From the Outside Looking in: An Expat’s View on America in 2020.
Sometimes, you can’t see the big picture until you step far enough away.
A little more than three years ago, I found myself on a plane somewhere north of the Arctic Circle, in the midst of a 13 hour flight across the world — the longest leg of a journey to Vietnam where I’d long since planned to begin a new chapter of my life. Between fleeting moments of truly unrestful sleep, I kept thinking about the state of the world as a whole, and specifically about the way things were going back in my home country, the United States. Everything seemed to be falling apart, nothing seemed normal or to even remotely resemble the country I’d been brought up to believe existed in the past and during my childhood. To say that I was anxious about the future of the country that I was leaving my family behind in would be a massive understatement.
Rewinding a bit further back to the night of the election in 2016, I can remember vividly how the evening unfolded. As time passed and it began to seem more and more probable that Trump was going to win the election and be named the 45th President of the United States, the alcohol started flowing more freely between a buddy and I as we tried to cope with the reality the country was facing. Neither of us were particularly excited about the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency, but she was leaps and bounds better than her opponent, who seemed like an absolute buffoon at best and a wanna-be fascist totalitarian at worst. Unfortunately, it now seems that our worst fears were entirely justified.
That night, as the result became clear, I decided once and for all that I was going to head to the other side of the world as soon as possible to spend some time away from the States. I was already planning on spending at least a year in Vietnam regardless of the outcome of the election, but this hardened my resolve to make sure that it actually happened. So, nine months later, as if my plans needed time to properly gestate, I was on that flight over the Arctic, trying like hell to get some sleep.
Nearly four years have passed since the night of the 2016 election, and contrasting the feelings of that moment with today is, in a word, wild. Still living in Vietnam, I’ve been able to watch how the past few years have unfolded from a distance. Frankly, most of the time it hasn’t even felt real, seeming more like I’m watching the events of some made-up alternate universe occur in real time, rather than seeing my country deteriorate into an irrational fascist state that runs on the psychotic ramblings of an unabashed despot-in-training.
As we rapidly approach the election in which yet another corporate Democrat tries to take on the rising tide of far-right reactionary politics (Trump may be the nominee and incumbent, but this election is about much more than just him), I wanted to share my thoughts on what this year has felt like from the other side of the world, as someone whose day to day life isn’t affected by domestic American politics, yet also as someone who cares deeply about the future of the country. Being removed from the news cycles and constant barrage of political discourse that have been an assault on many Americans’ emotional health over the past few years perhaps gives me a different perspective than those who have spent the past four years being gaslighted and mentally exhausted by Trump and his administration on a daily basis.
One thing that aspiring fascists are quite good at in their quest to erode democracy is the psychological conditioning of the masses to accept their increasingly insane, immoral, and undemocratic policies and demands. While Trump’s general competence is certainly very much up for debate, this is one thing that he’s done exceedingly well, leading us to a point where a large portion of his supporters would support him refusing to vacate the presidency peacefully in the event that he loses the election; it shouldn’t be lost on us that most of these people would have never even considered such thoughts for past Republican presidents regardless of how strong their affiliation to the party was.
It’s not just his supporters that have been conditioned, though. Those of us who oppose him, even his most vehement critics, can easily fall victim to this. The tried and tested method of strategically pushing so far past the boundaries of what is normal, accepted behavior that it allows someone to incrementally push that boundary back in smaller acts that then go unnoticed is what has manipulated the overwhelming majority of Americans into even letting it get this far. Pandemic aside, the fact that we haven’t yet marched on Washington by the millions to demand Trump’s removal from office, for any number of his crimes and failures while in power — ranging from overt corruption and conflicts of interest to openly admitted crimes against humanity — is proof that this manipulation is working, and that the power his political ideology has over the American people will not fade even if he were to lose and peacefully leave office in January.
Speaking of the pandemic, the insanity of the US response, by both the government and a significant portion of the population, is made even clearer sitting in a country that borders China yet has had several stretches without a single local transmission of the virus. The United States’ healthcare system is deeply broken, this much was known by many already and was further highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the country still has a healthcare budget significantly higher than many countries that have contained the pandemic successfully. There’s absolutely no excuse for this abhorrent response that has already left more than 200,000 dead and countless more left grieving, financially destitute, or permanently disabled, especially not after it was proven that Trump knew about the danger of the virus way back in February, and admitted that he’d downplay it for political gain.
I truly don’t think this last point can be overstated: while the exact figure will never be clear, Trump is directly responsible for the needless deaths of an enormous number of Americans, and we have the proof on tape.
This isn’t normal. This is the point I’d like to stress beyond all else. This. Is. Not. Normal. This is not what a functioning, healthy democracy and country looks, acts, and feels like, and while there have certainly been some shining beacons of hope this year, like how acceptance of the Black Lives Matter movement finally hit critical mass and became part of the political mainstream, there is so much fundamentally broken about our country at the moment that’s been made clear to me from looking in from the outside that I have a hard time being excited about the future.
The US has always had its problems, and the building blocks for the rise of Trumpist fascism, and the insanity that has defined 2020, were laid by people with both good and bad intentions. It’s important to recognize how we got here, and that means acknowledging a whole lot of messed up historical context that, as a country, we’ve completely refused to come to terms with, including (but certainly not limited to): the legacies of slavery and systemic racism and how they still affect Black Americans in the present day; the genocide of millions of Native Americans that continued well into the 20th century; and, the habit of the US to both overtly and secretly commit human rights violations all across the globe, both in the past and at present, not in an attempt to act as a global force for good, but rather to protect and expand the economic interests of the global elite. (If there’s one thing that I’ve learned about America by spending time in Vietnam, it’s that the long-lasting effects of that last one are much worse than we can ever imagine from sitting from within the withdrawn comfort of the US.)
So, where do we go from here? I’m no Democrat, but it will hopefully start with the election of Joe Biden next week, by enough of a margin that it will withstand the inevitable court challenge by Trump. Given the choice between corporate neoliberalism and outright fascism, I’d say that we should all prefer the former, even if it is the exact ideology that has resulted in the destruction of the environment and has allowed fascism to not just fester beneath the surface, but thrive in some of our society’s key functions.
At least under a Biden presidency, the most vulnerable among us will have some semblance of protection, women’s and LGBT rights won’t be under threat, and common sense COVID pandemic mitigation strategies can be implemented to prevent this catastrophe from getting even worse than it will already be by January.
However, there’s no guarantee that Biden will win, and even if he does, no guarantee that Trump will peacefully abdicate and not fight for the now-stacked SCOTUS to decide the outcome in his favor. There’s a very real chance that, come inauguration day, Trump will be sworn in for a second term despite losing both the popular vote and the Electoral College due to some sham ruling by the Supreme Court about voter fraud or mail-in ballots.
Regardless of who is President next year, however, there’s a ton of work to be done. Electing Biden would just be the first step of the thousands that will be necessary to remake this country in a way that stops the oppression of minorities and the poor, the destruction of the environment, and the violence both sanctioned and carried out by the US around the world for the benefit of the rich and powerful.
There’s a ton of work to be done, and it’s not going to be fun or easy. And while I’m aware this piece has taken on a decidedly negative tone, I do have hope for the future; I firmly believe that in crisis there is opportunity, and the practically uncountable number of ongoing crises both domestically and globally do provide us with a golden opportunity to reshape the world in a healthier, fairer, more sustainable way.
I just hope we start taking advantage of that opportunity on a massive scale before it’s too late.