Dispatches from Abroad: Reflections on the 2016 Election (I)—An Elegy for my Home

I’ve been traveling and working outside of the US since the beginning of August, and watched the evolution, media/twitter/blog coverage, and eventual vote count of the US presidential election unfold from abroad—passing through degrees of disbelief, astonishment, and horror—but also seeing it with the perspectives of physical distance and those gained through the eyes of citizens of other countries. During the two weeks leading up to the election, I was simultaneously engrossed in developing new mathematical statistics and depressed by what I could clearly see, from an overseas vantage point, was going to go down on November 8. And although I voted in Massachusetts (the first person on the first day of early voting in my small rural town—which, contra the Commonwealth overall, went for Trump by a small margin ) while I was in transit between Tokyo and Valparaiso, I suffered no illusion that my vote for Hillary would make a difference, either statewide (Massachusetts is, of course, the bluest of the blue states, notable for being the only state to vote for McGovern against Nixon in 1972) or nationally (the writing was on the wall for anyone who could read it).

As I expect many travelers and ex-pats also did, I stayed up all of election night watching the returns, until the election was called for Trump at close to 2am Valparaiso time. The next day, I watched the sunrise over the docks of Valparaiso harbor, did my daily 45-minute walk up (northeast) the esplanade, past the omnipresent graffiti, murals, stray dogs, seagulls, sea lions, and pelicans, paused to dip my feet in the icy-cold Pacific Ocean, climbed up the daily 108 stairs to the mathematics quad, and then walked up the last three flights of stairs to my temporary office at the Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María (USM), where I skyped my fiancée and had a good cry – for my country, for my family and loved ones, for myself, and for the future.

I spent a lot of that day talking about the election with Flossie and with my three friends—Ronny Vallejos, a statistician at USM, and Hannah Buckley and Brad Case, ecologists from Lincoln University in New Zealand—with whom I was working at USM for the two weeks I was there. And I thought it would be worth setting down here the common themes and ideas that emerged in those conversations, filtered through another few days of reading, thinking, walking, and flying.

These reflections come in two parts. This one, entitled “An Elegy for my Home”, and the next one, entitled “The Politics of Identity and the Destructiveness of Identity Politics”. I emphasize that these are personal reflections and opinions set down as stream-of-consciousness with little editing. The writing is rough and the ideas incomplete. But I needed to start somewhere, as the run-up to the election, the election itself, and the few days aftermath have made it hard to focus coherently. I welcome constructive engagement, discussion, and dialogue about them; please post comments here, on Twitter, or send me email.

 An Elegy for my Home

The election of 2016 marks a turning point in the history of the United States. No longer are we John Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill” or George H. W. Bush’s “Thousand Points of Light.” Any remaining shred of American Exceptionalism was blown away last Tuesday night when Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. It does not matter that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a few hundred thousand votes. Nor does the geography really matter, although the spread of red is emphatic and Trump won 33 states to Clinton’s 17. What matters most, at least to me, is that nearly half the eligible voters didn’t vote. Some of that can certainly be attributed to intimidation and deliberate disenfranchisement, but the vast majority likely hold to a basic belief that our political system, our career politicians, and our leaders, do not have the best interests of our country at heart. Rather—and to me this is the crux of the matter—the system and its representatives have their own interests at heart. And in that, they are, unfortunately, representative of the majority of Americans. And Trump is the personification of this majority.

Why do I say that Trump personifies the majority of Americans?

For as long as I can remember, and in my life-long travels around the world, I have been continually astonished at how many people in other countries have wanted to come to the United States. Our cities are filthy, our infrastructure is falling apart, we have no mass transit, no social safety net, and no national health insurance, we have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, we have incredible inequality in wealth, and we are a nation of bigots. Why would anyone in their right mind want to leave their home countries for America? The answer is always “opportunity” and “a better life”, yet it’s always been clear that for everyone who succeeds in America, thousands fail, tens of thousands are imprisoned, innumerables are deported. So why do we stay? And why do others keep coming?

In light of this election, I think I’m finally beginning to understand. The illusion of America is that if an individual just looks for opportunities, works hard, fights hard, and holds on, that he (and yes, it’s almost always “he” in the Hollywood illusion) will end up happy, fat, and rich. The emphasis is on the individual at the expense of the society. If I work hard, I will be rich. If I push aside my neighbor, I will have more. And if I am successful, it doesn’t matter what’s happening in the rest of the town or city or country. Because I have won. The siren song of America is directed at me. And Donald Trump is the quintessence of me.

The irony, of course, is that Trump falsely portrayed himself as being for the country, while the country rejected Clinton and the Democratic Party (may it rest in peace) for being selfishly for the rich and well-heeled. But the country (and Trump) were, at least in part, correct about their opposition. Since the early 1990s, the Democratic Party, including Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the occasional democratic majority in the Senate have systematically dismantled the social safety net (for example, “ending welfare as we know it”); enriched the banks and the captains of industry, technology, and health-care; and dragged their heels on environmental protection. At the same time, we have used our illusory exceptionalism to spread this “neo-liberal” political and economic paradigm abroad; enforced economic austerity on countries that could ill-afford it; played the world’s policeman in regional conflicts not because of political ideals but to ensure a continuing supply of oil or to show up the Russians; and failed to act as an honest broker in peace talks and trade negotiations around the globe.

Which is not to say that Trump will do any better. No, he and his team will be far, far worse, both at home and abroad. But what Trump’s election has shown the rest of the world is that we really are a bunch of selfish individuals and that the empire really has no clothes. The US is just another nation of bigots, just another tin-pot dictatorship, just another failed state, and in fact, just another country like any other, with no exceptional status, no reason to be the go-to country for leadership, and should have no final say on international negotiations or appointments. Like empires before ours—who really remembers the Portuguese, Spanish, or British empires—we rose, and now we have fallen. Maybe it just feels worse because we’re living through it instead of viewing it through history’s glasses.

While I mourn this loss and fall, I also see an opportunity for those of us (perhaps 25% of the US population) who reject the centrality of me-ness. Sweeping aside the ashes of the Democratic Party, we have a chance to start anew, building communities and a country based on shared values, of people caring for each other and of people living and working together in ways that benefit the entire community, and which don’t privilege selfishness. Such a society, such a country, would not build empires, but would listen to and learn from others—individuals, towns, cities, states, countries—who have trod this ground before. Such a society would not be driven by visions of endless growth or ever-expanding GDP, but would be judged instead by its quality of life and its environment; how it makes decisions based on honesty and demonstrable facts rather than lies, innuendos, and demonstrably false beliefs; how well it cares for the poorest and the most vulnerable; and how it does not fracture but rather gains strength from diversity and difference. But above all, such a society must be peaceful. We cannot adopt the verbally and physically violent tactics of Trump and the “alt-right”. We must not arm ourselves against our neighbors nor lash out against those with whom we disagree, no matter how strongly.

In his book Civilization and Beyond: Learning form History (Library of Alexandria, 1975), Scott Nearing wrote:

It is our opportunity, our destiny, and our responsibility to keep on living, constructing, creating. We must live, not die. We must not stop. We must go on.

Nearing’s emphasis on we marks the first and most important point of departure from the neo-liberal agenda and focus on I that has dominated our politics and our lives for the last quarter-century, as well as from the agenda of Trump and the alt-right. The future is about all of us, together, not about me.

12 November 2016

3 thoughts on “Dispatches from Abroad: Reflections on the 2016 Election (I)—An Elegy for my Home

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