Not long ago, I rediscovered a worn, first-edition copy of J. Frank Dobie’s “A Texan In England.” The book, a gift from my late mother-in-law, is a collection of essays and observations on British life by the legendary Texas folklorist from his 1944 stint as a lecturer in American history (and interpreter of all things Texan) at Cambridge University’s Emmanuel College in England.
He’s also credited with saving the Texas longhorn breed of cattle from extinction. I like to imagine I play a similar if far smaller and less eloquent role today. Not with cattle, though that would be cool, but as cultural interpreter.
As a proud Texan who has spent the entirety of the 21st century working in the United Kingdom, I am from time to time asked to explain the ways of my countrymen to baffled Brits, and vice versa.
Americans are far more curious than generally credited. Have I been to Downton Abbey? Have I met the queen? How can I stand the warm beer?
Honesty can be disappointing, so I have learned to give them what they want. “Why, yes, I pass the Abbey every day on my way to Hogwarts, and Lord Grantham really is as lovely as he seems in the first series.” And “yes, our Lizzie, as we call her — we take tea together every fortnight.” And “the beer? Don’t tell anyone but I pop a few ice cubes in my pints.”
The Brits are no less interested in the States. Cosmetic dentistry, all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets, even Waco’s own Chip and Joanna Gaines are all topics of endless fascination for friends and colleagues.
No subject, however, demands as much explanation to my fellow Londoners as the rise and appeal of American President Donald J. Trump. How? Why? And when will it end? They demand to know.
Here, perhaps betrayed by my long time away, I struggle to respond.
Trump and the belief system around him, I try to explain analytically, is more about culture than politics or the man himself. He long ago abandoned issues of policy, of left and right, in favour of identity. Of identifying with those who are real Americans and, more importantly, rejecting those who are not, at least according to him.
“Ah, like Nigel Farage,” they say, referring to the former UK Independence Party leader who demeaned the former president as “That Obama creature — a loathsome individual…”
Trump a bit like Farage? Yes, I confirm, but I realize I’m responding as a critic or referee — not as a translator. At last I look to the words of Trump-supporting friends — those who rise immediately and unabashedly to his defense on social media.
With a bit of assistance from my Texas-based co-conspirator David Schleicher, we offer the statements of defense we often encounter and their translations.
On his substantial list of moral transgressions: Voters knew he was no angel when they voted for him. They voted for someone who’ll get things done.
Translation: Character is a flexible standard: It was vital when we judged Clinton, irrelevant when we assessed Obama, and with Trump — wait, what was the question again?
On the growing number of ethics and corruption allegations: He’s a successful businessman, not a politician. You have to break a few eggs to make an omelette in the business world. Bend a few rules. Don’t be jealous of his success.
Translation: Public service and accountability is for losers. Show me the money!
On making America great again: Thank God he’s undoing everything Obama did. Obama wanted to change the kind of country we are.
Translation: The kind of country we have always been looked like me, and it always should. It was scary to see a black man in the Oval Office.
On his disparaging tweets and public statements: Yeah, I wish he tweeted less and stuck to his messages, but he speaks his mind and tells it like it is.
Translation: I kind of agree with him. But some jokes need to be kept private.
On the seemingly chaotic nature of his policy-making, implementation and communication: It’s not chaotic — YOU’RE chaotic!
Translation: None available.
On the economy: Yeah, baby — look at the market and employment rate!
Translation: Gains under the previous administration — greater than under the current one — were fake. These are real. And I don’t really understand economics.
On his ongoing difficulty with the truth: All politicians lie, nobody is perfect, and it’s all fake news anyway. Also, Benghazi.
Translation: We don’t really care.
On the Mueller investigation: Witch hunt!
Translation: I feel a little queasy about where this is going, and I wish it would go away.
On critical commentary: Don’t you guys have real jobs? The columns never have been funny and this one isn’t either.
Translation: By poking fun at Trump, you’re poking fun at us — and that’s politically incorrect!