I have become a political junky of late. I’m sure I’m not alone but it’s getting worse. I’ve always been fairly interested but as a “damn foreigner” unable to vote my opinion never mattered. I have watched the GOP campaign with fascination turning into horror…and I can’t look away. I arrived in the US on a permanent basis about 20 years ago. As a Brit I had only a passing understanding of US politics but as I learned more much of it didn’t seem to make sense. Coming from a multi-party political system I was used to poor people grouping together to further their interests just as the wealthy band together to protect theirs. I was a kid during the Labor administrations of the 70s which led to coal strikes and power blackouts. As a lefty punk-rocking teen I watched in horror as Margaret Thatcher then Ronald Regan seized the reins of power. I understood what caused the backlash which led to Thatcher and I assumed it was similar in the US.
When I arrived here 16 years later we were in Clinton I and things looked pretty decent. Still some things didn’t make sense. Why were poor white people such fervent supporters of a party dedicated to furthering the interests of the rich and powerful? Why such a political fascination with women’s reproductive health….an issue which has been beyond politics in Europe for decades. What I was missing was the race factor. In the UK we have had racial problems of our own. Back in the 60’s there was a significant influx of people from the Caribbean countries which were parts of the Commonwealth. These people tended to jobs which Brits had no interest in but there were protests from the skinhead sector. In later years there were several waves of immigrants from India, Pakistan and Uganda. Each of these was met with some disruption but on the whole it was all fairly civilized. In more recent years the barriers to entry from Commonwealth countries have risen and the barriers to living and working for anyone in the EU have essentially been removed. As a Brit I could live and work freely anywhere in the EU….no papers required. This long history of immigrants settling and blending (to one extent or another) has routinely been met with racially based resistance from mostly white working class folk who see them as “taking our jobs” and “polluting the culture.” It was a vocal minority with extremists on the far right getting headlines rather than traction. We muddled along, we even replaced Fish and Chips with Curry as our national dish. People with limited education and job prospects were typically the most impacted but as immigrants (especially those from the Indian Sub-Continent) integrated and succeeded those complaints were less vocal. I have somewhat lost touch with the story back home now, but from what I can gather from regular visits these factors remain a concern but a manageable one. Europe has significant problems caused by the nightmare in Syria, globalization and automation has hit low skill jobs there too but none of that prepared me for the US.
I simply didn’t have a frame of reference for the kind of systemic endemic racism and resentment which haunts significant parts of the US zeitgeist. In 1865 the Brits were drinking tea and building an empire as the US tore its self apart. We don’t teach the US Civil War much in UK schools. We do cover slavery but since we outlawed it in 1833 and our economy was never as completely reliant on it as the US was it felt very remote. We didn’t have reconstruction, Jim Crow or the Civil Rights Movement. The political developments of recent years has been fascinating and shocking. The ascendency of “Mr.” Trump has been eerie to watch. To see the level of xenophobia, misogamy and good old fashioned racism which has driven his ascent is very disquieting. I realize I’m not breaking new ground here, but as a foreigner who has the advantage of being white and (passingly) educated who has come to love the US as I do, this is like discovering that the woman of your dreams was never really that into you and was cheating with her ex all the time. It makes you question what you thought you knew…it’s scary and sad. My profound hope is that if we stack all the liberals, all the LGBT folk, all the kinksters, all the immigrants who can vote, most of the people of color, most of the women and men who think rather than hate into one pile, that pile will be bigger than the pile of angry white men and bigoted white people who have found their perfect vehicle to protest history. I don’t know anybody who says they are voting for Trump but then I don’t know anyone who is openly racist or anti-female equality either. The privacy of the voting booth allows people to express their truth in secret. Am I optimistic?…yes, but I’m also scared.