Written by Kathy Becker, East Cocalico Township. An abbreviated version of this article was published on Sept. 26, 2020 in LNP/Lancaster Online. This longer version was first published on Nov. 1, 2020 in the Lancaster SPEAKS Up Blog with permission from the author.
I went to bed on the night of Nov. 8, 2016, still numb from the results of the election. When we told our boys the next morning, we tried to reassure them that even though we didn’t agree with Trump’s platform, our government has systems that would keep his power in check. As Americans living abroad in Ireland, we would be “ambassadors” and show people through our words and actions that Trump did not represent the attitudes of all Americans.
The reality of the situation hit me in the gym parking lot and I started to cry. A woman knocked on my car window and asked me what was wrong.
“I’m just sad about the American election.”
“Ah, now, don’t worry, pet. America’s a great country, so it is. Everything will be alright.”
I wanted to believe her, but over the past four years, I have seen my fears come true: inhumane immigration policies implemented, environmental protections overturned, alliances threatened, racial divisions and economic disparities magnified, white supremacists emboldened, and more.
All of this in the name of making America “great” again. Having lived overseas, I can tell you that in the eyes of the world, America has fallen from greatness. I asked my international friends to send me their thoughts about American politics and our status in the world, and I received several lengthy, thoughtful and passionate responses. I will attempt to summarize some of their opinions, though each of their emails could easily stand alone as its own op-ed.
America’s Standing in the World
In the past, other countries have looked up to the United States. An Irish friend shared her perspective on how that has changed:
“The US was the biggest power in the West. When I was a kid in the 80s, America was idealized – you wanted to live there, you wanted to be there. A lot of people went to America for jobs during the Irish recession. But now we feel sorry for you. We’re a small country, and not a major player on the world stage, but we have pity on the situation you’re in. It must be similar to what it was like watching Nazi Germany come to power. We wonder, ‘How could this happen? Why are people letting this happen?’ Was it always the case that there were so many racist people and they now just feel emboldened since there is a leader who refuses to condemn white supremacy?”
A Canadian friend echoed a similar point of view.
“Once upon a time there was a country that was the envy of the world, a country everyone wanted to immigrate to…a country where it was possible to live the “American dream”. These days it’s different. Much different.”
He expressed concern about what the fall of America means for Canadians.
“The United States of America used to be considered a super power, and it made Canadians feel safe having such a great neighbor on the other side of the border. We knew that no one would ever attack Canada with big brother USA next door to help protect us and help us retaliate should something happen. Now we worry that the current leaders to the South are going to cause a war, and we are going to be caught up in it, due to our close proximity.”
Our neighbors to the North have strong feelings about what they see going on just over their border. Another Canadian friend commented on the myth of American exceptionalism.
“It’s like America spent so much time telling itself and others that they were the greatest country on earth and they never noticed their obvious failures. So when something big happens that threatens their entire democracy and way of life, they refuse to believe it could happen. Being this close and having the US as our largest trading partner it’s terrifying. I’m watching the toxic tribalism of US politics seep into Canada and, while it’s not completely mainstream yet, it’s coming.”
She went on to say that many people she knows now look at America with pity.
“You have lost your place in the world and the rest of us are filling the gap. No one expected that we weren’t going to be able to rely on America but we’ve come to realize that we can’t and we’re figuring it out without them. American isolationism isn’t good for America but if Americans don’t realize that, the rest of the world will move on and America will be left behind. It doesn’t really matter how big your military is if you can’t be counted on to fight the good fight or stand with supposed allies.”
Trump, the Man
Across the pond, English and Irish friends weighed in on Trump himself.
“It is hard to believe that someone who is actively engaged in spreading hate and fear is President of the USA,” says a friend from the UK. “Trump is like a spoilt self-centered kid who is not capable of seeing the bigger picture and does not care about anyone but himself. He would go to any lengths for his own personal benefit. What sort of example is that to the future generations of America and to the rest of the world.”
While we were living in Ireland, people always wanted to talk politics with me after they found out I was American. They are very intrigued by and informed about American politics. Older Irish gentlemen would shake their fists at me upon hearing my accent and say, “Ye didn’t vote for Trump, did ye?”
One of my Irish friends had this to say: “We are living in strange times, truth, honesty and integrity appear to have been replaced by bluster, spoof and bravado. There is no accountability anymore. You can say something today and retract it tomorrow or maybe claim you never said it or that’s not what you meant! The President of America has set the bar so low for himself that he can get away with just about anything.”
American Election Process
When reflecting on the election process in America, foreign friends express concern and confusion.
“Canadians don’t understand how a President can be elected, when they lost the popular vote. How is that even a thing, when if someone else won the popular vote, they are obviously who the American people wanted as a President?”
Many Americans also wonder if the Electoral College should be abolished for that very reason.
The same friend observed that, “in 2016, Canadians found it unfortunate that a president could only sit two terms, and would have loved to see things carry on status quo at that time. Now, we’ve done a 180, and most of us worry that in the future, that may be amended and will allow a president to sit for more than two terms.”
We’ve heard Trump allude to the fact that he might refuse to leave office if he doesn’t win. It’s hard to imagine how other countries would react to us having a dictator instead of an elected head of state, let alone how Americans would deal with such a situation.
Another Canadian friend called out the issue of gerrymandering, and also voter suppression tactics like complicated procedures and long lines at polling places. She illustrated the contrast in Canada, by sharing, “I’m 43 years old and voted in every municipal, provincial and federal election since I was 18 and I’ve never waited more than 15 minutes. Voting isn’t supposed to be hard!! The minute it’s hard, your system is broken.”
As for the results of the upcoming election, my Irish friend says that the prevailing opinion in Ireland seems to be that Biden will win, but that Trump will challenge the results, and the decision will go to the Supreme court (which he’s stacked with conservatives). If the Supreme Court doesn’t rule in his favor, the fear is that there will be civil war and violence the streets.
My British friend expressed her feelings about the upcoming election this way: “We all make mistakes but I sincerely hope that come November, the American public are going to rectify the mistake they made four years ago.”
With two days left until the election, I look back at what I’ve done – postcard writing, phone banking for Biden, yard signs, letters to the editor, social media posts, talking to friends and neighbors about their voting plans – and I hope it’s enough to have made a difference. I need to be able to say to my children and grandchildren that I did everything I could to be on the right side of history. I hope that Americans show the rest of the world through the results of the election that they will no longer tolerate a leader who sows division and spreads hate and fear. Electing Joe Biden will be a step toward restoring our international reputation, and strengthening our connections with the global community – especially important as we fight to end this global pandemic. The eyes of the world are certainly upon us.
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