Political 'venom' crushes dreams of quiet retirement
LOS ANGELES — The Leisure World and Laguna Woods retirement villages envelop you in tranquility from the moment you enter their gates.
Single-story houses sit low to the ground, their facades partially hidden behind Moroccan-style screens and tropical plants.
Residents old enough to have lived through a dozen presidents get their morning exercise by hitting the links on flawless green golf courses and working up a sweat in communal gyms while chatting with friends.
Some are staunch Republicans and others are equally devoted Democrats. The factions don't agree on much. But on this they are unified: It's hard to enjoy a carefree life of leisure during a turbulent midterm election season that feels like a stress test for civil society itself.
Phil Friedman can hardly recognize the country he served when he was in the Navy in the early 1960s.
"I used to think that I knew what was going on in this country, but I don't anymore," says Friedman, a resident at Leisure World in the seaside town of Seal Beach. "The divisions are getting deeper."
He voted for fellow Republicans in statewide and congressional races this year, but not because he loves any of the conservative candidates or believes they're living up to their responsibility to engage in constructive discourse.
The 80-year-old says he's worried that progressives have grown steadily infatuated with socialism from the time he came of age in a Jewish family in New York, where everyone, himself included, voted for Democrats. Friedman fondly recalls shaking John F. Kennedy's hand when he made a presidential campaign stop in his neighborhood.
"The Democrats," he says, "just keep moving left." In response, he drifted to the right.
The partisan divide isn't the only thing that worries Friedman and other conservatives among the 9,000 residents of Leisure World. Taking a break in one of the village's gyms, where neighbors pedal on elliptical machines and two-step in a Jazzercise class, Friedman says he feels dumbfounded because history seems to be repeating itself in a more disturbing way.
Friedman was born in January 1942, four weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor pulled the U.S. into World War II. Back then, it was the U.S. fighting to free the Eastern Pacific and Europe from tyranny, antisemitism and genocide. Now democratic traditions in the U.S. are threatened. Vicious rhetoric and racist and political violence are once again on the rise.
In recent days, Kanye West, the rapper who now goes by Ye, was banished by corporate partners and social media platforms for spouting bigoted remarks and making threats toward Jews. Then a man driven by right-wing conspiracy theories broke into the San Francisco home of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and attacked her husband, Paul, with a hammer, only to spark a flurry of new, unfounded conspiracy rumors among conservatives.
Leisure World hasn't been immune from racial hostility. In March 2021, neighbors rallied around a widow who received an anonymous, anti-Asian letter taunting her after the death of her husband, who was Korean.
Friedman is so frightened for his own safety that he's begun to conceal his Jewish identity by wearing a Navy baseball cap.
"I'm not going to walk down the street with a yarmulke — people will drive by and shout things at you," he says. "And who knows when they're going to stop, jump out of the car and beat the crap out of me?"
Twenty-five miles farther south near Irvine, the seniors at Laguna Woods sense society is unraveling, too.
On the same morning the Leisure World Republican Club handed out "I voted stickers" and Trump-themed baseball caps at their parking lot kiosk, the Democratic Club at Laguna Woods hosted a postcard-writing social in which members wrote notes to place in residents' mailboxes, reminding them of the importance of voting.
These Democrats believe the nation — including their own retirement village — is at risk of being undermined by ultra-right conservatism and white nationalists.
Rebeca Gilad and Selma Bukstein, friends and fellow club members, look cheerful and flash big smiles until the subject turns to politics and the ugliness of today's political tensions.
Gilad, an international journalist who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, always found the open back-and-forth between political foes inspiring.
"It was such an innocent view of what we are and what we stand for," Gilad says.
But it's different today, she says. "It's not even about competition any longer. It's about anger and hate. It's my way or no way."
Gilad, 74, has lived in the U.S. for more than 40 years. "For the first time, ever, I'm asking, 'Did we make a good choice?'"
At Laguna Woods, a village of about 19,000 with lushly landscaped homes on gently curving streets, she's helping to organize Community Bridge Builders to bring residents together for workshops on communicating across cultural lines.
"Can you believe we have to teach how to communicate?" she says.
Two recent events that shook Laguna Woods prompted her and other residents to form the group.
One was the mass shooting in May that targeted the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, whose congregation used a sanctuary at Laguna Woods. Many of its worshippers live in the village. One was killed and five others were wounded. Federal authorities are investigating the attack as a hate crime.
The other incident, a few weeks earlier, involved a woman walking the streets of the village wearing an arm band emblazoned with a Nazi swastika. She was "all dressed in black, like an SS officer," Gilad says.
When confronted by a Jewish neighbor, the woman lashed out.
"She used a bad word for Jew," Gilad says. "And she said, 'If I knew this was going to happen, I would have brought my gun.'"
Bukstein, a retired intensive care unit nurse and longtime anti racism activist, is 96. Her eyes widen with alarm when she talks about the mean streak that runs through American society and how that vitriol has breached the gates of her otherwise serene community.
She says the nation's young people deserve to grow up with a better example than to see men and women in the U.S. treat one another like mortal enemies based on who they are and who they align with politically.
"I have to say, it has been a very tough time for me — this prejudice is horrible," Bukstein says. "I'm voting for the sake of my children and my great-grandchildren. Someone has to neutralize this venom."
Bukstein wears her politics proudly on a League of Women Voters T-shirt, which reads: "A woman's place is in the House .... and the Senate." She's unapologetic about her progressive ideals and she too tries to do her part to close the nation's divides.
In addition to welcoming neighbors into her living room for meetings of the Democratic Club, the Concerned Citizens group and Q&A sessions with Orange County politicians, she's hosted a gathering of the national organization Braver Angels, which holds trainings to help progressives and conservatives talk to one another.
But the New Jersey native struggles to name a single conservative at Laguna Woods with whom she feels comfortable enough to talk politics. She thinks that former President Trump and politicians who embrace his polarizing style have given license to Republicans to disregard both decorum and compassion.
"It wasn't always [like] that," Bukstein says of today's Republican Party. "We had wonderful people. We had Nelson Rockefeller. We had people who you'd say were almost liberal by today's standards, because they had heart."
At the Republican Club kiosk at Leisure World, a woman rings a cowbell adorned with Trump's face whenever someone buys a souvenir.
Anne Calvo and her husband Jose Calvo shade themselves under the tent. While hopeful that Republicans will take control of Congress, they too, lament the absence of "heart" in American politics. Both are immigrants, she from Great Britain and he from Cuba. They met while working with the homeless at a mission on skid row in Los Angeles.
Anne, 68, says that when she took the oath of citizenship after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she was suddenly filled with the awareness of why so many who migrated to the U.S. saw it as a safe haven where freedom and democracy reigned.
This country is so much more than a land mass, she realized. It is an idea, and ideas, like earth, can erode over time if not protected and nurtured.
When Jose Calvo, 84, rises from his chair to pose for a photo with his wife, he is overcome with emotion at the thought of the sacrifice he made just to stand on this nation's soil.
He had been a resistance fighter against Fidel Castro's communist regime and of the five men in his squadron, he was the only one to survive retaliatory attacks.
Jose points to his right leg. He says a depression in the skin marks the spot where he took a bullet during the insurgency.
He pauses to wipe away tears as his wife comforts him.
Dressed in a ball cap that reads, "Jesus vive en mi" — Jesus lives in me — he thanks God for seeing him through his own bout with homelessness and for bringing him to his adoptive country. He prays that voters will choose candidates who cherish democracy and equal opportunity as much as he does.
Jose considers this nation's values so glorious that when he escaped to the U.S. after the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, "I got on my knees and kissed the ground."
Now he and the other grandmothers, grandfathers, great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers of these two enclaves — progressives and conservatives alike — only see a nation scarred by scorched-earth.