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The election from abroad

By Matthew Kowalyk

Section: Opinions

February 10, 2017

I have been spending this year in London, and as a result I missed the election and its fallout, as well as the inauguration and its fallout. I had cricket practices the afternoon following the election in November, for which I had stayed awake until 6:30 a.m. and then had to fight through a 9 a.m. class. Upon entering Lord’s Cricket Ground, I was asked by many of the members of the cricket club how I felt about it. The fatigue made my state of confusion much worse, though it was not necessarily concerning how the election could have happened. It was more related to having to cope with such a long and insane election season. The end always felt so far away, and with the constant unreality of how events played out, it seemed like there was nothing beyond Nov. 8.

It was the first election season for which I had been old enough to fully experience the news and read all of the analysis pieces. On top of that, America had notable social unrest, fake news, an international disinformation campaign perpetrated by Russia and a candidate with an unprecedented campaign strategy and rhetorical style. I worked with campaigns on both sides, which granted me a unique perspective on how this would all turn out. Despite the polls, I told a few people that, “My head felt Hillary, but my gut disagreed.”

When discussing this with the cricket club, the British citizens among them told me that this is how they felt after Brexit. I do not doubt this, seeing how stability of the E.U. is now seriously in question as a result, and our country certainly contributed to the lack of stability. Being thousands of miles away from American soil, I livestreamed the debates on C-SPAN, relied on Reuters and the A.P. and watched the evening of the Election Day of Reckoning on CNN in the bar in the basement of my dorm with a hundred or so other students. I sarcastically cheered for each tiny state Trump won, because I was pretty sure he was not going to win it all. Though, of course, my gut was very clearly telling me otherwise. It would have been too easy. Trump campaigned so much harder, covered much more physical ground, commanded much more media time and spoke to a different and more numerous constituency. Sure enough, my gut proved me right.

The following weeks were filled with my fellow American students, the overwhelming majority being Democrats, trying to figure out what went wrong, talking in anxious and derisive tones of voice, picking on individual issues rather than seeing the bigger picture. I did not personally hear much Republican reaction other than what I could glean from social media and the news, until I returned home to southwestern Pennsylvania for Christmas: radical acceptance from many people, guarded acceptance by some and hopeful criticism from others.

Regardless of Trump’s rhetoric, with his outright refutation of Third Way liberalism and neoliberal leanings of the presidents since Reagan, and his ability to help elect Republicans to state assemblies, governorships, the House and the Senate, the Republican insecurity surrounding a loss of relevance under Obama has been settled. But at what cost, to discourse, to consensus about the process, to our legitimacy in international relations?

I watched the inauguration via C-SPAN as well, with their non-judgmental coverage, from an hour before the big speech to an hour or so afterward. I watched the motorcade; the big players walking in, walking up to their seats; the speeches; the calm proceedings including Obama’s exit and Trump’s beginning. If there was anything that could make it truly real for anyone, it would be watching the whole thing on C-SPAN. There was a persistent feeling of disconnection from it all, even when protests have taken place in London. I know it shows solidarity, but how much does it really do?

It was in the same tone of the little display just after the election in front of the London School of Economics Students Union, where some organization had a wall of sticky notes that students could add to with their thoughts on Trump. Let me be honest: The lack of nuance and understanding of the situation was huge, and how totally inconsequential it was. That seems to be the character of many protests, despite numbers. They are inconsequential. Most of the country agrees, and they do not serve to convince the rest that they are wrong, which is necessary to win the midterm elections.

When these protests occur in cities, which in the U.S. are consistently more left-leaning, not much is at stake. The numbers are scary, but they lack consequence. However, this is no justification for violence or anything the Antifa do. Convincing others will take actual engagement, not being angry at them for their views, listening to them, self-reflection and time. There are too many simple explanations being circulated for the election, and too many simple labels being used, eluding accuracy. In time, the Republican Party might face a relevance crisis again. The current party leaves much to be desired, but our society would do well with a group which could champion rational conservatism balanced against a group that represents rational liberalism.

If anything is to be learned from watching this abroad and relying on friends and the news to discuss the current situation, it is that our country is relevant to the rest of the world. We may think it to be the center of all concerns, but that is far from the truth. The rest of the world has countries with centuries and millennia of history to draw from to form relations with their neighbors, and we are still a youthful nation. There are more accurate historical examples to draw from than the ones the media and activists tend to lazily resort to. In fact, thanks to a class I am taking on the economic history of Latin America, I have learned a lot more about populist politics and economic failings that are far more applicable than fascism. Regardless, these examples do not predict a smooth road ahead.

What this does not mean is that we should refrain from criticism. What I think is that we should deal with the facts, deal with reality as it is. Unfortunately, that reality is no less hurtful to our national character, but it is certainly more complex. We are not the only country going through great change at the moment, and it would be in our best interest to learn from others in order to help ourselves, for right now that is in the global interest as well as our own national interest. Our actions must have consequences at the expense of no one’s character except the perpetrators’. Thinking about what it would have been like to be home or on our campus during the election, I am both glad to have missed but also disappointed. The seminars and the panels lack any real effect other than making the campus feel better, on a campus that is already internally divisive and hostile when it comes to moral disagreements. If anything, with some self-reflection, our campus could become a locus of change and reason throughout these troubled times. I am hoping I can contribute personally to any real changing of attitudes and strategy when I return.

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