I know several people who can say “I don’t know anyone who voted for Trump.” And I don’t necessarily consider that a good thing nor a badge of honor (nor would I if someone told me they don’t know anyone who voted for Hillary). I just know that I’m not one of those people who can say they don’t know anyone who voted for Trump because I do know someone: My father.
Yes, I’m still talking to him. Yes, I’ve heard the endless entreaties of “You should stop talking to him!” No, it’s not that easy.
I’ve turned around, dissected and diagramed his reasons for voting the way he did, and I still don’t understand any of them. We share a gene pool, the same body type, the same skin and hair color and even the same missing adult incisors that never grew in. We share a similar sense of humor. But we don’t share the same political beliefs — particularly the belief that your vote should be cast to help advance the greater good, not just your own good.
Fundamentally, aside from his support of the military, I believe that my dad voted for Trump because he wants to protect his financial assets. It took him a long time and a lot of physical labor to acquire them, and they’re not much, but they’re his. For that reason, to him, Trump was the best choice. Do I agree? No. He and I believe in very different versions of the American dream. My version of the dream includes the hope that all people can live freely and safely no matter what they look like or what they believe in. His probably sounds more like “every man for himself.”
Now is probably a good time to mention that my dad (like me) is Jewish. He’s socially liberal (more libertarian — what you want in your own home is none of my business) and financially conservative. He’s getting older and thinking about retirement and how he needs to support himself. There’s a part of me that finally realized perhaps he voted out of fear for his own financial future, convinced that if Trump saved him money, he wouldn’t be in the position to ask his adult daughter for help if he needed it. It’s a theory and one that’s maybe too difficult and to ask him as it’s coated in years of shame. But it weighs heavy on my heart when I think about his private motivations. And the fact that he voted against my rights as a woman weighs heavily too.
As a Jew watching the terrifying state of Muslims in America, my empathy is rooted in the haunting line James Baldwin wrote to Angela Davis: “If they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.” I fear for my LGBT friends and family, for refugees and asylum seekers and for Black individuals in America.
My father honestly does not believe that he voted against my rights or his own. For him, the threats against women, Muslims and refugees are theoretical and rhetorical — an abstraction. To him, these things “might” happen to “others.” From his recliner in suburban Virginia, Fox News blaring out of the TV, anyone whom Trump’s Reich affects is out of sight, out of mind. He’s thoroughly enmeshed in political drama and completely detached from its reality. For him, it’s like it’s just good TV. I marvel at his — and many of our — ability to compartmentalize.
[pullquote]To him, I think Donald Trump represented a warped, cartoon apotheosis of the American dream as told through the spoils of Jay Gatsby, Gordon Gecko and Tony Montana.[/pullquote]
My father and I differ wildly when it comes to core principles of commitment to community. When he asked if it pisses me off that a significant portion of my income goes to the government, I told him I appreciate my garbage being picked up. I go to museums for free. I spent 16 years in the public school system in arts programs. And when I called 9-1-1 once because smoke was coming out of my wall, the fire department was there in approximately one minute. I also appreciated having subsidized (albeit expensive, but subsidized nevertheless) health care when I needed it. So, no, that doesn’t bother me. I believe in the primary tenets of socialism and that those who can help should.
Speaking of socialism, now is probably a good time to explain that my dad is an immigrant.
My dad came to Ohio in 1973. Son of German refugees, grandson of grandparents killed in a concentration camp. Growing up in a liberal Jewish household, I went to summer camp, Hebrew school, youth groups and was taught “if it happened once it could happen again” and “never again.” We were taught that a threat to religious freedom anywhere is a threat to people everywhere, Jewish or otherwise. I never grew up hearing a negative word about Muslims. I grew up in a post-hippie world of “be kind” with the immigrant mentality of “work your ass off.” So I was. So he did.
My dad adored Reagan and Bush Senior. He voted for Clinton in 1992, incentivized by the promise of saving on my upcoming college tuition. But the longer he lived in America — and the more cable news provided an endless stream of reactive, fear-mongering political fodder and talking heads — the more he became a “patriot” in the very post-2001 sense of the word. While he retained his libertarian sense of “every man for himself,” he began to support more conservative candidates and aligned himself with Fox and conservative radio. He “jokingly” referred to his daughters as “kumbaya liberals.” We joked, called each other crazy and knew there was no sense in trying to convert either one. (Stubbornness is a trait I probably inherited from him.)
To him, I think Donald Trump represented a warped, cartoon apotheosis of the American dream as told through the spoils of Jay Gatsby, Gordon Gecko and Tony Montana — a manic, cartoon version of the yellow brick road. Trump spoke his mind, and so does my dad, whom little offends. And if it doesn’t offend him, why would it offend anyone? Even when his own cousin’s daughter came home last month to find a swastika and “jew pigs” scratched on her front door in Northern Virginia, he didn’t see the connection between the white men he supports, the people who support them and his relationship to both.
Between the election and the inauguration, I had dinner with a friend who’s been an activist as long as I’ve known her. She lost her father (also an immigrant, albeit a liberal activist) to cancer over a year ago. I shared that upon learning that my dad voted Trump, people tend to react like I’d admitted a family member murdered a child in cold blood. “You should cut him off” is the general response. “We can’t cut people off. You can’t cut him off. He’s your dad,” she offered. Right. I know. He’s my dad. I just can’t. I pointed out that it’s strange that he’s become this die-hard Trump supporter when I was raised never hearing slurs or negative words about other races or ethnicities. “That’s actually better,” said. “Less to deprogram as an adult.” True, but I’m dealing with someone new. Now I have to learn a whole new dad. I’d really like my old dad back.
He’s still my fun-loving, ridiculous dad who quotes Borat, loves Amy Winehouse and Adele, pretends to be sleeping whenever I walk into a room, FaceTimes with my cat and wears bright orange fake Crocs to dinner to mortify me and my sister. He’s helped me move into almost every apartment, schlepping my stuff from Virginia to New York, tearing out old carpet in my Washington Heights apartment on his hands and knees. He calls all the time and is often nearly in tears telling me how proud he is of me and my husband and my sister for “doing well” in life. It’s the pride and disbelief of an immigrant who came here with a few pairs of jeans and a few words of English.
But there’s a wall (no pun intended). I’m running out of articles to send him and arguments to make. We’re at an impasse. Our phone calls end with my hanging up. We discuss and debate. We shift blame, we yell over each other (are we not Jews?), and there’s no end in sight. Neither of us can let it go.
So now I’m dealing with the threat of being a Jew and my reproductive freedom being in peril and of seeing Muslims under attack and with 50 percent of my parents supporting a racist president and cabinet. My Jewish dad feeling “okay” with people like Steve Bannon calling the shots and pulling the strings is like being black and joining the Klan. On top of the multiple daily “what the fucks” many of us utter staring at our news app push notifications in horror, please add to that multiple more “what the fucks” when my dad tells me that Kellyanne Conway is “doing a great job,” Trump’s first week in office was “the best week ever” or “if Trump hates Jews then why is his son-in-law Jewish?” What the fuck, indeed?
I don’t have answers. I know we need to find the purple space between red and blue. Maybe that space is made up by our familial bond — our flesh and blood.
Cutting him off is not an option. A friend (also Israeli) who recently lost his dad advised, “You can’t let this come between you and him. It’s just not worth it.” I know that. But there’s that wall again.
This essay doesn’t end in any pithy epiphany or Chicken Soup for the Soul moment. I didn’t have some heartwarming breakthrough, and he didn’t have some 2 a.m. spiritual sea change or epiphany. I don’t have a tidy way to wrap this up in a bow because it’s real life, and it’s not always pretty or that sufficiently tidy. In fact, it’s kind of a mess in here, if you couldn’t tell. In the meantime, I’ll be calling senators and representatives in Congress, giving what I can to places like the ACLU and figuring out how to love my father but not his sins.