A little over a week after the victory of Donald J. Trump, two British siblings, both long-term U.S. residents ― one in New York, one in Louisville, Ky. ― reflect on the American election, the echoes of Brexit and the country going forward.
Paul, 40, is an editor for the Huffington Post and has lived in Manhattan for nearly four years. His sister Katherine, 36, is a systems analyst at the University of Louisville. She has been in the U.S. for 10 years. Before moving to Kentucky, she lived in Indiana.
NEW YORK ― Red seeped across the Florida map on the screen above my desk. A colleague muttered, “Broward County, you bastard. Come on.”
“They’re still counting,” offered another in vain hope.
By 9:30 p.m., the noise in the office had been cowered into silence. Having said for months the U.S. election was “nothing like Brexit,” and assured friends that presidential polls are “historically very accurate,” this was exactly like Brexit.
I watched Trump’s victory speech at home in the early hours. I looked for a quote or quip that accurately summed up this disastrous moment in the history of the republic. Days later I read Antonio Gramsci’s line: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.” But at the time all I could think was, “fuck.”
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. ― I watched both the EU referendum results and the presidential election results with my husband. Both times we disagreed and both times he correctly predicted the outcome. As my Facebook feed swelled with liberal friends’ heartfelt reflections on what it meant to them to vote for the first woman president, I watched CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer visibly deflate as the voice of the people went further and further off script. Just like Brexit, this wasn’t supposed to happen.
Why did Americans vote for Donald Trump?
Paul: Only about a quarter of Americans did; slightly less than voted for Clinton. Almost half didn’t vote at all. The microanalysis of Trump’s win has barely started, but the broad strokes include the 2008 economic crash and subsequent bailout undercutting trust in government along with the changing demographics highlighted by the election of the first black president and rapid cultural shifts, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage. This left white Christian America fearful and bent on redress. So it responded to Trump and his siren of white nationalism. His election was also a rebuke to congressional Republicans who have deliberately hobbled government for the past eight years. Trump spoke directly to voters who felt abandoned by the system and forsaken by both parties. It’s a horrible irony that the congressional GOP is now being rewarded for its awful approach to governance.
“'Trump spoke directly to voters who felt abandoned by the system and forsaken by both parties.'”
Katherine: Economics and the desire to extend a middle finger to the establishment. Trump’s promises to “Make America Great Again” and “drain the swamp” appealed directly to rural communities decimated by the outsourcing of heavy industry and manufacturing jobs. It’s an alluring message for Rust Belt towns facing extinction as the coal mines or factories that support them close down, and it carries more weight because it comes from a businessman not a career politician. That said, there’s hardly any variation in the number of votes for the Republican candidate in the last three presidential elections; McCain, Romney and now Trump all hovered around 60 million votes. Democrat votes, however, have tanked ― almost 10 million more people showed up for Obama in 2008 than voted for Clinton in 2016. So the real question is not, “why did America vote for Trump?”, but “why did America not vote for Clinton?”
So why did Hillary Clinton lose?
Paul: Technically, because fewer Democrats turned out than in the previous two elections. As for why, it’s tempting to say because she’s a woman and paint America as patriarchal. There might be some of that, but probably more voters were put off by the whiff of corruption ― the James Comey debacle, the two-facedness that came out in the Podesta emails, being given a debate question beforehand and so on. Clinton had become emblematic of the government institutions that many Americans now mistrust. She was in hindsight the wrong candidate for the 2016 cycle. Voters wanted someone different. I should note the GOP has been demonizing the Clintons for decades; their name unites Republicans like nothing else. But what did she stand for? Besides being the first woman president? Is she of the left? How does she represent the working class? How does the modern Democratic Party represent the working class? Like the British Labour Party under Tony Blair, the Democrats seem to have disconnected from the people they’re supposed to champion. Bernie Sanders supporters would likely agree.
“'Rejection of Clinton was in large part a rejection of an elite ruling class that appears shrouded in corruption and no longer speaks for a significant portion of rural America.'”
Katherine: Rejection of Clinton was in large part a rejection of an elite ruling class that appears shrouded in corruption and no longer speaks for a significant portion of rural America. Trump’s shambolic stream-of-consciousness speeches were not a deterrent to people who interpreted Hillary’s polished performances as just that ― a performance, and something that could not be trusted. Trump supporters often praise him for “telling it like it is.” His lack of refinement makes him relatable to a portion of the electorate who get a little thrill from a loose cannon and will forgive any number of abhorrent statements as harmless bluster so long as the prejudice invoked is directed at groups to which they are only tangentially related. Both candidates had serious issues ― a vote for Trump required the forgiveness of bigotry and a vote for Clinton required the forgiveness of corruption.
How deeply divided is America?
Paul: Hugely ― and it’s not going to get better any time soon. Americans are already seeing the divisions of the campaign continue post-election. Now we have protesters on the streets in several major cities, including New York, demonstrating against Trump’s win. Racial problems were already simmering before the country elected a man who ran an openly bigoted campaign. So, of course, there is now an outcry, and it will continue. Minority rights will be fiercely defended, as will those of women, the LGBTQ community and anyone oppressed. If you think gay marriage legislation won’t be attacked, look at the record of Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Likewise the right to choose. Americans who believe in pluralism, multiculturalism and equal rights will not just let the new administration roll the country back to the 1950s. Also, if Americans think the white working class is angry now, wait till they realize they’ve been duped by Trump.
“'The only thing uniting this country is the flag.'”
Katherine: The only thing uniting this country is the flag. As a Brit, it’s easy to mock a caricature brash American chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” at every opportunity, but the public performance of patriotism is essential to holding all these disparate groups together across a landmass that is 40 times the size of the U.K.. Unless you’ve been on a road trip here, it can be difficult for Europeans to grasp the sheer size of the place. You could drive the length of Britain just to get from one American city to another. Utah is nothing like California which is nothing like New York which is nothing like Kentucky.
What are your concerns about President Trump?
Paul: As I European, I worry that Trump’s win will give succor to the nationalistic forces already reshaping British politics post-Brexit. The British Conservative Party is no longer the liberal center-right party of David Cameron; it now treads a much more reactionary line. Likewise, the American Republican Party is now the toy of an ethnocentric, nationalist president-elect. France, anecdotally the most socialist country in the EU, could go the same way, bewitched by Marine Le Pen. And then there’s Germany, a country that’s acutely sensitive to far-right messaging due to its history. If anti-immigrant forces score electoral wins in either of those nations, we could be in for a very dark time.
As a U.S. resident, I fret that the country will polarize further, especially as it’s the people who voted for Trump who will suffer the most in the coming years. If Trump finds a way to repeal Obamacare, it’ll be the working class hit hardest. Likewise with Medicare privatization. There’s a massive tax cut coming for the donor class. Republicans argue this helps workers by stimulating growth, which eventually trickles down. What demonstrably happens is the rich get richer, and the disparity between the top and the bottom gets wider.
Living in New York ― a city of immigrants ― I’m acutely aware of the fear and anxiety generated by Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric. The president-elect’s team says he’s mulling a Muslim registry, with one Trump goon even suggesting that the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans set a precedent. It just won’t be tolerated. To quote a countryman, “a dog of that house shall move me to stand.”
“'As I European, I worry that Trump’s win will give succor to the nationalistic forces already reshaping British politics post-Brexit.'”
Katherine: I worry about Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who I suspect will wield more influence than usual because Trump has no political experience. During his time as the governor of Indiana, Pence doggedly pursued an evangelical Christian agenda, leading to some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. Trump, I think, ran on a whim, whereas Pence is following a systematic path to power. He understands how the game is played and is that much more dangerous for it.
In the week or so since the election, I’ve become equally concerned with a tide of vitriol from my own side, as many on the left process their outrage and shock. A campaign that encouraged the right to dehumanize individuals who are not like them has resulted in some on the left dehumanizing individuals who are not like them: “I want the South to burn,” one liberal friend in Pennsylvania raged, “It’s no more than deserved.”
Are Trump voters racist?
Paul: Trump is a birther and racist, and he ran racist campaign. He also surrounds himself with extremists; his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, runs a website for the white nationalist alt-right. And there were many bigots at Trump’s rallies who were exposed on film during the campaign. But I wouldn’t blanket Trump voters as racist or sexist. I think it’s likely many people voted for Trump overlooking his chauvinism, not overtly because of it. Early data suggests Trump won a lot of the white working class who’d previously voted for Obama ― twice! So there’s clearly more than racism behind his win. But that doesn’t absolve those who voted for him. They voted for a xenophobe, and we’re already seeing an uptick in racist incidents post-election. That’s on them.
“'They voted for a xenophobe, and we’re already seeing an uptick in racist incidents post-election. That’s on them.'”
Katherine: Some of them are, and you’re likely to see that covered extensively by the media. But there’s a real danger in applying the hateful agenda of a vocal minority to all 60 million people who decided their interests were best represented by choosing Donald over Hillary. There’s a sense of hurt and mistrust among Hillary voters right now. They don’t understand how anyone could vote for bigotry because that’s all Trump is to them ― a deplorable. In the current climate, nuanced discussion is more important than ever but stereotyping Trump voters as white supremacists only shuts conversation down.
What should those abroad know about America?
Paul: Trump’s win plays into a European cultural snobbery about the U.S., the cartoon of an unsophisticated, childlike nation. The country has, after all, just elected a screaming infant whose psychology is forever on tantrum’s cusp. But it’s a grotesque caricature. American democracy hasn’t been perfect, but the United States is the only revolution to arise from the Enlightenment that’s ongoing. That, to borrow a phrase, is what makes America great. The sadness of Trump is that the centuries-old experiment will soon be tested to a breaking point, and by a man who has no regard for the battles fought to preserve it.
To understand the U.S., the national divide should be viewed not as political or geographic, but as tribal. It’s not enough that your side wins. It’s just as important ― maybe more important ― that the other side loses, and that they are made to feel defeated. The rivals have their own turf, their own media, their own personalities, prophets and icons. They even have their own history and their own facts. Because it’s tribal, it’s also illogical. Americans will act against their own economic interest if it harms the other side. Not all voters are dragged along on this wave of cultural sectarianism. But a lot are… Trump knew it, and he exploited it.
“'I’ve been asked if we have Christmas in Britain, if London is overrun by deer because we don’t carry guns and, without a shred of sarcasm, how England celebrates the 4th of July.'”
Katherine: The metropolitan areas and rural middle America don’t understand each other as a consequence of their relative diversities. Small town Kentucky is overwhelmingly white, Christian and struggling economically. It’s also solid red. But what is often misinterpreted as bigotry is simply lack of exposure. Outside the big cities, people may never have left the country. I’ve been asked if we have Christmas in Britain, if London is overrun by deer because we don’t carry guns and, without a shred of sarcasm, how England celebrates the 4th of July. I learned pretty quickly not to say “I’m from the U.K.” because here that only means University of Kentucky ― United Kingdom isn’t a connection anyone would ever make. Rural Kentuckians may go their entire lives without meeting a Muslim, but they’ve all been told radical Islam is coming to wipe them out. With media fear mongering as their only reference, prejudice is unsurprising, but it’s directed at nebulous groups not individuals; the same people who worry about radical Islam would be genuinely warm and welcoming if I brought a Muslim friend round for dinner.