While living through Donald Trump’s first week and a half as president, I overheard an observation from New York Times journalist Glenn Thrush on CNN: “People are trying to figure out various modalities of how to deal with this guy…I think a lot of people are going to be dealing with him like he’s an uncle, who says crazy stuff at dinner. It’s like, oh…Uncle Donald just says this stuff.”
Across the country, we as Americans have sat down to the figurative dinner table that is our new reality. Throughout the primary and general elections, “Uncle” Donald Trump certainly used more than his share of “crazy” to disrupt the existing order. In addition to tapping into a critical, but geographically significant, group in key states, he successfully used inflammatory and oftentimes insulting language to dominate the airwaves and dislodge anyone who stood before him. “Uncle” Donald ran as a disrupter, and he is proving to be just that he takes his seat at the table of our government. Uncle do have a general reputation for being disruptive and even a little crazy. But what we need is the “right kind of crazy” and not, as pointed by Bret Stephens in his Wall St Journal piece, “The Wrong Kind Of Crazy.”
So how do Americans (and people around the world who sit at this table with us) deal with this new “Uncle” President? And does his unpredictability really warrant him the “Uncle” title? I’ve been an uncle for a long time, at times succeeding and failing at this balancing act role that has few rules, but many negative stereotypes. I’ve made it a lifelong point of research to examine the unique role of uncles in our families and society. Uncles come in all shapes and sizes but the goods ones, the ones who not only disrupt, but also inspire, motivate, unify, have an impeccable decency, an unshakable kindness, an odd grace, and a deep empathy for others, particularly those in their charge. Great uncles, outliers they may be, are also ruled by some basic norms.
The first of these is trust: trust of parent, trust of society, trust of child. It’s a great gift to be an uncle, to be invited into the fabric of a family in a new and unique way. Of course, this starts with trusting parents. No responsible parent would welcome someone untrustworthy to spend time with their children. Not only is the personal relationship part of the equation, but also the larger context of societal trust. Because uncles can be disruptive and seen as outliers societally, they also have a greater calling to be honest, trustworthy, and diligent. All those things accomplished, they can begin to build the trust with their nephews and nieces.
Years ago, my then 7-year-old niece asked to spend her birthday weekend in San Francisco with her Uncle. After a couple of phone conversations, a trusting brother and his wife put their 7-year-old daughter on a plane down to San Francisco. She flew alone to find me at the other end. We spent the long weekend on an adventure. I arranged to have a friend fly us around the Bay in his small plane, we did afternoon high-tea at the Fairmont Hotel, road the trolley cars back and forth across the City, wandered China Town, and countless other neighborhoods for hours. At the end, she flew home, safe and sound. Trust wasn’t something earned that weekend, it had been developed over years, and this, just a beautiful result of that bond.
Great uncles also know their boundaries. They know, for example, that they’ll never be a substitute for a parent or the structure of a family, however that looks. Rather, their goal should be to add richness, perspective, and yes, even fun to it. Real uncles understand the context of their relationship and act and behave with respect, humility and support to the family structure. I’ve had numerous occasions where defiant nephews or nieces have attempted co-opt me, their uncle, into a rebellion against Mom, Dad or some other figure of authority. Instead of fueling their fire the good uncle listens, provides perspective and addresses hard truths with the goal of empowering their charges to find new and creative solutions within the existing infrastructure.
Of course, actions speak most loudly, and real uncles prove their worth by their actions. Uncles show up for nephews and nieces, and the families that have brought them in. They step in for both the menial tasks (babysitting, changing diapers, shuttle services and random errands of every imaginable sort) and the meaningful (graduations, performances and special occasions of every variety). Far from being the loud-mouthed mud slinger in the corner at the holiday meal, real uncles spend the majority of their time doing something much quieter, much more thoughtful, and infinitely more productive.
So regardless of how you voted, or how you feel now, Donald Trump is the new President of the United States. But should he, just based on his unpredictable behavior, be labeled “Uncle President?” If that is the case, I think we need to hold him to the real standard that I’ve witnessed in those who proudly call themselves “Uncle.” It’s been proven time and again, Trump knows how to create a firestorm with his words. What’s less proven is if can he garner the trust of the majority of the nation, understand and support the boundaries of the office which he now holds, and act, in grand gesture and small moments alike, that he deserves the “Uncle President” title.
Got a great story to tell about being an uncle, or about one of your special uncle or uncle-like characters in your life?