This was my first presidential election. I had registered as a Republican like my mom did. I leaned left, but liberal Republicans were a thing back then, just like conservative Democrats. I voted for Reagan because I thought Jimmy Carter did a horrible job as president. Sure, there was Camp David, but there was also 12% inflation and 7.8% unemployment. When we waited in gas lines, he put on what we thought was a sweater and said energy was “the moral equivalent of war.” When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, he had our country boycott the Olympics. He couldn’t even deal with a rabbit! Or Iran.
I was happy when I left the voting booth and happier when the first presidential candidate I ever voted for won. But as Reagan’s presidency went on, I wound up regretting my decision.
Today, President Reagan is considered a hero by many and is generally ranked high among presidents. But my own experience of the Reagan era is far different from the legend or our selective memories.
The year before I cast my vote for Ronald Reagan, my mom had a stroke that left her paralyzed for the rest of her life. We became dependent on her Social Security, along with my small wages at Carl’s Jr., to pay our bills and keep our house. We lost our medical insurance when she lost her job, so we put her on Medi-Cal. My college education also depended on federal grants and subsidies so that I could afford tuition at UCLA.
But Reagan’s first policies were to cut back on the federal programs we depended on to survive. I could no longer afford to go to UCLA, so I transferred to Cal State Northridge. Even there, tuition hikes and cutbacks on financial aid made me wonder if I could afford to finish there. We also feared that Mom would lose her Social Security so that we couldn’t afford to live in our house. Or that her Medi-Cal would be cut, and she couldn’t get the therapy and ongoing medical care she needed. Reagan’s Cold War belligerence made me worried that I would be drafted to fight in El Salvador. Or we would wind up in a nuclear war that would kill us all.
I became angry at President Reagan — even more than a Democrat because I voted for him! He was the first president I voted for — and he made me regret my vote! I started going to protests and made flyers to express my outrage on a number of issues. In 1983, I registered as a Democrat. I haven’t voted for a Republican for president ever since.
I made it through the Reagan era, but a few of my friends didn’t. They died of AIDS, which could have stopped at the beginning had the government invested funds and research into battling the disease. But then, AIDS was just considered a “gay disease,” and President Reagan opposed LGBT rights. He remained silent about AIDS until it started affecting those outside the gay community. By then, it was too late to save people like my friends — and the millions who continue to suffer and die from this disease.
This brings us to today and President Trump.
Today, I have more to lose from the policies President Trump has declared than the ones President Reagan enacted when I was a broke and frightened college student. President Trump could get us in a trade war that could lead to a severe global recession. If my wife and I have a medical emergency, we could lose our health insurance and go into debt to pay mounting bills. My son could get drafted to fight in yet another war in the Middle East, and my daughter could face discrimination and harassment. My brother could lose his civil rights. As a writer, I could face censorship — or worse — if I write something that is less than flattering about those in power.
But the person I worry about the most is my granddaughter. The second president of her lifetime mocked a disabled reporter, and his nominee for Secretary of Education seemed confused about whether states should follow federal law protecting students with disabilities. What does this mean for her future? Would she lose her therapy, her special education programs, and her medical insurance? Would she even have a future at all considering that the Trump Administration is stocked with climate-charge deniers and executives from fossil-fuel companies? Or that a single errant tweet could lead to a nuclear conflagration?
If you’re a Trump supporter, you probably have the same excitement that I did at the same point of Reagan’s presidency. You still have confidence that you made the right choice, and that his policies will bring about the changes you want for America. You don’t understand why millions would take to the streets to protest him before he even unpacked. Why would people question his legitimacy and discount everything he says or does? Why don’t we give the man a chance?
Because what can happen to me can happen to you.
President Trump was right when he said, “We are one nation…We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.” And if things go wrong, we will share the same suffering. His policies can also threaten your livelihood, the well-being of your loved ones, and the civil rights and institutions that you value and fought to defend. You could fear for your future and the future of your children. You could find yourself as disappointed, embittered, and frightened with President Trump as I did with President Reagan.
There is still hope, but we need to keep ourselves informed, aware, and active. Let’s not stay stuck in the bubbles of whatever media tells us what we want to hear. Let’s not look for scapegoats. Let’s not resort to blamestorming and name-calling. Let’s not degrade ourselves with profanity and violence. More importantly, let’s not ignore what our own eyes, ears, heart, and common sense tell us is true. If something is wrong, speak up.
It’s difficult to regret a decision we’ve made, especially one as important as a vote for president. But it was more important for me to protect my family and my future than to protect my need to be right. I hope you feel the same way.
And if you change your mind, there’s a place for you to join us. You will be welcomed.