In largely blue New York City, two voting blocs turned out heavily for Donald Trump in 2016’s presidential election: culturally conservative Jews and Russians. Trump won 84 percent of the total Russian vote in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn; swept the Hasidic neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Borough Park and Crown Heights, and the Orthodox neighborhoods of Midwood and Mill Basin; and took more than half of the votes in the Russian areas in Rego Park and Forest Hills, Queens.
Soviet immigrants tend to favor the Republican party in national elections, balking at the “big government” elements of the Democratic platform that resemble socialism—welfare, immigration, access to healthcare and education. Love of Trump, as a paragon of free-market capitalism, makes sense.
But how is that reconciled with those same immigrants’ distaste for Russian President Vladimir Putin, especially amid news reports of his close relationship with Trump and members of Trump’s administration—not to mention the reported Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election?
Searching for Sources: a Former Elected Official, Facebook, “Mr. X” and the FSB?
When I set out to speak with Russian Jewish supporters of President Donald Trump about Trump’s relationship with Putin and Russian meddling in the election, I went out to Brighton Beach, or “Little Odessa” as it is sometimes called. I went to a bustling grocery store and a local park speckled with posses of elderly friends, but was met with wariness and suspicion, even after I said I was writing for a Jewish publication. A grocery-store employee who didn’t want to speak while on the job told me “everybody” in the community supported Trump. However, the only person who would speak with me was an elderly man who wanted to be identified as “Mr. X” and informed me that “there’s no relationship” between Trump and Putin.
I took to Facebook next, putting out a call for contacts. Someone I didn’t know commented, “Why is this a thing? Does no one care that Russian immigrant community is actually pretty diverse and that many don’t support Trump and that Brighton beach does not represent Russian community as a whole?”
This was fair criticism, and my reporting bore out the notion that the community is not a monolith. Even among Russian Jewish Trump supporters, rationales and opinions varied. Defenses of Trump generally had more to do with Trump voters’ general concerns about immigration, distaste for “political correctness” and the Democratic party, and mistrust of the media than with the supporters’ ethnic identities as Russian Jews.
“Under Obama, I felt like I’m supposed to care more about people that I have no business to care about,” registered nurse Alex Trofimov, 44, of Midwood, Brooklyn, told me. “My taxes are going somewhere that I’m not really feeling like they have to be going. And for some reason, instead of caring about me, my family, my immediate friends or my immediate circle, I have to be thoughtful about people thousands of miles away.”
I found Trofimov—or rather, Trofimov found me—after a high school classmate who immigrated to the United States from Ukraine as a child posted my request in some closed Facebook groups for Russian Jewish Trump supporters. The requests were deleted within minutes, but not before multiple comments were left.
“Tell your reporter not to look for a fake news, but report the Truth about was is in reality going on with the country,” one commenter suggested.
Another asked why I didn’t engage with the group myself, joking, “No one here works for FSB [Russia’s principal security agency] lol but the reporter welcome to come and talk to us to gauge our opinion” and “If she is so reputable, she needs not talk to us. we are all crazy russian jews lol.” In a jab at my former classmate, the same commenter added, “i do not believe someone from Ukraine representing ‘some reporter’ has an impartial view of Russia! or Trump as a matter of fact! if you came here to dug up some dirt on Trump and Putin, you are at a wrong address!”
“Wrong group honey!” another wrote.
And yet another commented, “They are all in hiding with Trump regrets, or should be.”
But they’re not—at least not the ones I spoke with, including Trofimov.
Trofimov had commented, “Nah…If this reporter is as Liberal as you are, it’ll be a very short conversation.” He then added, “Everyone knows each other’s views and preferences. It’s just I don’t believe a Liberal reporter will wright an unbiased article, therefore it’ll be a waste of everyones time.”
But he emailed me nonetheless. He was friendly and helpful. When I got him on the phone and asked what he liked about Trump, he replied, in lightly accented English, “Nothing in particular.”
Trofimov came to the United States in the 1990s from Odessa, Ukraine (then the Soviet Union) at age 22. Like the others I spoke with who came here as refugees or the children of refugees, Trofimov believes there’s a stark difference between himself as a refugee and those whom Trump wants to ban today.
“Nobody helped me when I came to this country,” he insisted. “The reason most of us came to this country is just to prove yourself and make something out of yourself. That’s what America is all about. America is all about individuality.”
“We Are Not Those Nutjobs Who Just Want to Come Here and Live off Welfare”
Yuriy Khasidov, 28, is a Bukharian Jew who works in the Diamond District and lives in Forest Hills, Queens. The New York City blog Gothamist wrote about him previously when he sparred with anti-Trump New Yorkers at a pro-diversity rally in Queens.
His parents legally immigrated here from Tajikistan in the ’90s, and he claims to have volunteered with Trump’s campaign and to have met the man himself. He is fiercely pro–free-market capitalism, anti-regulation and anti-immigration, referring frequently to “illegal aliens” who are both stealing jobs and attempting to live off welfare.
“We came from a Communist country. Today, we are very close to that. Too much socialism,” he said when we met one evening in a Forest Hills Starbucks. He arrived wearing track pants and a gray tank top, and explained his love of Trump to me over an iced latte, making sweeping statements about other ethnic communities in Russian-accented English.
Khasidov sees no disconnect between his family’s background as refugees and his desire for stricter immigration policies. He fervently believes coming to America is the best thing that ever happened to him, but responded with incredulity when asked if that isn’t what today’s refugees feel as well.
“No, they don’t,” he protested indignantly. “They come for the free stuff. We are not those nutjobs who just want to come here and live off welfare. We don’t rip the government off. My parents pay taxes. We don’t do what 90 percent of the immigrants do that come from certain places, especially the ones that come from those Muslim countries.”
Khasidov also seemed to push back on the idea that Trump is using his new presidential power to enrich himself and those around him. He ardently maintained the commonly held opinion on the right that Hillary Clinton is corrupt.
“Trump has $10 billion,” Khasidov scoffed. “I don’t think he’s here to make money. If Clinton was so corrupt and was able to then acquire $300 million, I think Trump would say, ‘Yeah, I don’t need the corruption. I don’t need the $300 million. I’d rather just do it the legit way.’ I don’t believe Trump has any intentions of making money.”
Mistrust of Muslims and the “Whole Crimea Thing”
Julia Gorin—a writer and former conservative stand-up comic who lived in New York for 14 years before moving to Las Vegas in 2005—doesn’t understand why Americans are viewing Russia as an enemy. She singled out “Muslims” in general as a more rational enemy.
“When Obama was about to be president, everybody was happy and hopeful because he had experience and ties with the Muslim world. He could be like a bridge. This could lead to greater understanding and peace,” she said. “And Muslims actually were and are killing Americans…when a Russian hasn’t killed an American in 30 years.”
She added, “When you’re in the middle of jihad and people are actively plotting your death every day, I don’t think it’s wise to look for an enemy you don’t have to have.”
Both Khasidov and Gorin see Trump’s relationship with Putin as a positive thing, even going as far as to say it will prevent a third world war.
Khasidov’s take on Putin is that he’s “corrupt as hell, but that’s where his negativity ends. If you hate everyone who’s corrupt, you might as well hate all of Russia. Yeah, he’s corrupt. But he is fighting for his own national interests. You gotta respect any leader who fights for his national interests; that’s exactly what their job is.”
Gorin’s family came to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1976 as “refuseniks” (a term used for people in the Soviet Union who were refused permission to emigrate, particularly Jews attempting to immigrate to Israel). She believes that “on the international front,” Putin is “a lot less destructive than Washington has been,” though she wouldn’t want to live under his regime.
“It’s one thing to talk about, would we want to live under a system like Russia has? No, we would not like that,” she said. But she was quick to add that you could “find a country detestable without it being dangerous to you.”
As far as Gorin is concerned, in the decades since the Cold War, Russia has been the victim and the United States the bully.
“Russia’s been looking to cooperate with us since we won the Cold War,” she insisted. “They’ve basically done everything we’ve told them to do while we’ve reneged on one agreement after another. We’re being sore winners.”
Gorin believes there are “a lot of Americans” who have more respect for Putin than for the U.S. government because Putin “works in the interest of his country.” But Gorin says these Americans “sort of whisper” about this, “because it’s almost like the McCarthy era—they’re going to be accused of disloyalty.”
“I’m surprised Russia and Putin have been as restrained as they’ve been with all the havoc we’ve been cooking up,” she said, referencing “the whole Crimea thing,” the expansion of NATO and U.S. intervention in Kosovo.
“Not only were we creeping toward him with NATO; we outright got the whole world to freaking bomb their neighbor,” she said. “What interest did we have in severing Kosovo from Serbia and gifting it to the Albanian nationals?”
She allowed that “he might have killed political enemies,” speaking of Putin. “There might be an itemized list of people who have died by his hand. But if you look at the death that Washington has caused….If they get us into a nuclear war with Russia, they are much more deadly, these Washingtonians, than Putin.”
A Former Elected Official’s Perspective
David Storobin, 38, is a former Republican state senator who represented Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn.
He admits he has his issues with Trump, but still favors him, mainly for his combative outspokenness at a time when Storobin sees worrying efforts “to suppress people’s minds, not just speech.”
“He’s willing to stick a finger in the eye of people who are trying to do a 1984-style rebranding of the English language,” Storobin said, referring to the George Orwell classic. “Somebody needs to say something that’s politically incorrect just for the sake of being politically incorrect.”
Storobin fears people who tout “political correctness” and “safe spaces,” and is frustrated by the sense that “most journalists” see those concerns and ask, “What about the real issues?”
“No Republican speakers [are] allowed to speak on campus [at colleges] anymore,” he said. “That is a real issue—the fact that freedom of speech is being taken away.”
Storobin was born in the Soviet Union and came to the United States legally in 1991 at the age of 12. He’s admittedly “not the biggest fan” of Putin, but sees “a lot of what is being brought up” as a new form of McCarthyism, referencing the “Red Scare” period in U.S. history when Sen. Joseph McCarthy accused many of treason and espionage with thin, if any, evidence.
Moreover, like Khasidov, Storobin believes that Trump’s wealth makes him impervious to corruption.
“When they’re talking about him being an asset of Putin, an asset does it for the money. How much does Trump, who is a billionaire, need to be paid to be an asset?” Storobin asked.
The reports of Russian meddling were, in Storobin’s eyes, a “way for Democrats to blame someone else for the fact that Hillary Clinton was an incompetent candidate.”
He went on to say that Trump “really had no business being within 10 points of Hillary. And the fact that she lost should be a point for the left to reflect on itself, but instead they come up with this Russia idiocy. It’s really just idiotic.”
Khasidov had no problem with the hacking because he thinks the Democratic party is corrupt, while Trofimov both didn’t think it was effective and thought it was justified.
“Whatever they did, I don’t think it’s really benefited anybody,” Trofimov said. “And if they wanted to help him, the WikiLeaks stuff….They’ve just exposed the corruption and all of the negativity that was going on. So, you know, enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Gorin, too, maintained that even if the election meddling did happen, “I really can’t be angry with Russia for saving us from Hillary Clinton.” She characterized the election as a choice between two people where “one wanted more beheaders in the country; one wanted fewer beheaders.”
Even after seemingly daily new revelations, from the suspiciously timed firing of FBI Director James Comey to the reports that Trump shared classified intelligence with Russians visiting the Oval Office, the Trump supporters I spoke with were undeterred—and in some ways even more devoted to the man and angry with the media.
New Allegations and Reactions
When I checked back in with Trofimov after the Comey and classified-intelligence news broke, he maintained that the Comey firing was “poor timing but a right decision,” and said the news reports on the intelligence leak he read lacked “proof.”
“It was a meeting between, like, four people. How does anyone know what’s been said?” he asked.
He also expressed doubt because the story was broken by “The Washington Post,” which is owned by Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, an “ultra, ultra liberal person.”
“Especially if you don’t have to reveal your sources, how do we know whether it’s true or not? ‘The Washington Post’ is just keeping everything secret and it doesn’t sound credible anymore,” Trofimov said. “I lost my trust in news sources, whether it’s on the left or right. The stupidity on Fox News is the same that’s going on on CNN.”
For his part, Storobin simply doesn’t believe Trump leaked any intelligence.
“From what I understand, both people who were in the room denied that it happened,” he said. “I don’t know why we’re bringing this up besides the fact that the media is trying to attack over everything.”
He pointed to a CNN story on Trump’s ice-cream–eating habits as an example of how the media have “really been an unbelievable embarrassment.”
Gorin, too, believes that the recent reports were “more of the usual nonstop exaggeration and drama,” and defended Trump’s telling Russian officials confidential intelligence “given that Russia is basically the one doing battle with ISIS while we’re just talking about it.”
She added, “If he had heard vaguely some plot that ISIS was hatching, I could understand where he would just sort of off the cuff mention it. He didn’t do anything illegal; he just didn’t do it with the usual protocols of sharing.”
And she defended Comey’s ouster on the grounds that he was “just, like, too public a guy.”
“He would just go to the media,” she said. “The leaks were coming from people in the FBI. To me, he looked like he was going to be a problem for this president.”
As a reporter, I found this distaste for the media and acceptance that leaks must be quashed to be jarring. I had the sense of being at an impasse, of asking questions carefully and then wondering if I should have pushed harder. It was clear my subjects and I were consuming markedly different news.
I had nothing to say in response to being told that Secretary Clinton was under “10 different investigations,” other than to point out that Trump was also being investigated. But Trump’s investigations were unfair, my subjects told me. They were fueled by the media, by an establishment who loathed the maverick that was Donald Trump.
The only common theme among the people I spoke with was hatred for Hillary Clinton and the conviction that they had suffered through eight years of President Barack Obama to finally get their turn, only to be thwarted and mocked by soft, elitist media eager to obsess over nothing.
My attempts to understand the hatred for Clinton were met with incredulity. How could I not recognize her corruption, her hawkishness, her warmongering? How could I not see that she was inextricably tied to the sins of her husband? How did I not know how many people the Clintons had outright murdered?
At the Starbucks with Khasidov, I balked at one of his accusations against the former secretary of state.
“After what her husband did? To go get a—sorry for my [language]—a blowjob in the Oval Office from a 22-year-old? I think is disgusting.”
“But that was her husband,” I replied. “That wasn’t her.”
“And guess what she did?!” Khasidov retorted. “She destroyed those women’s lives.”