Trying to understand, and explain, the troubling electoral choice of the man who raised me.
By David Sarna Galdi
Election day is a week away, and barring a revelation akin to Paul’s on the road to Damascus, I am fairly sure my father will be voting for Donald Trump. My educated assumption about my father’s decision, based on highly frustrating conversations that usually end with me slamming down the phone, has left me angry and confused. How could I have been raised by a man voting for a presidential candidate whose campaign was best summed up by economist Paul Krugman: “Donald Trump said some more disgusting things over the weekend.”
The success of Trump’s hijacking of the Republican Party and scorched-earth carnival of a campaign has been credited — among other things — to the appeal of his message to the “left behind” demographic: uneducated white men who feel threatened by multiculturalism and cheated by globalism.
Economics, however, doesn’t fully explain Trump’s ascent; there is a putrid sludge of racism, chauvinism, bullying, and ignorance bubbling at the core of the Trump show, and frequently erupting to its surface. He has won the support of people on the fringes of society who simply can’t stand the idea of an LGBT-friendly, multicultural America with a black man or any woman in the Oval Office. And that’s exactly what is so baffling about my father’s support for Trump; he is none of the above.
My dad is a 70-year-old Israeli who came to the United States as a teenager — so successful of a student that within a few years he was accepted to an Ivy League university and received both undergraduate and graduate degrees. His job wasn’t made obsolete by an app; he’s been retired for years. He respects women and believes in equality. He is an immigrant. He has no affinity for firearms. My dad’s not even on social media; he’s completely oblivious to Trump’s greatest tool, with which his foul messages have bypassed conventional filters of good taste and fact-checking. So how could Trump possibly appeal to him?
The answer became clear when my father forwarded me a chain email, to which he had tacked on a sentence earnestly expressing his hope that the contents would explain the “drastic changes that occurred in the past eight years.”
The email, titled “All of a Sudden, Poof, no USA.” mentioned no author. It read, “We are asleep and in need of an awakening. Before Obama there was virtually no outlandish presence of Islam in America.” It went on to complain about Islam being taught in American schools while “Christianity and the Bible are banned” and Muslim burqas and prayer rugs which are, apparently, “everywhere” (note: I, myself, have yet to see a burqa-clad woman in New York City). It lamented the “endless money for Obama’s Syrian refugee resettlement programs” while “all of the sudden there is no money for American poor, disabled veterans, jobless Americans, hungry Americans, or displaced Americans.”
The much longer contents of the email, a ridiculous litany of factual mistakes, bad grammar, revealed what was going on in my father’s head: he had been radicalized.
In a millennium that has already witnessed September 11th, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram and ISIS’ takeover of parts of Iraq and Syria, contemporary terrorism — aside from threatening people’s own personal safety — destroys all assumptions about the world’s seeming progression to a more ordered, perfect state. Whereas state-fought wars are usually distant and contained by rules, terrorism is unpredictable and local: it suddenly appears in your city or invades your smartphone in the form of gruesome snuff videos. The rise of fundamentalism, along with the collapse of the Middle Eastern political order and their ripple effects in Europe, have proven that “liberal civilization is not the emerging meaning of the modern world,” as John Gray wrote in Lapham’s Quarterly, “but a historical singularity that is inherently fragile.” The fear of fundamentalist regimes and terror is real.
Politicians like Trump have capitalized on legitimate fears and manipulated them into an awful ideological ice cream sundae of catastrophic thinking, topped with dangerous, politically expedient messages of out-of-control immigration, Arab-hatred and economic disaster. “In country after country this anxiety is challenging the liberal order,” wrote David Brooks in the New York Times. Trump’s message has succeeded, for many, to overshadow America’s recent economic and legislative successes, making the 2016 presidential election not about the issues, but rather about civilization vs. barbarism.
“Our social and cultural discourse on any number of subjects — the environment, the economy, public health, technology – is defined by a vocabulary and a worldview that can only be described as apocalyptic,” wrote Benjamin Kerstein in Azure. “The world, we are constantly told, is in a state of mortal crisis, and unless we act fast enough to stop it, we are all facing disaster and oblivion.”
Propaganda of fanatic nationalism and xenophobia, packaged in muscular yet unrealistic policy promises, by Trump and other, much more legitimate right-wing politicians around the world (Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in Holland, etc.) has found an audience with frightened voters like my father. Anti-Muslim scaremongering presents the world’s (1.6 billion) followers of Islam and even certain bathing suits worn by modesty-minded Muslim women as equivalent to death and destruction; it has scared otherwise rational voters like my father, who would normally reject a clearly unqualified charlatan like Trump, into sticking out their feet in front of the slow but sure progression of pluralistic, multicultural, egalitarian, capitalist society.
My father is no racist. “People don’t hate others just because they have darker skin or differently shaped noses,” explains Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at NYU, “they hate people whom they perceive as having values that are incompatible with their own, or who (they believe) engage in behaviors they find abhorrent, or whom they perceive to be a threat to something they hold dear.” Trump and his alt-right ilk have successfully convinced my father that he, as voter, is on the front line of defending life as we know it against some imaginary Muslim terrorist monster that is about to swallow Western civilization.
Why are my father and so many others susceptible to such an exaggerated message sprinkled with racism and hatred? The reason surely has something to do with knowledge of world affairs and intelligence. But, it’s also significant that my father and his generation of U.S. voters, the American equivalent of the older, non-urban Brits who voted pro-Brexit, simply cannot handle the new normal of terrorism, ethnic diversity, and environmental apocalypticism; they nostalgically recall a world in which the West’s enemy was clear (Russia), polar ice caps were intact, families had one father and one mother and life was led along simple, binary lines.
And so, we are witnessing the height of 21st century irony. My father, who hates no one, has been scared into casting a hateful vote. On election day, instead of making an electoral choice using his otherwise tolerant worldview and faculty of reason, he will suspend his disbelief of a vacuous, repugnant showman and cast his vote for Donald Trump.
David Sarna Galdi is a former editor at Haaretz newspaper. He works for a nonprofit organization in Tel Aviv.