Early most days I go to a nearby Starbucks. It’s a big store, with lots of seating. The choice seating if you’re alone is at one of the eight small tables arranged in a row along a faux-leather, padded bench.
Right after opening the crowd is sparse, but there’s always a cadre of regulars, mainly grey hairs who seek that padded bench. Through the years, I’ve formed what you might call a “coffee shop” friendship with some of them – we know enough about each other to ask a personal question like “How was your trip to the coast?” or “How’s that new knee working?”
One regular I got to know was named Joe. He routinely came in about 15 minutes after me. He would search for a table with nobody next to him, then carefully unfold the local newspaper he brought clamped under his arm, and read it front to back as he sipped his coffee. Sometimes he would read silently at the table next to me if that was the only one left.
One day he sat down next to me, but instead of unfolding his newspaper, commented, “Manning could have used some blocking last night,” nodding towards my Bronco hat. After that, many conversations followed because he would sit next to me even if other tables were vacant. I learned he was a Pittsburgh Steeler fan because that’s where he was raised. Served in the Army. Got a degree in electronics on the GI Bill. Spent his career with AT&T traveling all over the world setting up transcontinental communications for big projects like ABC’s Wide World of Sports. In retirement, he kept busy wiring houses for Habitat for Humanity. Every few months he had to get shots in his eyes to slow the onset of glaucoma.
Our chats, though brief, were far-ranging – poisonous snakes, growing bluegrass in a desert, acrobatics, space travel, how to prevent ice dams. We never broached politics. The only hint I had ever heard of his political views was when he commented “those people in D.C. don’t have a clue what life is like out here in the West” in reference to Oregon needing more federal funding to fight fires.
The Wednesday morning after Trump won the election, I was in an ornery mood. From the morning of his pompous descent on the Trump Hotel escalator to announce his candidacy, I dreaded the possibility he could win. I was rattled that so many Americans could be fooled by such an obvious flimflam man.
As soon as Joe sat down, I bypassed our usual weather/sports pleasantries, and felt compelled to ask, “Joe, who’d you vote for?”
He smiled. “Trump. How about you?”
When I responded “Hillary Clinton,” he pulled his head back like he got whiff of feces. I continued, “Tell me it ain’t so. Why did you vote for him? Wow!”
“Honestly, I didn’t think much of either of them,” he confided. “But I couldn’t vote for Clinton. She belongs in prison.”
“Prison? For what?” Here it comes, I thought: Benghazi, classified documents on her private server, or fat bribes from Wall Street when she was a senator.
He hesitated, then answered, “Murder.”
I was stunned. “Murder? You’ve got to be kidding!”
Speaking in a low voice, as if this Starbucks was bugged, Joe explained the Clintons had been running a crime syndicate for decades. Politics was just an easy smokescreen. During the past 20 years, 42 people connected to the Clintons had died under very suspicious circumstances, like plane crashes and shootings. “Does the name Vince Foster ring a bell?” he asked.
“Yes, he killed himself.” I remembered the gist of the story from back in the 90s. Foster was a Clinton lawyer and family friend.
Joe shook his head. “Dave, that was no suicide. The media tried to sell that, and almost pulled it off, but no. There were two entry wounds. One in the mouth, one in the back of the head. Tell me how do you kill yourself with two shots to the head when you only need one?”
I couldn’t tell him how, so I asked why the Clintons wanted him dead. “Lots of reasons. He knew all the dirt, starting back in Arkansas with Whitewater. They say he had been messin’ around with Hillary. They found blonde hair on the body…”
“Joe, I find that hard to believe,” I interrupted. “Besides, it’s ancient history.”
“Believe it or not, it’s the truth. Listen to this. Right now, this very minute, they are involved in child sex trafficking. In New Jersey, they own a pizza business selling young girls to…”
I raised my hand, signaling him to stop. “I’ve heard enough. That’s ridiculous. Where do you get this crap?” I was so annoyed that I was looking at him as if he were an alien from outer space.
Judging by the look on his face, the feeling was mutual. His upper lip trembling slightly, he muttered, “It’s right there on the internet. Go look for yourself.” He turned away, unfolded his newspaper, and started reading.
Without another word, I got up and left. As soon as I got home, I Googled “Vince Foster.” Sure enough, multiple forensic investigations concluded Foster died from a single, self-inflicted wound. I intended to tell Joe that the next time I saw him.
But after that day, Joe never sat next to me again. It seems what happened between us almost two years ago is a national phenomenon.
I went on a reading binge in an attempt to understand this extreme polarization. My list included books such as Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations by Amy Chua, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Anderson, and Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy by Jonah Goldberg. However, none of these books, full of brilliant analysis, offered ideas on how to enlighten, convert or rescue Joe.
A month before the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton caused a firestorm with this comment: “To just be grossly generalistic, you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it.”
She stopped before describing the other half. My guess it is all those Joe’s out there — those affable, well-intentioned, law-abiding folks who have lost their rational political minds and continue to support Trump. Having abandoned logic and empirical evidence, they cannot distinguish between the truth and manipulative, preposterous, exaggerated, fictitious, deceptive or fear-mongering lies.
Consequently, they are easily influenced by Russian trolls and extreme right wingers propagandizing from the Dark Web and major social media platforms. Upon reading Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s first indictment, I got the chills realizing these destructive internet subversives, thousands of miles away, understood Joe better than I did.
No wonder our nation is in such a deplorable situation, and the table next to me in Starbucks is empty.