Living the American Nightmare

As an interested Brit, I stayed up most of the night and watched the US Presidential election unfold, eventually turning in around 5.30am by which time it was all over bar the shouting.  So it was real rather than a nightmare, but events from the past have slowly brought this election day result to the boil, which has resulted in the nightmare scenario.

That scenario is Donald Trump becoming President elect of the USA.

I found myself in a state of disorientation yesterday, trying to make sense of it all. Judging by comments I saw from American contacts on Facebook, and interviews on news bulletins there was (understandably) far more disorientation for those on the other side of the Pond.

The American Dream was defined by the American writer and historian James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book The Epic of America as, life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement … regardless of social class or circumstances of birth”.

Trump has certainly succeeded in making his life own life better and richer, and seized opportunities – he has been selected for the role of President of the US when in any job application process he would have failed at the paper sift stage due to lack of experience.

Sadly, he didn’t get to the social class bit of Adams’ definition. Which is where he divides opinion. He appears to judge everyone as to what they will do, what they will say and what role they should play in society due to their ethnicity, their race, their sex, their sexual orientation their physical disabilities … and he probably uses other discriminators too. This is what makes him so odious – and unacceptable to so many people.

How did the dream turn into a nightmare?

On the face of it, any Democrat should have beaten Trump – so what went wrong for the Democrats? Trump supported his campaign with huge amounts of money – the New York Times suggests loans to himself of $50m. Clinton had her share too, though – she raised about $75m, again according to the New York Times, through ‘super-PACs’.  These are, according to the Oxford Living Dictionary, “A type of independent political action committee which may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, and individuals but is not permitted to contribute to or coordinate directly with parties or candidates”.

Bernie Sanders didn’t have access to that sort of money – because he refused it. There may well have been other reasons why he didn’t beat Clinton, such as him not believing he could win, but this was key.

Whilst in the US in June this year, I found myself in conversation with a campaign manager for Mike Huckabee, the Republican candidate who by this time had dropped out. His view was that the Republican Party was very pleased that Clinton had beaten Sanders as she would be easier for the Republicans to beat than Sanders.  Since the result earlier this week, several people have argued this point, backed up with convincing data.

The result was that the electorate ended up with the two most unpopular presidential nominees in the history of NBC’s ‘Popularity Poll’, which dates back some 25 years. Clinton scored -20 and Trump -29, the scoring being the percentage of registered voters with a positive opinion of the individual minus the percentage with a negative opinion. For comparison purposes, within the same poll Obama was +8, Sanders +7 and Putin -51.  And this was prior to revelations about alleged sexual assaults and the FBI email server investigation, both of which would surely have only taken them further into the negative.

I felt for the electorate. I’m not sure I could have voted for either of them. Neither of them reflected my values.

And the last piece of the jigsaw to help Trump over the line was the “constitutional relic” that is the electoral college ‘first past the post’ method of election. At the time of writing this, Clinton is likely to have received 200,000 more votes overall than Trump, yet she loses. I cannot start to imagine how galling that must be for her and her supporters – although Al Gore knows the feeling, too.

That’s partially the history of how we have arrived at this nightmare – but that was only the falling asleep after eating too many carbohydrates too close to going to bed … the nightmare has yet to start.

The USA is a country of beauty and splendour, and many, many good and lovely people live there. It is also, however, deeply, deeply divided. Primarily in relation to colour and race, but also – like many other countries – in relation to socio-economic terms.

I have written here before about my own experiences of this in both New Orleans and more recently Kansas. The model I see is more akin to informal and culturally accepted racial segregation than effective racial integration. This is something that at some point the US must address more proactively.

Over the past 18 months, Trump has been building a tinderbox. He hasn’t created all the materials for it – those have been around for a long time – but he has brought them altogether. We are now waiting to see if he ignites the box.

The fear – expectation in some quarters – is that he will. As a result, there have already been marches and protests at the outcome of this election. It must be particularly worrying being a black person, a gay person, even being a woman at the moment in the US – and understandably so. We have seen in the UK how the Brexit vote has led to an increase in cases of racial discrimination and abuse.  One of the conversations on Facebook yesterday between friends in a southern US state included reference to how Trump’s election would empower the Ku Klux Klan and has “taken us back 50 years in time”.

Thankfully there are also many individuals taking responsibility and attempting to galvanise positive actions and intentions. One of my contacts, Scott MacLeod, put it particularly well on Facebook on the day of the election saying, You’ve done your civic duty. You voted. You probably, as I did, had some level of hesitation as you selected your choices. You recognize the importance of this election, and your role in the outcome. You are concerned about the future of the United States, and you voted, to the best of your abilities, for candidates that embraced your values. But for now, your role is over. The ballots have been cast and the democratic process is underway. Now, let’s embrace a new set of values – kindness, humility, compassion, and strength. Let’s pledge not to gloat or complain about the results of the election. Let’s treat each other with a newfound civility, and recognize that most participants in this election, even if many seemed misguided, voted their conscience and moral compass. United We Stand, Divided We Fall. Let’s come together and heal – the divisiveness can end if we want it to”.

After the result was known, and in response to a comment, he added, “If you believe that immorality won, then we have to be better moral agents in the face of that opposition. If you believe that fear won, then we must stand unified and strong. If you believe that selfishness won, then we must be much more generous and compassionate. Trump cannot heal the nation. We can”.

I hope more people think and act like that. And I hope Trump listens and acts with reason.

These are politically uncertain times. The next few months are going to be difficult times in the US. They are difficult for us in the UK too, as we manoeuvre our way out of Europe and see how racial tensions manifest themselves – but particularly difficult in the US due to the racial divisions (and not helped by the way many of its citizens view the use of guns).

And where next? Look no further than France. It has elections in early 2017. We know it already has a strong right wing party headed by Le Pen. Trump took energy and learned lessons from Brexit and Nigel Farage. Le Pen will similarly take from Trump.

You and I can do little about that. But you can do your own bit – as Scott put it, you can help heal your nation.

Or perhaps the culture at your place of work? Political behaviour, harassment, disempowerment, victimisation – they all take place in the workplace, and that’s where you can make a difference. As my mum used to tell me, “If you look after the pennies, the pounds will look after themselves”.

Take your responsibility and lead the change. Fix the culture.


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