father to be losing his sense of true and false, and Don’s doctors validated her impression. Sometimes, they told her, Parkinson’s patients can become gullible as the disease progresses — some people have gambling problems; others succumb to conspiracy theories and financial scams. In the Obama years, Don’s problem was this computer and these emails and his mind’s descent into fantasy.
Kathy tried taking the computer away from him. Don, after all, had heard the doctor express concerns about what he was getting up to online. But it was one of the last things a once-vigorous man, who had played fast-pitch baseball until his mid-seventies, had going on. Like you, perhaps, he knew online wasn’t the best for him, but he wasn’t going offline. And it wasn’t just what he encountered politically that worried Kathy. One time she found that he had bought into a timeshare that made no sense for him. Luckily, she was able to cancel it thanks to consumer-protection laws that give you a certain number of days (it varies by state) to cancel the purchase. The laws were a reminder that her father was not the first person to be in a situation like this.
When Donald Trump came onto the political scene in 2015, Don was an easy mark. He embraced the real-estate mogul. His wife did, too, more out of loyalty to her Don than ardor for the Donald. “She told me she always voted the way Don voted — ‘That’s just the way we did it,’” Kathy recalled.
Don didn’t like everything about Donald. He didn’t like the way he spoke and made fun of the less fortunate. The stories of crude behavior didn’t sit well, either. Don and Katy were well enough aware of some of the negative stories about Trump in 2016. Their attitude was less to deny them than to both-sides them: “We thought that all politicians had backgrounds like that,” Kathy remembers her mother saying. Or they claimed not to remember certain things. When eventually they began to sour on Trump, Kathy would ask them: How did you not notice that he was like this before? And she would get back some mumble about “I don’t know. We didn’t like Hillary.”
It was the disease, Kathy felt, that had helped push her father down these rabbit holes, causing him to lose his grip on reality. And now the disease intervened again. Around the time of Trump’s election, Don’s facility with the computer began to decline with his overall waning of function. He would press the keys too long, writing three Js where he meant to write one, and he began to repeatedly lock himself out of his own accounts. Soon he was spending less time online.
Maybe it was that — that unchosen unplugging from the day-long IV of untruth. Maybe it was seeing Trump go from candidate to president and not liking what he saw. Maybe it was the related switch he and Katy decided to make away from Fox News, to CNN. But Kathy again noticed a change, this time for the better. As soon as you stopped pumping their minds full of those drugs, they stopped being high.
Once Don could see Donald more clearly, he really, really didn’t like what he saw. He was especially angered by Trump’s treatment of Senator John McCain, a fellow pilot and veteran. How could Trump say he prefers the ones not captured? That Trump had been saying many such things for quite some time was immaterial to Don and Katy. They were awake now. They could see it now.
Don’s identification with McCain was natural. Born in Detroit, raised in Saginaw, Michigan, he’d done ROTC at Michigan State University and gone into the Air Force in 1956. Before long, he had a family, and they were stationed in Germany, where Kathy and her sister were born. He was a fighter pilot at the height of the Cold War. Kathy grew up with stories of him parked on a tarmac at the ready, waiting for missions that thankfully never came.
When he came out of the service in 1966, the family settled in southern California, and Don went into commercial piloting for American Airlines. He did that job, flying mostly domestic routes, for nearly three decades until his retirement. It was in the years after that retirement, with Parkinson’s doing its number on him, that he began to roam the thrilling, desolate mazes of the right wing.
Then, as the scandals and embarrassments and stupidities of the Trump presidency were upon us all, he was climbing out of whatever had ensnared him. In 2018, the year that would bring a resounding rebuke to Trumpism at the polls, Kathy sought to seize on her parents’ evolving change of heart: “I said, ‘Mom and Dad, all eight of your grandchildren oppose Donald Trump. None of them supports Donald Trump. The future is in their hands.” Don thought about it and said, “Well, I guess you’re right.” Kathy did feel hopeful about that.
A new presidential election season came, and Kathy wondered what her father was going to do. Don explained that he would be voting for Joe Biden. Kathy, a big “Homeland” aficionado, began to tell people that she had successfully “turned” them. Don and Katy were going to vote for Democrats for the first time in their lives.
I asked Kathy what Don liked about Biden. “He said he was a stand-up, honorable man,” she said simply.
As the election neared, Don awaited a mail-in ballot. He asked Kathy about it. It wasn’t yet there.
A great many people, for a great many reasons, are eager to vote right now, and eager for their ballots to arrive or polling sites to open. Every day, another drive-by shot of a long line. But Don had special urgency in asking after his form. For in addition to deciding to end his allegiance to Trump, Don had decided to end his own life.
He was 87. The disease was advanced and debilitating. A few months ago, Don was made aware of a California law called the End of Life Option Act, which “allows an adult diagnosed with a terminal disease, who meets certain qualifications, to request the aid-in-dying drugs from their attending physician.”
Don said, “I want to do it. That’s what I want to do.” Kathy told me later: “He was very desirous to end his life with the same vigor and grit that he lived.”
For the next few months, there were various hurdles to jump to ensure the integrity of his choice. He answered doctors’ questions and took tests. One of the tests, he noticed, was similar to the one Trump recently and famously took (“Person, woman, man, camera, TV”). Don found this parallel amusing.
One of the doctors was more skeptical than the others, seeking to make absolutely sure Don wanted to go ahead with this. Don had a loving wife tending to him, and he had round-the-clock professional care in his own home. “How can you be a burden to anyone?” the doctor challenged him. “My dad paused, and it was the most thoughtful moment as he said it very slowly,” Kathy recalls. “He said, ‘But doctor, I’m a burden to myself.’” He was tired of living as he was, with the tremors, the speech falling away, the thoughts forming but no longer coming out right, and, more recently, the loss of the ability to walk. “It was very painful,” Kathy said, “to not be the man he had been.”
So he waited for the day of his chosen death via a cocktail he was required by law to hold and sip by himself. And he waited for his ballot to come, so he could vote against Donald Trump, for Joe Biden, and for anyone not a Republican for the very first time.
In his final days of life, his children and grandchildren descended on his home, taking shifts with him so as not to overwhelm him any more than his condition and his impending coda already were. Don didn’t want some somber vigil of people crying and saying goodbyes. Instead, his family hung out with him for days, playing his beloved Neil Diamond songs, calling up Neil Diamond videos if so moved. One of Kathy’s children noticed a ukulele and got hold of a songbook and began to serenade Don. “He would move his hands back and forth with the music, and he would sing when he knew a lyric,” Kathy said.
And he asked about his mail-in ballot, in vain.
On September 30, it was time. Don sipped the cocktail and, for the final time, piloted himself off the surface of the earth and flew west. That was a Wednesday. His ballot came in the mail, at last, the following Monday. Don never did get his chance to vote against Donald. But maybe you who are reading this sees yourself in him or are close to somebody who would. Maybe you believe in the extraordinary power of a changed mind. Maybe you can help make this last wish of his come true.
Some recommendations involving changed minds:
The 19th-century Swedish painter Hilma af Klint was called “crazy” by the male-dominated art world throughout her career (a charge we still use to disparage women when they outpace men). Seventy-five years after her death, she’s being recognized as the pioneer of abstract art. [The Guardian / Stuart Jeffries]
We’re only one week into October and I know some of you are already tired of pumpkin in every seasonal drink. This list will change your mind about recipes with pumpkin, like an egg baked in a mini pumpkin. [Chowhound / Caitlin O’Shaughnessy]
The pandemic is changing the way mental-health professionals and insurance companies treat and cover patients — for the better. [Vox / Brian Resnick]
On the topic of changing minds, revisit Zadie Smith’s expansive collection of essays in her 2010 work Changing My Mind. [Penguin Random House]
See you soon!
Photos courtesy of Don’s family, which asked that their surname be withheld out of privacy concerns.