“She is bad,” said a four-year old girl, pointing at the TV where a broadcast showed Hillary Clinton speaking to her supporters. “We don’t like her,” she continued and proceeded to dip her sushka, a Russian pretzel, into the tea my mother had made for her.
The little girl is my mother’s friend. She is a first-generation American, born in Chicago to a family of Russian Jewish immigrants. My parents — and I along with them — are also first-generation Americans and Russian Jewish immigrants. We came to the U.S. in 1990, leaving the then-crumbling USSR and its omnipresent anti-Semitism with hopes for a new life on American shores. That little girl’s parents and grandparents did the same thing — in fact, at least half of Sunny Isles, the town where this conversation is taking place, did the same thing. We are the embodiment of the American dream.
Sunny Isles is to Florida what Brighton Beach is to New York City. I am in this beach paradise for a month-long visit with my parents, who moved here more than ten years ago on the heels of other Russian émigrés. Within less than two square miles, the town boasts at least three Russian grocery stores, a Russian dry-cleaner, a Russian pharmacy and several Russian real estate agencies. The Russian speakers who come here aren’t only American. Some are from Russia proper and use their multi-million-dollar beachfront apartments like their ancestors would use a dacha, the quintessential Russian summerhouse. They drive Bentleys and Rolls, use Louis Vuitton bags for their beach wares and throw $5 tips to valets. For the former Soviet émigrés these Sunny Isles visitors represent today’s Russia: a country where good money can be made no matter your Jewish roots, a country where a strong leader is in power, and a country that appears to be nothing like the Soviet Union they left behind several decades ago.
My parents and their friends are almost all staunch Republicans and intend to vote for Donald Trump. The former isn’t a surprise — they’ve leaned toward the party of the 1% ever since they arrived, always associating the Democrats with the Soviet socialism they left. The latter shocks me, though. Trump’s anti-immigration stance has been front and center in his campaign, his disdain for anyone who isn’t white, male, Christian, or rich permeates everything he says and tweets, and his supporters are among the most racist right-wingers in this country.
Yet almost every Russian Jew I engage in a political conversation since my arrival seems to give him a pass. “Nah,” they say, dismissing my arguments that he is a fascist and that his crusade against immigrants, his mocking of the disabled, and his call to register all Muslims is definitely both Hitler-esque and Stalin-esque. “He is smart. When he is elected he won’t do anything stupid.”
How can people who left their homeland to escape anti-Semitism — and whose families include victims of both the Holocaust and the Gulag — not see the signs?
The recent hacking of Democratic National Committee emails points in the direction of the Kremlin and there is a strong smell of organized Russian trolls behind Trump’s online propaganda machine. The Soviet KGB and its successor have always been masters in disseminating false information against their enemies, the democratic nations of the West being among their biggest targets.
But with the American Russian émigré population, they can rely on traditional as well as social media. My parents — and their friends — often go to Russian television for information. Competing with Fox News in their living room, it streams from a black box they carry in their suitcase even when they come to visit me in Europe. They can plug it anywhere there is an internet connection and they partake in its multi-channel Putin show with the same gusto with which they once spurned its Soviet, four-channel, predecessor.
With Russian TV as his mouthpiece, Putin’s ability to brainwash his country’s former subjects, and now American voters, is as powerful as his cadre of paid factory trolls.
I, for one, cannot fathom how the same people who didn’t believe a word of Soviet propaganda and recognized it for what it was — a farce — now get their news from the Kremlin-controlled media. It’s not generational, either: A former high school friend from my Moscow days who immigrated to Milwaukee regularly infuses her Facebook feed with CAPS-lined diatribes that can only be classified as racist, pro-Trump and pro-right wing. She writes them in Russian and revels in the support of both her fellow immigrants and commenters from Russia.
When the mother of the little girl comes to pick up her daughter, she takes one look at the screen, notices that I have turned on MSNBC and scrunches her nose. “We prefer Fox,” she says.
I remember my own daughter, a feisty four-year-old during the elections of George W. Bush and John Kerry. “He lies,” my daughter then declared aloud to everyone in her pediatrician’s waiting room when she saw a picture of Bush on a magazine. She didn’t deduce it herself. She heard it from us.
Historians always tell us that history repeats itself and that the only way to prevent the mistakes of the past is to spot the signs. Yet how much chance do we have for a world without hate if the same people who ran from racism less than half a century ago choose to believe — and model it to their children — the propaganda of a country they escaped and a presidential candidate who is racist to the core?
Margarita Gokun Silver is a writer living in Madrid, Spain. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter @MGokunSilver