Caught between bickering governments, many Russian-Americans just want mommy and daddy to stop fighting. But the decision to back Trump over Clinton is more than an attempt to appease Putin.
A few weeks ago, I made a startling discovery while at my parents’ house in Brooklyn. Having decided to make tea, I picked up a white mug I had never seen before. When I poured in the hot water, colors began to appear, and then, as if in some Harry Potter-like horror sequence, the word “Trump”, followed by the American flag, followed by the phrase “Make America Great Again” in red, white, and blue. I immediately confronted my father.
“Dad,” I said, holding the mug up as forensic evidence, “did you seriously buy a Disappearing Magic Color-Changing Trump Mug? Like, are you seriously voting for him or is this a novelty item, like your Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal collection?”
My father responded in Russian, saying yes he was voting for Trump. As a proud Russian-Jewish immigrant who had “made it” in America, he cherished his civic duty to vote. When I asked him to elaborate on why, he responded in his typical gruff-but-succinct way: “I hate Hillary. I HATE her,” he growled. “But… Trump’s an IDIOT.”
My experience tells me that most Russian-Americans do not actually love Trump — they generally regard him as an orange-coloured buffoon
It’s a prevailing opinion in New York’s Russian-American community, in which I was raised from the age of five, having been born in St Petersburg, Russia. The Russian-American population in the United States is estimated at 2.9m, making it the second-largest foreign-born ethnic demographic in the country (the first is Mexican). About a quarter of Russian-Americans reside in the state of New York, making their political beliefs not insignificant for the outcome of the election.
My experience tells me that most Russian-Americans do not actually love Trump — they generally regard him as an orange-coloured buffoon who can't control his temper. But their dislike of him is, in the end, trumped (no pun intended) by an intense hatred for Hillary Clinton.
Of course, this does not go for the entire demographic. By and large, Russian-American millennials support Hillary, for the same reason as American millennials. Well-educated, liberal, eurocentric Russian-Americans, the kind that live on the Upper West Side and throw literary salons and hobnob with Masha Gessen, are also staunchly #Imwithher.
“I think I won't dare to show my face to my friends in any country in Europe if Trump wins and I didn't go to vote to support Clinton,” Natalia Newman, an erudite Upper West Sider, said when I asked why she was voting.
But the vast majority of Russian-Americans, the ones living in the outer boroughs of Bronx and Brooklyn and Queens, they’re a different story.
The reasons that they would begrudgingly respect Trump are sort of obvious. First of all, as Olga Kazan pointed out in her article for The Atlantic, there’s a myriad of refugees that escaped the bleak reality of Soviet life and associate anything left-wing with the socialist tyranny that deprived them of food, freedom and family. These people would vote Republican regardless of the candidate because they view it as the party that embraces hard work, overcoming adversity, the treasures of capitalism and the potential to succeed no matter where you came from–all of the things that lured them to America and make them love it so much.
There’s a certain satisfaction in being able to turn around to Americans and say: “Ha! See? You’re not immune. It can happen to you too.”
Then there’s Trump’s rhetoric, which while undoubtedly boorish, can also be perceived as refreshingly brash. Russians are a blunt crowd, and they hate what my mother disdainfully refers to as “the fake American smile”. Russian-Americans often say that Hillary is “too much of politician”, meaning she looks like everything she says and does was crafted by campaign managers, like the presidential version of a Stepford Wife. In comparison, Trump appears to be a “real person”, someone who doesn’t have enough of a filter to hide what he truly thinks and feels and who’s too stupid to be cunning and manipulative. Russians always prefer the devil that you know to the one you don’t.
In regard to the homophobic, racist, and sexist comments that tumble out of him, I personally believe it’s not so much that Russian-Americans agree with his statements as it is that they take a perverse satisfaction in how horrible they are. For so long, Russians got so much shit for having a megalomaniac as a leader, as if it were a failure on the part of the country and its citizens. There’s a certain satisfaction in being able to turn around to Americans and say: “Ha! See? You’re not immune. It can happen to you too.”
The unmitigated, almost primal hatred for Hillary is harder to understand. It would be easy to blame it all on garden variety misogyny, and certainly that’s part of it, but the truth goes deeper than that. After all, the same Russian-Americans who despise Hillary Clinton absolutely adore Margaret Thatcher. They respect her for the same reasons that they respect Trump, because they perceive her as tough and bullshit-proof, and therefore trustworthy.
What gives? I asked my father once how he could respect Margaret Thatcher so much but hate Hillary Clinton, and his response said it all: “Well… Margaret Thatcher wasn’t really a woman.”
And there it is. Margaret Thatcher doesn’t count, because the way she spoke and talked and looked and walked was very “masculine.” Hillary, on the other hand, celebrates her womanhood in a way that appeals to the multifaceted nature of female identity. She’s tough and opinionated and wears pantsuits, but she’s also got a stylish blowout and waxes on endlessly about the joys of motherhood and grandmotherhood.
The Russian attitude to female strength is very complex, because Russian women are known for being strong, but in a very particular way. In Russia, men often joke that they have to do something because they are “afraid of their wives.” And with good reason, because I’ve seen some flying spatulas in my day.
Clinton’s outright abhorrence of all things Russian is a legitimate concern for many Russian-Americans, who more than anyone want mommy and daddy to please stop fighting
When I think of a Russian housewife, the image that immediately gets conjured is a woman standing in the doorway to her apartment, arms crossed in a look of silent rage, icily glaring at her husband as he drunkenly slumps up the steps, his head hanging in shame as he walks past her.
It is acceptable within Russian culture for a woman to be strong for her family, because without her the household would fall apart — the husband is not expected to hold it together. But it’s a very different story when a woman asserts herself as an individual.
During a recent press conference at a BRICS summit in Goa, Putin was asked once again whom he supports in the US election. He responded very diplomatically (communicating largely in smirks as per usual), saying that the US election wasn’t really Russia’s business, and in any case whatever the outcome it’s not clear if Trump will make good on his promise to cooperate with Russia or that Clinton will go through with her hardball approach. But, I guess if you put a gun to his head:
“Mrs Clinton has chosen to take up a very aggressive stance against our country, against Russia,” Putin said. “Mr Trump, on the other hand, calls for cooperation – at least when it comes to the international fight against terrorism.”
To give credit where credit is due, he’s not completely wrong here. Clinton’s outright abhorrence of all things Russian is a legitimate concern for many Russian-Americans, who more than anyone want mommy and daddy to please stop fighting. Trump may say he’s not best friends with Putin, but he certainly seems to play Gretchen Weiners to Putin’s Regina George, which at least paves the way for some international diplomacy.
“Russian-Americans (those who still have a soft spot for Russia even if they despise Putin) are not happy with her Russia stance, because that stinks of the Cold War all over again,” Vica Miller, a writer and communications executive who lives in Manhattan and is voting for Clinton, said. “In that regard, I myself wish she'd get off her high horse and try diplomacy before threats. She's alienating an entire country, which is not a wise step in the current global situation.”
As I watch my father yell at the television screen, alternating between Putin and Hillary, I still can’t help but wonder: “What would happen if she were a man?”
But what caught my attention is the specific word that Putin used to describe her — “aggressive”. That word really sets me off in Russian, because I’ve only heard it applied to women, and I get it all the time.
I hear it from my mother when I casually mention at a dinner party that I’m not sure I want to have kids. I hear it from my Russian boyfriends when I tell them that, actually, no, it’s not cool to leave me waiting for three hours because my time is valuable too. I hear it every time I stand up and fight for something that’s important to me. Aggresivnaya is basically Russian for “shrill harpy/bitch.”
So, as a woman vying for a position of leadership, you basically have two options. You can either submit yourself to a traditional female gender role, and therefore never really be taken seriously, or you can be tough and assertive, but in doing so relinquish your public identity as a woman. It’s a Catch-22, and Hillary falls right into it.
To be fair, there are legitimate reasons why many Russian-Americans won’t vote for Hillary. Jewish Russian-Americans who identify closely with Israel hate her because of her support of the Iran deal. Decades of government harassment has also given Russians an ingrained distrust of politicians and a persecution complex, which doesn’t jibe well with the fact that Hillary is a hotbed of conspiracy theories. Then, of course, there’s the whole email debacle, which stinks of the Soviet era and further categorizes her as a typical politician with something to hide.
But as I watch my father yell at the television screen, alternating between Putin and Hillary, I still can’t help but wonder: “What would happen if she were a man?”