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My Mother The Insurrectionist


As a political scientist and Latin American scholar, Karleen West has studied strong men in that region - leaders like Juan Peron, Hugo Chavez and Alberto Fujimori. She writes, they are people who use populism and charisma to govern with an iron fist. And she puts Donald Trump in that category, too. But this isn't just an academic pursuit for West. It has become personal. Her mother took part in the Save America rally that turned into the storming of the U.S. Capitol one month ago. Karleen West, who teaches at the State University of New York at Geneseo, has written about her mother in an opinion piece appearing in Syracuse.com, and she joins us now from Rochester, N.Y.

Welcome to the program.

KARLEEN WEST: Thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's first establish that your mother was not one of the people who entered the Capitol. She just took part in the rally.

WEST: That's right, though she did march to the Capitol as President Trump ordered.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you find out about that?

WEST: Well (laughter), that was a difficult day. I knew that my mom was traveling across the country in the midst of a pandemic to participate in Trump's Save America rally. But I actually wasn't watching the news that day. I was busy teaching a class called Democratization that ironically focuses on the challenges and threats to democracy around the world. And so I received a text from my sister saying, mom is safe; I just checked in with her. And my heart immediately dropped because I knew that something had gone terribly wrong at Trump's rally.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell us about your mom. You write that she was a registered Democrat who supported Ted Kennedy in the 1980 presidential primary.

WEST: She was. But like millions of other Americans, my mom really admires Donald Trump. She admires his success, and she identifies with him in a way. You know, Trump doesn't listen to his advisers. Well, neither does my mom. She doesn't take crap from anybody. She was a onetime unpartnered mother who lived on the verge of poverty, and she, I think, identifies with Trump's personality in a way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Have you two been able to talk about it?

WEST: Well, sadly, I have better answers for the political questions than I do for questions about what it means to be a daughter of a Trump supporter. Like so many families in the United States right now, politics has become a forbidden conversation among my family members. And so it's not something that's easily discussed. And I think a lot of people right now can relate to that - that it's a difficult conversation to have with people who you love but who you disagree with.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you want people to understand from telling your story?

WEST: I've had so many people reach out already to thank me for writing the article because, to be honest, I felt very lucky that I am a political scientist and that I do have some context for what is happening in the United States right now. And so I really just wanted to share my story to provide other people with that knowledge that what we're seeing in the United States is really drawn from the playbook of dictators and authoritarian leaders all around the world. And I truly believe that the Republican Party needs to own up to the fact that they have been lying to the American people about election fraud, and they need to hold Trump accountable by convicting him in the Senate. Otherwise, we really risk condoning authoritarian behavior by candidates in the future.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But do you think that that will change someone like your mother's mind?

WEST: I do believe that all Americans, and especially Trump supporters like my mom, deserve better from the Republican Party. They need to stop acting in their own self-interest and start prioritizing our democracy. Even if it doesn't change my mom's mind, at least it is what our country deserves, this commitment to democracy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I come from a divided family politically, and that idea of not being able to talk about politics is one that is very familiar to me. But there is a whole cadre of thought that believes that actually, we won't be able to heal as a country unless we have the difficult conversations. Have you thought about discussing this with her?

WEST: At this point, I feel that passions are so high around what happened at the Capitol that day and around what so many Americans believe is the truth about the fact that the election was stolen from Trump that those passions make it really difficult, even with someone that you love, to have a conversation about these political events.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Karleen West. She is an associate professor of political science, international relations and Latin American Studies at the State University of New York at Geneseo.

Thank you very much.

WEST: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.