Boca Raton, Fla. — It’s the love — or hate — that dare not speak its name, at least not in mixed company.
The name, of course, is Donald Trump. And here in the Jewish heart of Palm Beach County, about a half-hour south of the Winter White House in Mar-a-Lago, along Florida’s Gold Coast, the president’s name is met with, well, a turn of the head to survey the dining room of a country club to determine whether anyone is within earshot.
Talk of politics is so toxic here in this purple state — Barack Obama carried it in 2008 and 2012, but Trump won it in 2016 by 1.2 percentage points — that several of those interviewed in heavily Democratic Palm Beach County spoke on condition that they be interviewed privately rather than with their friends listening.
They said they feared an open political discussion would spark angry confrontations and that they did not want to lose friends over it. As a result, those quoted took turns coming to a separate table for the interview, which was held in a dining room where members gather each morning to chat over bagels and coffee.
In fact, most said they have not discussed politics with friends or family since Trump’s election.
One year into Trump’s presidency, interviews with a dozen Palm Beach County retirees reveal that little has changed for Jewish Trump and Hillary Clinton voters here. (Palm Beach County went for Clinton 374,000 to 272,000.) If anything, they are even more certain they made the right choice. And the interviews are a window into the divisions about Trump and his administration’s policies that exist throughout the country.
“I’m horrified,” Gail Schachter, 66, a retired lawyer from Boca Raton, said of Trump’s presidency. “Everything he does is tearing at the fabric of our democracy. He stands up for abusers and autocrats — in Hungary the right-wing supports Trump. He is anti-everything I ever stood for.”
Schachter seemed to be channeling the views of the 70 percent of Jews who voted for Clinton in 2016 (24 percent of Jews, many of them Orthodox, voted for Trump).
She also criticized Trump for his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, saying: “It was a bad move because we have now lost our leverage in any future [Israeli-Palestinian] peace negotiations.”
But Roger Steinhardt, 79, a real estate broker from Boca Raton, said he voted for Trump and would “absolutely” do so again.
“He has more than lived up to my expectations of him,” he said. “I knew he wasn’t a politician, and what he said in an interview 35 years ago he still believes. As president he is pursuing what he said was important.”
Asked if he supports Trump’s insistence on building a wall to keep out Mexican drug smugglers and illegal immigrants, Steinhardt replied: “It seems to work in Israel, and the Chinese built a wall. …
Steinhardt added that he welcomed Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his plans to move the American embassy there from Tel Aviv.
“Every [recent] American administration said it would do that and he did it — he implemented what Congress voted to do years ago.”
But Marilyn Fienberg, 71, a real estate agent from Delray, said that although she voted for Trump she would wait to see who the Democratic nominee will be in 2020 before deciding whether to support Trump again.
“I don’t like career politicians and will vote for anybody who is not a politician,” she explained.
Although saying she applauded Trump’s Jerusalem decision, Fienberg said she doesn’t like his tweeting because “it’s not presidential.”
“He doesn’t seem to get along with presidents and prime ministers of other countries, but I don’t care,” Fienberg said. “Unemployment among the black population is at an all-time low, and that’s wonderful,” she observed, adding that “illegal immigration is at an all-time low.”
Claire Best, 84, of Boca Raton and a retired buyer of high-tech equipment for the military, agreed that Trump “could behave differently, but he behaves like a businessman rather than a politician. Businessmen are more direct and with politicians you never know where they stand. I voted for Trump and would do so again. I’m very excited about everything he does.”
Donald Friedman, a 71-year-old retired entrepreneur from Boca Raton, minced no words in describing his dislike of Trump.
“He’s an embarrassment to the country. He’s a liar and a narcissist who is just interested in self-aggrandizement and enriching himself and his family.”
Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital only “creates hostility — I don’t see any good coming out of it. But as a Jew, I like it.”
Asked about the Trump administration’s singular legislative achievement, the overhaul of the tax system, Friedman scoffed: “It’s just for real estate people. I’m in the top 10 percent [of wealthiest Americans], and it is really not helping me or poor people. The property tax exemption has been reduced to a maximum of $10,000, and you can no longer itemize [expenses]. My tax bracket has been reduced from 28 to 24 percent, but with what I lost in exemptions, I’m coming out close to even.”
Michele Berman, 66, a retired New York City administrator from Boca Raton, said she hopes Secretary of State Rex Tillerson adds a visit to Israel to his Middle East itinerary to demonstrate America’s commitment to Israel as it takes military action to keep Iran and its proxies from setting up bases near the Syrian-Israeli border. Israel shot down an Iranian drone that flew into Israeli airspace last weekend, and Syrian anti-aircraft batteries shot down an Israeli F-16 jet fighter as Israeli jets reportedly destroyed the drone launch site and nearly half of Syria’s air defenses.
A State Department official said Monday that last Saturday’s military escalation between Israel and Syria was high on Tillerson’s agenda, but that he had no plans to add a stop in Israel.
“The U.S. should work with Russia to make sure Iran does not gain a greater sphere of influence in the Middle East,” Berman said. “President Trump has always wanted to work with Russia on common goals.” Iran and Russia are allies in Syria’s attempt to beat back the Islamic State’s attempts to destroy Syria.
Not all Trump supporters are happy with everything the Trump administration has done.
“I’m a Puerto Rican Jew and the hurricane [Maria] devastated Puerto Rico,” said Judith Kent, 72, a retired medical administrator from Boca Raton. “The fact that 20 to 25 percent of the island still has no power months later is disappointing — but it’s not his fault entirely. I feel FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] is responsible and he should shake them up and say those people need to get their lives back. I had my niece and her husband and their 6-month-old baby staying with me for three months after the hurricane until they could find jobs here and be able to afford to move out.”
Asked about Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Kent said, “I love it. Finally, a man with b***. It’s long overdue.”
Kent said that although the tax overhaul will have little impact on her, “I’m hoping the trickle-down effect is going to help people who need it. An extra $50 in your paycheck each week helps.”
She added that she is pleased Trump is moving to phase-out the DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] program.
“The law is the law and you cannot come into this country illegally — I don’t care what your excuse is,” Kent said. “Do it the right way. There is no in between. We don’t need to pay for their medical bills, housing and food. … I have no compassion for them.”
Ilene Brause, 72, a retired office manager from Delray, said she did not vote for Trump and would not if he ran for re-election. She said that she believes the administration should not cut taxes but raise them to have the money to “fix things like our infrastructure and medical care. The tax plan will ultimately benefit only the top 10 percent.”
Brause said she is also upset that Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord and believes that his harsh criticism of North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, for seeking to develop nuclear weapons with which to attack the U.S. is “only baiting him. … The fact he [Trump] is considering striking first is even more ridiculous.” She and other Trump critics were very critical of Trump’s comments following the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., last August in which he blamed both sides for the violence and said there were “some very fine people” among the neo-Nazi white nationalist marchers. “I don’t respect him as a person,” Brause said. “And the comments he made on the Access Hollywood tape were disgusting. I think he is guilty of propositioning women and touching them inappropriately; now he is trying to make light of it.”