It’s a large beige room. With ornate chandeliers and intricate stucco walls, it seems overly elegant for the occasion. We all have water bottles and folders with an all-consuming emblem of the United States on it. Does the US government have copyright laws over who can use their seal? I wonder. There is blue and red everywhere and the eye can’t seem to avoid the phrase “Make America Great Again.” I’m in a country club meeting room, surrounded by two hundred white, old, and mostly Jewish fired up citizens of the good old United States. It’s a lecture for a group called Citizens for National Security who, based on the Trump memorabilia, are his unabashed supporters.
The leader, a man of around seventy-eight or so, starts not by introducing the speaker, but rather with a pointer to these senior citizens to share and post about the organization on their Facebook pages, because Facebook “is not just for looking at your grandkids.”
These elders are for the most part impeccably dressed. When they doze off, or maybe squint with concentration, it is in the most dignified manner possible. They sit the same way; learning back in their chairs, arms crossed, they stare ahead. No one fidgets or checks a smart phone. I’m so suspicious of these white old men in suits and yet am able to blend in with them simply by wearing patterned dress pants and pearl studs. By virtue of my apparent preppiness, I’m able to slip into an alternate identity as an undercover liberal spy of sorts.
The talk is titled “Terror and Our Country”. It is given by one of the founders of the Tea Party and a former US representative from Michigan. Some quick Wikipedia-ing reveals he’s one of the politicians who most adamantly claimed that there were WMDs in Iraq, and that in one of his election campaigns, he ran a controversial commercial showing an Asian woman to warn of the dangers of an emerging Chinese market. My grandfather snaps at me for being on my phone and I have to put Wikipedia away.
The speaker is a smooth politician and opens up with small talk about the storm in the East and how they all in Florida have the good sense to avoid it. His joke about having no need for the winter-jacket he brought warms the room with muffled giggling as only bizarre weather jokes can. When he gets into the meat of his argument, that “Gaddafi was switching sides to the US side and we shouldn’t have killed him because he was useful to us, never mind the human rights violations he continuously pursued” a cell phone starts to ring. It rings and rings through his description of radical Jihadists that are coming next for the USA and only stops ringing when he begins to relay his personal experiences traveling abroad and meeting with Gaddafi, Mubarak etc. It’s clear the owner of this phone has no idea how to control it. The crowd doesn’t seem to notice, enthralled by the speech (or maybe they can’t hear the ringing so well); they clap at a loud but polite decibel level whenever he mentions the use of American military power. They get especially rowdy at the idea of increased CIA monitoring of cell phones.
There’s a security guard at the door with a shiny gold medal. His eyes dart back and forth lazily. I can’t tell if he’s paying attention or tracking a fly. Is he here to protect us from the radical Jihadists that, according to this lecture, are all around us? Or is it his job to ensure that no one in the business of exposing hate speech comes in? Maybe, hopefully, he is standing there to ensure we don’t rise up and create a radical white extremist party of our own.
The speaker suggests that rather than Iran paying reparations to the recently released prisoners’ families, we released billions of dollars to Iran. I can’t help but thinking that that’s a rather interesting point. Then I pinch myself and feel like I can’t possibly agree with anything going on in this room. The setting is so not me; it’s not my age group, my aesthetic (I don’t go for the tan pantsuit look these women are rocking), or my values. Can there be something logical or appealing to me amidst this apparent absurdity?
There is an anti-Obama sentiment present in this room that seeps into every interaction. The fierce anger directed at the democratically elected leader of our country who they only infer is Muslim and cooperates with Arab countries, is enough to understand how presidents are assassinated. After all my own grandfather, 93 years old with fire still in him, declared at the Sabbath dinner table how he’d like to put a bullet between Obama’s eyes himself. My grandparents’ hatred is fierce and unabashedly intertwined with their humanity. Raised as immigrants, poor in the streets of bustling Lower East Side Manhattan, they both grew up in the shadow of the lives their family was losing in Europe. America is their refuge against the hatred of the outside world, hatred they experienced first hand and are terrified of watching seep into their beloved America. My grandfather reads the NY Post and other right wing tabloid magazines anxiously and believes it all.
During a break in the lecture refreshments are served outside on white porcelain plates. In line for the gooey pastries (I ate one, going against my snobby-pastry tendencies, and spent the rest of the lecture trying to get the sickly sweetness taste out of my mouth), the woman behind me declared, “I’m voting for Trump no doubt about it and he’s a real estate man just like my husband”. Unsure how to answer, having never had any conversation like this, I give her a shaky nod and a thumbs up and try to subtly back away. I don’t think I ended up being very subtle.
When I get back my grandmother asks me about a Muslim Brotherhood club at Princeton and if I can be sure there isn’t one. I respond with a joking “not that I know of” and she, I suppose logically asks me, how can I really know?
The speaker closes with a wish for a president who understands that Islam is not only a religion of peace, that there are a significant number of people who commit heinous acts in the name of Islam. He says that some of the anger people are feeling in this election is around that unacknowledged truth about Islam. He gets a rousing round of applause. I think about how if he replaced the word Islam with Judaism this audience would have him arrested. The crowd proceeds to ask articulate, on-point questions like where does the narrative of ISIS fit into all of this or how do we talk about this without offending Muslims.
At the end of the question and answering section, my grandfather gets up and says something about how a hundred years ago in the Philippines, Filipinos killed American soldiers and to retaliate we killed these Filipinos and buried them in pig skin and that stopped them. I have no idea what, if any, historical event he’s referencing. He shuffles out of the room in his wobbly walk, leaning on his cane and muttering about how these gatherings are “all talk, talk and no action.” I run after him. The zoned-out security guard looks stressed by my sudden movement. It was a dramatic exit to say the least.
Because these Trump-voters, racist, classist people are my loving, hard working and so vulnerable grandparents I can’t just dismiss them as crazies. What do I know exactly? I’m not as fully formed of a human being as them, haven’t seen or experienced the violence of the sixties/seventies Bronx that they lived through. One semester (or eight) of an Ivy League education does not give me any right to claim judgment over all political positions, even the seemingly absurd ones. After all, hate is an emotion I haven’t had to feel in my life. Very rarely have I been treated radically “wrongly.” I can count maybe on one hand the number of times I’ve been personally angry at an institution, individual or idea for its behavior towards me. In my twenty years, even with a year living in Israel, I’ve never confronted personal hatred. My grandfather, who fought in World War Two and chased off “gangsters” from his grocery store in the south Bronx, has been hated and hated others more than I ever have.
I don’t agree at all with my grandparents or the other carefully manicured Trump-lovers in that room, but perhaps I do understand and even begrudgingly respect where some of their views come from. There is genuine panic behind their questions. They are completely terrified of terrorism and, as much as my liberal East Coast self mocks them, this polished older generation knows a fear I haven’t had to face. They are not the fed-up lower or even middle-class Tea Party Trump supporters who I think of when I think Trump. These are not people who feel class rage or are frustrated with economic inequality. You better bet these voices are being represented in Congress. No, these are people who are scared and searching for a bully to beat up their bullies. They see Muslim extremists as closing in on their lives. So now they’re rallying around Trump as their knight with a bad haircut.