The Winter of Our Discontent Deepens as Trumpettes Party

Image of Trumpettes with portrait of Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago

It’s doubtful either Donald Trump or the minority of Americans who just elected him ever read The Winter of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck’s prophetic fiction about public and private corruption in America 60 years ago. But for fans of the novel the parallels with our winter of discontent today are troubling. Cheating and self-dealing, inequality and incivility, anti-immigrant hatred and hysteria—is the USA less or more selfish today than it was when Steinbeck wrote his cautionary tale? For Donald Trump and his fans among America’s fraction-of-one-percent, personal profit is the golden rule and goodness can measured in tax cuts and capital gains. 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 an English tyrant’s mood aptly expresses the ardor felt by the Trumpettes of Mar-a-Lago, the palatial club in Palm Beach where Trump now holds winter court. I don’t know if John Steinbeck visited Mar-a-Lago. or encountered Donald Trump before he died, but I’ve had the pleasure of both and I’m pretty sure Steinbeck would take a very dim view.

John Steinbeck’s View of Donald Trump and Mar-a-Lago?

Image of Donald Trump's Palm Beach estate Mar-a-Lago

Before I moved to California and discovered Steinbeck Country I lived in West Palm Beach, where I ran a prominent nonprofit and played the organ at St. Edward’s Catholic Church, “the Kennedy church,” in Palm Beach. Once I substituted at Bethesda-by-the Sea, the Episcopal church where Trump reportedly received applause from attendees on Christmas Eve. I knew Ralph Wolfe Cowan, the artist who painted the Dorian Gray-like portrait of Trump shown in the lead photo of this post. My home in West Palm Beach wasn’t far from the bridge connecting with Palm Beach near Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s spacious domain, so named because it stretches from Lake Worth to the Atlantic. I passed by often on my way to church, and I was a luncheon and gala guest on those occasions when doing my job entailed hobnobbing.

Image of Marjorie Merriweather PostIt’s even possible I toured Mar-a-Lago before Donald Trump, who bought it at a discount from descendants of Post cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post in 1985. A year or so earlier a friend of mine arranged for a private look-see at the estate where Post entertained lavishly when John Steinbeck was alive. By the 1980s the mansion’s faded interior resembled Norma Desmond’s living room in Sunset Boulevard—aging, abandoned, populated by the ghosts of parties and partners past—and John Kennedy was the only ex-president with a known Palm Beach address. To fill this gap, Post willed Mar-a-Lago to the government as a presidential retreat when she died. But the property lies under the flight path of Palm Beach airport, adding to security issues, and before Trump came along the Palm Beach social scene had attracted few of Kennedy’s successors. Johnson wasn’t the Palm Beach type, Nixon and Ford and Reagan enjoyed Walter Annenberg’s hospitality in Palm Springs, and the George H.W. Bushes had close ties to the old money on Jupiter Island, a less pretentious winter enclave an hour north of Palm Beach.

Image of memorial plaque at Mar-a-LagoPalm Beach prejudice presented another problem. Kennedy wasn’t welcome everywhere, even as president, and top-tier social clubs like the one across the road from Mar-a-Lago excluded Catholics and Jews from membership as recently as my time. To his credit, Donald Trump thumbed his nose at this tradition when he opened Mar-a-Lago Club for those with sufficient cash and cachet, regardless of race or religion, in 1995. As a marketing strategy his open-door policy was a winner, attracting socialites and business leaders and making Mar-a-Lago a popular venue for black-tie charity events. Trump’s inauguration committee may be having trouble signing talent, but name entertainers like Vic Damone loved playing Mar-a-Lago, and the evening I spent chatting with Diahann Carroll, Vic’s wife at the time, is my warmest memory of the place. Vanity Fair covered Mar-a-Lago favorably almost from the start, though the tone changed after the editor of the magazine described Trump as a “short-fingered vulgarian.” (“How Donald Trump Beat Palm Society and Won the Fight for Mar-a-Lago was a source of images for this post.)

Image of Christopher HitchensIn 2003 my organization was celebrating its 25th anniversary when the publisher and a retinue from Vanity Fair flew to town in preparation for an expose of Palm Beach social mores. One of the writers in the group—the late Christopher Hitchens, a regular contributor to Vanity Fair—invited me to tag along when a Republican billionaire with a household name hosted dinner at a Palm Beach club that still banned Jews. Rather late in life Hitchens had learned that his maternal grandmother was Jewish, a topic of conversation as we waited outside the club, so I suggested that he ask for a kosher menu once we were inside and seated for dinner. The next day I got a call from the head of the Palm Beach cultural venue where my organization’s anniversary event was about to be held. It happened that his board chairman was an officer of the club—a thin-skinned millionaire who learned, almost instantly, about our quiet indiscretion the night before. I wrote the requisite letter of apology and agreed to keep my mouth shut about the incident, but Christopher seemed gratified when I reported the result to him. He said it proved our point perfectly.

Image of Roy Cohn and Donald TrumpLike John Steinbeck, a writer he admired, Christopher Hitchens was politically astute, egalitarian, and courageous under fire from bullies, Left or Right. Like Steinbeck, he supported America’s pursuit of an unpopular war (in Hitchens’s case, Iraq; in Steinbeck’s, Vietnam) and bravely paid the price. Like Steinbeck, he distrusted power, disliked braggadocio, and detested xenophobia, insult, and incitement to mob violence of the kind seen more than once during Donald Trump’s campaign for president. Roy Cohn, the McCarthy-era lawyer who taught Trump how to play New York hardball, was anathema to Hitchens, as he’d been to Steinbeck when The Winter of Our Discontent was written. The odious combination of compulsive mendacity, obsessive opportunism, and pathological aggression that repelled Steinbeck advanced Cohn’s career and attracted clients. One of them was Donald Trump, the billionaire developer described by Hitchens in 1997 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.” Trump’s Palm Beach ascendancy might have amused Hitchens. But I think it would offend Steinbeck, who ridiculed small-town ambition and conspicuous consumption in The Winter of Our Discontent.

Steinbeck’s California Dreads What Palm Beach Celebrates

Image of John SteinbeckI am unacquainted with the four Trumpettes who posed for Vanity Fair in front of Ralph Cowan’s painting of Donald Trump. But I recognized names from the past when I read reports about holiday festivities at Mar-a-Lago. An outspoken Trumpette quoted by national media outlets once worked for the Democratic county commissioner from West Palm Beach. On New Year’s Day the Palm Beach daily newspaper published an admonishing letter to readers in which she promised that “President-elect Trump will make us financially secure again” and described “the days of massive government waste and corruption” as a thing of the past caused (presumably) by Democrats. Today, more than 30 years after I first met this woman and a decade after leaving Florida for California, I feel about Donald Trump’s Palm Beach as John Steinbeck felt about Salinas, his home town. I’m grateful for the memories but sad for the “dear little town” I used to know. As Mar-a-Lago celebrates and Washington gets ready, the winter of our discontent grows darker by the day here in his home state.

About William Ray

William Ray is a Steinbeck scholar living in Santa Clara, California. He received his PhD in English from the University of North Carolina.


  1. “From Sea to Shining Sea” …. You’ve covered a lot of territory and given us a better picture. I feel beneficially informed.

  2. Well said Will, great analysis. I am glad you came to California and started this blog. Your commentary and the events swirling around us now reminded me of a statement from “Cannery Row”: “It has always seemed strange to me . . . . The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.” Thus the statement from your “outspoken Trumpette”: i.e., “President-elect Trump will make us financially secure again” (as though that could happen). Steinbeck saw the power of informal networks and the individuals that inhabit them as bulwarks against oppression. “The Moon Is Down” shows how formally oppressed people in a Nazi-occupied Norwegian village could resist and drive the Germans crazy during World War II. That is what we need to do today.

  3. Wasn’t Ringling Bros’ winter home in Florida, too? I’d prefer a barn full of elephants to the circus at Mar-a-Lago.

  4. Michael Katakis says:

    I appreciate your mentioning Roy Cohen, Donald Trump’s vile mentor, who caused much misery when John Steinbeck was alive. Not for any grand cause, like the witch hunting Cohn carried out for Joe McCarthy and the Un-American Activities Committee, but for personal profit. This is the man who liked and mentored Trump: Trump’s attack strategy is pure Cohn, and his minions Steven Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, with their pathological lies and absence of ethical or moral core, are little more than mini-Cohns, like Trump himself. This go-round, I hope, the American people will be more courageous than they were the last time tyranny like this crawled out from its hole, back in the 1950s.

    I recently returned to the United States after spending several months in Europe. There people are in shock and at a loss to understand how voters in the USA could have taken leave of their senses and elevated such an unqualified and dangerous person to such a position of power. I reminded my friends in Paris and London that Hitler was also elected by a minority of the German people, and that enough Italians went along with Mussolini to make his dictatorship a reality. Here in America we have heard the voices surrounding Donald Trump before, the voices of Father Coughlin, Senator Joseph McCarthy, Roy Cohn, the Klu Klux Klan, the John Birch Society, J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, and from overseas those of Mussolini, Franco, and Oswald Moseley. Our fathers fought fascism abroad in WW II and we are voting fascists into office at home today. What we are witnessing is corruption, cruelty, and ignorance on the march, thanks to millions of Americans whose thoughts and feelings he mirrors. A truly great nation does not elect such a man. Only an insecure and ignorant one does.

    • Well said. We have been here before and we have prevailed, but it takes passion that is focused on equality and justice and caring. We have to remember when people ask what happened-the Electoral College happened. Hard to explain to anyone but it was designed to support states that favored slavery. Clinton won the popular election by about 3 million votes which is no small amount. The Democratic party at least should have raised a constitutional challenge given the Trump people something to fight about. So now we have a Trump-Putin presidency. So we have a person elected president as Wes Stillwagon points out by a minority.of the electorate. We shall prevail as Steinbeck pointed out in a quote from the Grapes of Wrath: “And the little screaming fact that sounds thorough all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.”

    • Well said, Michael. I’m looking forward to your visit to SJSU in March.

    • Paul Douglass says:

      Michael Katakis has hit the nail squarely on the head. Forgive me if I missed it in the other interesting and cogent comments, but the decline of America–its values, its education, its sense of its importance in the history of freedom and dignity for the individual–is the hallmark of Steinbeck’s later career, from Travels With Charlie to East of Eden and America and Americans, not to mention in private correspondence and semi-public actions, engagement with the Presidential elections after WW II, etc. JS despaired for our future at times. His fears were well founded.

  5. Wes Stillwagon says:

    Would it have made any difference in the outcome of the presidential election if Trump supporters had read “The Winter Of Our Discontent” or Steinbeck’s other writing? I’m skeptical because their support for Trump was on faulty moral faculties, not on a sense of social responsibility, logic, or reasonable judgment. This is why more people don’t speak out against country club policies, like those in Palm Beach, that exclude Catholics and Jews. The community described in the post has very well-off citizens who believe that a person is successful because he or she pulls up to the entrance in a Bentley or a Rolls Royce. In truth, Trump’s country club followers are no more evolved than a Bible-thumping fundamentalist who arrives at church on Sunday behind a mule. Democrats got this wrong and as a result lost the election. Republicans won because they grasp what Hitler and Goebbels understood well. Slogans from the Trump campaign–“Build the wall,” “Drain the swamp,” “Make America great again–exemplify Hitler’s observation that “The receptivity of the great masses is limited, their intelligence is small but their power of forgetting is enormous. All effective propaganda must be limited to very few points. Its effect must be aimed at the emotions and only at a very limited degree to the so-called intellect.” perspective on

    • Wes Stillwagon says:

      (continued) My point is that even if we provided every volume of Steinbeck’s works or demanded it be read by every student, it wouldn’t make much of a difference to society, wealthy or poor. Our perspective on individual human evolvement is completely wrong and until it is corrected we should expect more dolts like Trump to be elected.

  6. Interesting that the Bently and Rolls Royce are both manufactured abroad. The visualization of a mule showing up at this Palm Beach Country Club made me smile and think about how to actually have that happen as a media statement. So far the best slogan post election has come from Senator Schumer: The Rs want to “Make America Sick Again”.

    • Wes Stillwagon says:

      . When our forefathers limited voting rights to land owners their purpose was meant to confine votes to those who would be directly affected by the outcome of the election. Trump supporters are, in my opinion, unqualified to cast votes- — they know next to nothing about the candidates, their platform, or the social impact of the election results. They should be required to take a written test on the matters on the table. If they only achieve a 50 percent grade, their vote should only count for fifty percent of a vote. That’s my suggestion for a better run country, If this were the case the Democrats would have enjoyed a landslide.

  7. Wes, the truth is that millions of Trump voters probably DID read Steinbeck in school — Of Mice and Men is assigned in junior-high classrooms across the country, and has been for 50+ years. Even Donald Trump himself, who so crassly mocked that disabled reporter, probably has at least a passing familiarity with George and Lennie. Obviously the empathy lesson didn’t stick!

    • Wes Stillwagon says:

      Thanks Nick for supporting my point — even if they did read Steinbeck they simply were not ready to overcome their selfish world view perspective and apply what they learned in building a socially responsible “Self” to the benefit of their country, neighborhood, or family. As a result of this failure to break through, they are unconsciously driven to seek father figures to make their fears go away. Rich or poor – they have the same reaction as nine year olds in the body of an adult.

  8. Very much enjoyed this informative piece, Will. My favorite line: “…so I suggested that he ask for a kosher menu once we were inside and seated for dinner.” A diabolical maneuver of which I approve! The photo of the Trumpettes is classic, more like something from a SNL skit than a real-life photoshoot. But then so many things in current politics seem more like a parody than reality. Whose America is this, anyway?

  9. Thank you, Will, for providing such insight into a unique community that now once again plays an interesting role in our national political landscape!

  10. Looks like someone forgot to mention that it was Trump who admitted
    Jews and blacks to his Mar A Lago golf club when Palm Beach was
    still racist and anti Semitic. Just a slip of the memory…I’m sure.

    • Read more carefully and you will find the following sentence in the third paragraph: “To his credit, Donald Trump thumbed his nose at this tradition when he opened Mar-a-Lago Club for those with sufficient cash and cachet, regardless of race or religion, in 1995.”

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