It’s doubtful Donald Trump ever read The Winter of our Discontent, John Steinbeck’s 1961 novel about greed, xenophobia, and corruption in Eisenhower-era America. But for fans of Steinbeck like me, the winter of America’s discontent under Trump is deeply troubling, despite fans of The Donald. Add one word to the line from Richard III quoted in Steinbeck’s title — “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of New York” — and Shakespeare’s metaphor for a usurping tyrant from English history aptly expresses the testy mood of Trump’s triumphant courtiers at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, a place I once enjoyed but now fear.
For a long time I lived across the bridge from Mar-a-Lago in West Palm Beach, and for several years I played the organ at St. Edward’s, “the Kennedy church” in Palm Beach. Shortly before Trump bought Mar-a-Lago, a friend of mine arranged for me to take a peek inside the aging estate left by Marjorie Merriweather Post to the federal government as a winter White House.
John Kennedy already had a Palm Beach address when he became president, but the Kennedys weren’t welcome at the social club across the street from Mar-a-Lago in 1960 and the mansion’s dusty interior looked like Norma Desmond’s living room in Sunset Boulevard when I saw it around 1982. That changed after Trump opened his club in the mid-1990s, and I enjoyed attending events there — and meeting our unlikely 45th president — as part of my day job running a Palm Beach County nonprofit.
My organization was celebrating its 25thanniversary when a retinue from Vanity Fair magazine flew into town to poke around for a planned cover story in 2003. The writer Christopher Hitchens was part of the entourage, and he invited me to tag along to dinner at a Palm Beach social club where Catholics and Jews were still forbidden. While we awaited our host, a well-known Republican billionaire, I suggested to Christopher — whose mother was half-Jewish — that he ask to see the kosher menu. Next morning I got a call from the head of the Palm Beach venue where my group’s anniversary was scheduled to be held the following week. Word of our little joke had reached his board chairman, an officer of the club, and an apology was demanded.
The profile of Palm Beach that appeared in Vanity Fair several months later made our peevish millionaire even angrier, but that failed to faze Christopher, who had a skin thicker than John Steinbeck’s. Hitchens shared Steinbeck’s active hatred for Roy Cohn, the McCarthyite lawyer and Manhattan media hog whose most successful disciple was Donald Trump, a man Hitchens once described as a ‘bankrupt real-estate monarch [who] can treat the skyline as his own without any hint of a nasty creditors’ meeting at any of his numerous and lenient banks.”
In December Vanity Fair published a second feature on Palm Beach focusing on Trump’s winning strategy with Mar-a-Lago. The old-guard Republicans who used to run the town fought Trump every step of the way when he opened his club, and for a while it looked as if he might be forced to back down. Now who’s laughing?
The question is answered — for the moment — by a picture accompanying the story that really is worth a thousand words. Showing a quartet of Trumpettes posed adoringly in front of Donald Trump’s Dorian Gray-like portrait at Mar-a-Lago, it suggests the last Christmas enjoyed by Marie Antoinette’s ladies in waiting. “Let them eat cake.”
On January 1 the Palm Beach paper printed a letter from a Trumpette of my acquaintance who worked for an elected Democrat when I first knew her. In the New Year’s Day edict she wrote as a suck-it-up-losers memo to those not yet with the Trump program, she insisted that “President-elect Trump will make us financially secure again” because “the days of massive government waste and corruption” are a thing of the past caused (presumably) by Democrats.
Thirty years after meeting this woman, and a decade after leaving Florida for California, I feel the way John Steinbeck did when he renounced the Republican home town that burned copies of his greatest novel. Palm Beach was nice enough when I was younger, but I’m afraid of it now.
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William Ray is a retired nonprofit executive, writer, and musician in Santa Clara, California. A longer version of his post was published by SteinbeckNow
William Ray is an independent scholar in Santa Clara, CA. He received his PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, taught college English, and served as CEO or CDO for nonprofit organizations including the Palm Beach County Cultural Council, The Scripps Research Institute, and Palo Alto Medical Foundation. He founded SteinbeckNow.com, writes about Steinbeck’s religion, and serves as organist at a church in Los Gatos, CA, where Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath.