Inauguration Day: The View From Over Here
It is already January 20, 2017, in Thailand… the day so many if us have been dreading since November 8, 2016. My fellow Americans are asleep, 12 hours behind in the global time warp, and many are hoping to wake up in an alternate reality to the one that will take place at noon Eastern time.
I was among those hopefuls until the alarm went off this morning and I realized that yes, it is going to happen. My home country will install into the world’s most powerful office a racist, xenophobic, ill-prepared, vainglorious, crass misogynist. I will not be among those viewing this particular moment in history. At the time of inauguration, it will be midnight in Bangkok and I have no intention of interrupting sweet dreams to watch a nightmare.
What a change from eight years ago. In November of 2008, I was out of the country on election day (having already voted by absentee ballot). My then-husband and I stayed up late at an estancia in rural Argentina, watching the returns on CNN International. The next day, upon returning to Buenos Aires, we felt like rockstars wherever we went.
In cabs, the conversation in broken Spanish-English went like this:
“Where you from?”
“President OBAMA!!! Black man! Are you happy?”
Yes, very much so, we’d answer from the back of the taxi.
Then some kind of thumbs-up or raised fist or shimmy from the driver’s seat.
It would happen again and again that day — at restaurants, in tour groups, when we checked into our hotel. There was a palpable sense, even from afar, of history being made, and a joy at what had just transpired in the world’s greatest democracy and how it might affect the fortunes of those in far-away places who pinned their own hopes on American progress. It’s hard not to feel proud of your country when you’re surrounded by people who don’t even live in it but think it’s done a remarkable thing. (I had the same sense during a 2016 visit to Myanmar, where every mention of my status as a US citizen was met with an admiring cry of “Obama!”)
Admittedly, these are anecdotal stories that don’t reflect deep reportage or surveys… they are merely what I witnessed while abroad. Today, while abroad in another part of the world, the anecdotes could not be more different.
Over the past year, mentions of my US citizenship have prompted more quizzical looks than admiring ones. I wrote at length in May of 2016 about what it was like to travel throughout Southeast Asia while a certain New York “businessman” was out winning the Republican nomination. I’ve self-identified as Canadian on more than one occasion just to avoid the conversation.
Today, while opening a bank account here in Thailand, I was chatting with my fixer/interpreter and the pending inauguration came up. The woman across the table heard the president-elect’s name, looked up and saw me shaking my head in disbelief, and then said something in Thai. The interpreter turned to me and translated the question:
This is what American voters have wrought. It’s just one example, but it fits in with every other interaction I have with non-US citizens these days. The questions, the confusion, the fear of what this all means for their own well-being and place in the world. There is no joy. Not even a whiff.
News headlines from this part of the world reflect that as well:
Bangkok Post: Prepare for Trump’s Worst
Sydney Morning Herald: Donald Trump in the White House is the end of the ‘American Century’
The Straits Times (Singapore): Donald Trump to take office today amid fears of trade war
This is what happens when a vote is used only to express what the elector believes is best for the elector, and not for humanity, for the global citizenry. This is what happens when you pull the lever in favor of vast incompetence because, hey, it might lower your personal tax rate… what happens to the rest of the world be damned. This is what happens when you hand the nuclear keys to a puerile autocrat because you didn’t like the last guy for… reasons.
I grieve for the US from afar. I’m glad I’m not in close proximity to the destruction that’s about to be visited upon so many citizens and institutions. I wish I could be there for the Women’s March. The next two years could be unimaginable.
But I do say two years… not four. The next election cycle is in 2018, and it is the next and best chance to stop the madness by delivering a powerful opposition party to the halls of Congress. Yes, a lot of damage can happen in two years, and this isn’t to say sit back and wait for 2018. But two years is shorter than four, and a strong set of emergency brakes is all you need to stop a runaway train. So we all need to get to work wherever it counts, especially in local and state political races. That is the promise of democracy.
I’ll be doing my part from afar, donating time, skills, and money to campaigns and causes that will fight for civil rights, press freedom, and compassion in the US and abroad. (Planned Parenthood, American Civil Liberties Union, Propublica, Human Rights Watch, Southern Poverty Law Center, Washington Post, New York Times, Guardian) But I’m also giving myself enforced time outs from the rolling requiem on news sites and social media. I spent part of this past week on a boat in the middle of the sea, underwater, with no signal or access. It was a balm to the daily dose of freakout that encapsulates our national conversation right now. That’s not to say the freakout isn’t justified… it is. But you can only take so much of it before wanting to crawl into a spider hole until somebody yanks you out.
Reality is reality and for now, this is ours, and, by proxy, the world’s. But although I’ve never been accused of having an overly sunny outlook… I do insist on believing that someday, though it may be sometime down the line, whenever and wherever I’m traveling, when my citizenship comes to light the reaction will once again be:
No one should desire it to be any other way.