Sunday, November 13, 2016

What the Presidential Election means to this American Abroad

Dimanche, 13 novembre.

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

Wednesday was supposed to be a good day. I was supposed to wake up bright and early to celebrate with Americans abroad as the seemingly inevitable results trickled in. I was supposed to spend the day at an outreach event, speaking to Luxembourgish students about study opportunities in the United States. I would have sneaked glances at my phone, pausing to retweet quotes from Clinton's seemingly inevitable victory speech, to like images whose captions boasted of the work of Nasty Women, and to dash off quick texts to friends abroad with a series of patriotic emojis. It would have been a long day, but it was supposed to have been a great one.

But that didn't happen. Like many Americans abroad, I  slept fitfully on Election Night -- dozing off for 45 minutes before waking up to look at the news and check in with family. I panicked briefly when I woke up to find that my home state of Virginia was proving closer than anticipated and fell back asleep once certain that it had, in fact, stayed blue. When I finally got out of bed at 4:00 a.m., it was with a growing sense of dread that I refreshed Twitter and watched the results come in. An hour later, what I had envisioned as a triumphant celebration felt uncomfortably like a vigil. I sucked down coffee and made small talk, laughing too loudly at feeble jokes while keeping one eye on the CNN screen. Too close to call. Too close to call. Until suddenly, it wasn't.

As an American who has been living outside of the U.S. since the early chapters of this crazy story, I now feel more out of touch with my country than I ever thought possible. When a reporter asked if I had lost friends during the election, I admitted that I couldn't think of a single close friend who had expressed support for Trump. I have since identified a few likely suspects on my Facebook news feed, but the overwhelming majority of the people in my life were, albeit perhaps reluctantly, with her. I doubt that I am alone in this. Whether intentionally or subconsciously, we surround ourselves with those who share our interests, personal beliefs, and political convictions. (Don't believe me? Check out this study from PRRI, which found that white Americans' self-reported social networks are 91% white.) For most Americans, this bubble is briefly punctured -- by yard signs, television commercials, and bumper stickers that force us to acknowledge the exclusivity of our normal interactions. In my case, however, this bubble has only been strengthened by my geographic separation from the States. As an American abroad, the only social contact I have with Americans is my (often virtual) interaction with a select group of friends and family. Even now, I remain baffled by Trump's popularity, as I can find little to no evidence of it in my own social network.

With an indefinite job contract and no immediate plans to leave Belgium, I have received a lot of messages and comments within the past few days from friends, family members, and coworkers about my future. "So I guess this means you'll be Belgium for the next four years, huh?" "Please look for a bigger apartment so I can come live with you." I get it. Trust me, I get it. I have never felt more tempted to raise a particular finger, shout a particular word, and peace out of my country until the next general election. But leaving is not how you affect change, just as quitting is not how you win. In the words of Slate's Will Oremus, "Don't move to Canada ... move to a swing state." Moreover, what these friends may not realize is that while renewing their passports and hopping on a plane may seem like the easiest way to avoid negative consequences of the next four years, being an American abroad under a Donald Trump presidency is going to be hard.

As the token American in many conversations, I am often called upon to defend such trivial things as my country's affinity for fast food, our monolingual culture, and our insistence on mixing peanut butter and jelly at the lunch table. Even when the topic of conversation remains lighthearted, this task is not always fun: one of the darkest days of my year in Luxembourg was the afternoon I spent trying and failing to explain s'mores to my disgusted European housemates.

Americans abroad now face the daunting task of explaining much more than strange food pairings. When asked about the election over the course of the past year, I have done my best to defend my country, promising everyone that the hateful rhetoric spewed by campaign supporters, surrogates, and not infrequently by Trump himself is not representative of the American people. Now, I am faced with irrefutable evidence that it is. This realization feels like a betrayal, and an embarrassing one at that -- like a beleaguered wife realizing the spouse she has publicly defended for years has been keeping people locked up in their basement the whole time. ("Oops! Guess I didn't know him as well as I thought.") And it has already begun. On the morning of the election, one of this year's English Teaching Assistants asked, in tears: "What am I supposed to say to the Syrian refugees in my class?" Another friend texted from France, where she is teaching in a secondary school, to ask how she was supposed to discuss election results with her students when she could hardly process them herself. The following day, when I met a hijab-wearing girl in my hotel in Luxembourg City, I hesitated when telling her where I was from. Would she ask me about the election? About the anti-Muslim policies proposed by the now president-elect? And if she did, what would I say?

And this brings me to what I feel like I need to get off my chest.

One of the most devastating parts of this loss for me was the fact that instead of electing its first female president, our country seems poised to take a giant step backward with regards to gender equality. I do not look forward to the consequences of this election when it comes to reproductive rights, maternity leave, and equal pay and treatment for women. However as a white, heterosexual, Christian, I am aware that I belong to a privileged demographic that is likely to suffer the least over the next several weeks, months, and years. While I feel confused and betrayed by this week's results, I truly cannot begin to imagine the levels of hurt, frustration, and fear being felt by those of a different color, religion, or sexuality.

Over the past few days, I have seen a handful of messages -- even in my little bubble! -- encouraging Democrats to begin the process of healing by remaining respectful of and tolerant toward the opposing side. One viral image touted the "beautiful, inspirational people" who supported candidates on both sides and ended by arguing: "Don't think less of people because some of their beliefs don't align with yours, and don't lose quality people in your life because you chose hate over love." And I'd just like to say ... hold up. I agree that we should respect one another, despite our differences, and I am sure that some otherwise pleasant people cast their votes for Donald Trump on Tuesday. For many of these voters, including those who saw the Republican nominee as the solution to a changing economy that has left their communities behind, I am willing to believe that Trump's inflammatory comments about Mexicans and Muslims were the last thing on their mind as they cast their ballots. But impact is more important than intent. In choosing to support a man whose political campaign was based on messages of hate and intolerance, voters implicitly endorsed his agenda and sent a message to the populations he has marginalized: "I do not care enough about you to vote against a man who has demeaned your humanity and threatened your existence." If that's not choosing hate over love, I don't know what is.

So what am I going to do? For the time being, I'm going to stay in Belgium. (And once I get a bigger apartment, you're welcome to come visit.) I'm going to spend the day in my pajamas and I'm probably going to watch Kate McKinnon on SNL and cry a couple more times. But then I am going to do my best to foster positive change in my country by donating my time and money to organizations that will continue to fight for the rights of women and minorities, no matter who is sitting in the Oval Office. (Want suggestions? This article from Jezebel has a few.) I'm going to let my congressional representatives know how I feel when it comes time for them to vote for or against upcoming legislation. (Want to get in touch? This interview with former staffer Emily Ellsworth explains how to effectively make your feelings known.)

And when it comes time to do this whole Election Day all over again, I'm going to work as hard as I can to ensure that it turns out the way it is supposed to.


  1. Well written! Thank you for not only sharing your feelings, but also ways to move forward in the right direction.

  2. Thank you Elisabeth...

  3. As always your way with words is amazing. We like that you express yourself well, be it joy or remorse. Remember we older folks have been through many elections and the process is all new still to you, especially since you are overseas. Love you, P&B