The hope of audacity in Indiana

Story highlights

  • Daniel Lee: Seeing my mom through a surgery opened my eyes to how hospital staff were rooting for Donald Trump
  • They -- and so many other Americans -- connected unselfconsciously to his unvarnished tone and frankness, Lee writes

Daniel Lee is an Indianapolis-based writer whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, USAToday.com, The Weekly Standard and The Hill. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)I first realized that Donald Trump might actually win the presidency when I was with my mom last fall at Deaconess Gateway Hospital in Evansville, Indiana, where she was recovering from knee replacement surgery.

It was Election Day, and nearly everyone who came in the room wanted to talk about the voting. And they were all rooting for Trump. The nurses. The aides. The rehab techs. A random guy in the cafeteria. Even the social worker. The social worker.
Daniel Lee
Now it's months later and Mom's doctor has just cleared her to drive. As she gets moving, so does the new Trump administration. It's a worrisome time.
    Looking back, I recall the unabashed confidence everyone at the hospital seemed to have in Trump.
    There was no furtiveness, no shy reticence, none of the coy, blushing Trumpism that some pundits were saying might be lurking out there, hidden from polls conducted by strangers from somewhere calling at dinnertime.
    It was more like, "Well, how do you think Trump is doing? I hope he pulls it out," in a completely casual tone as the blood pressure cuff inflated, the same as if you might say, "Hope the rain holds off," or "Sure would be nice if we get snow for Christmas."
    I would have expected strangers to be more guarded with me, sampling the lie of the wind before running up the flags and pennants -- especially now that the culture wars have turned from cold to tepid to hot.
    For years, saying the wrong thing publicly has run the risk of leaving you unwelcome in person, unfriended on Facebook, unjobbed in your career. It has made people cautious.
    No longer -- at least not in Evansville. It was more like "Go, Trump, and here are your pom-poms."
    Local returns approximated what I was seeing. In the five counties around Evansville, Trump won by roughly 83,000 votes to 45,000.
    In 2008, when Barack Obama carried Indiana, he performed much better in those counties, with about 67,000 votes to John McCain's 72,000, and he won Evansville's Vanderburgh County outright.
    So the area usually backs Republicans for president, but it's far from rabidly GOP, which the tone of the conversations might have suggested.
    Understand that these people weren't raving about the Trump agenda -- I doubt they could even have described it. Can anybody? They just liked his defiant tone.
    That was the thing with Trump; he almost echoed the old presidential non-campaign of years past, where candidates affected an aloof disinterest, occasionally stepping out on the porch to make a few vague remarks.
    Aloof he didn't manage, but he had the vague remarks part down.
    But his vagueness was different -- he was trying to express ideas; he just couldn't do it, partly because he lacks the polished glibness of the professional politician, partly because he hasn't done the reading.
    People -- millions of them, and the backers I met in Evansville -- didn't mind, and many still don't. They haven't done the reading either, and the way Trump talks is the way they talk to each other, unadorned, frank, sometimes wrong in the details but at least plain and to the point.
    After years of listening to politicians carefully parse their public statements into smaller and smaller bits of meaninglessness, folks were ready to loosen their guard and their girdles and revel in some plain speaking -- even if sometimes it bordered on plain nonsense.
    So now it's January, and the Trump administration is gearing up to get started. Back home, Mom is finishing up her physical therapy out at the hospital -- where apparently they have the "good machines" -- and out and about, tending to her own shopping and errands.
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    She'll be unsteady at first, and certainly through the winter we'll worry about her footing and a slip and fall. After being dependent on friends and church helpers for the last couple of years, this is no small thing, and worth the risk to her.
    And so with Trump. He's unsteady -- to say the least -- and we're worried he'll put a foot wrong, especially in these slippery early months. But the Senate confirmation hearings so far suggest he'll have a strong supporting cast, some adept and experienced in the profession of governing.
    Trump himself, though, is something different, tapping into a native tradition of sheer American cussedness that appeals to people tired of watching heretics and non-conformists being stretched and broken on the wheel of a ginned-up public disapproval.