On a sunny morning two years ago, in November 2016, I walked across my college campus to the student center, ready to vote in my first presidential election. I had turned eighteen the previous December, and considered myself one of the ‘lucky ones’ that got to vote in a major election the same year they become an adult.
This was my attitude, at least, until I discovered who the candidates were. Government and politics had always been a substantial part of my life growing up, considering my dad teaches it. The first election I can remember was the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004. I was only six at time, but still have a foggy recollection of the national excitement and drama that ensued. The 2008 election of Barack Obama was the first election I truly remember well. The positivity, excitement, and political motivation that year was something special. While I obviously wasn’t old enough to vote, my dad taught me about the candidates, and how unique and important it was historically that the United States had its first legitimate shot at electing an African American president. It also didn’t hurt that I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, where the Obamas live. Being in the north and a large urban area, most people I knew personally were somewhat liberal. It seemed that everyone was excited to vote for Obama. I remember my dad’s tears on election night, after Obama’s win was announced. My dad immediately picked up the phone and called my grandma, saying “He won, mom. We have an African American president.”
So there I was at the student center, November 9th, 2016. I got there early anticipating a long line, but was surprised when I was able to effortlessly glide through the voting steps, unbothered by the presence of other first-time voters. Slightly confused, I cast my ballot and continued on to my lecture.
America hasn’t seemed quite the same since Trump’s election. What you hear in the news is probably true – families are at odds over who voted for who, there’s a heightened degree of openness and confidence from hate groups, and there’s an overwhelming general feeling of instability in our government.
As the midterm elections approached in November, you could feel that Democrats (and even some less-radical Republicans) were infuriated and fed up by our government’s actions. For the first time, my dad was motivated enough by his frustration to go out and canvass for a Democrat running for congress. After the The Brett Kavanaugh supreme court confirmation, my cousin became so upset and enraged that she too signed up to work on a campaign.
At the time of Trump’s election, I didn’t even want to know what foreigners thought of us. It was far too embarrassing, and I couldn’t believe we as a country had done this to ourselves. But coincidentally, two months after the election, I left America for the first time.
I traveled to England to visit Tieran for a month over the holidays, and had no idea what to expect. I’ve learned that it’s harder than a lot of people think for Americans to travel abroad (minus Canada, which culturally feels quite similar to the United States) due to cost alone. Not only does a ticket to anywhere in Europe cost $500+, but add accommodation, transportation and dining fees, and you’re in for quite the expense. Western Europe in general is also a more expensive place to live than America. Even in Germany, where the Euro is the currency probably most similar to the U.S. dollar, items like food still cost more. Add the United Kingdom or Scandinavia into the equation, and you probably need to be a wealthier American to afford leisurely trips there.
Middle-class Americans tend to spend vacations traveling domestically. If you want to ski, travel to Colorado, Montana or Vermont. If you like beaches, you have popular spots like Florida or California. You like big cities? No problem. We got all that. So when I first disembarked the plane at London Heathrow for the first time, it was surreal. Trump’s election being so fresh, I anticipated questions and judgment. However, I couldn’t really prepare for how it would feel to represent a place that had just elected such a controversial and widely disliked leader.
I was surprised that so many English people bluntly asked me who I voted for, but I was also relieved. It saved me from the awkwardness of feeling the need to bring Trump into conversation, just to shut down any speculation that I was a supporter. I learned that, culturally, in America it’s considered far ruder to ask a stranger their political opinions than it is in England; something I found amusing. Perhaps Americans don’t like discussing it because we’re embarrassed to? What does that say about the people we support?
In other countries, I had a different experience. I braced myself for Norway, considering their history of being so much further left than we are in the ‘States. However, upon arrival, I was surprised by how much more reserved Norwegians were about discussing American politics. I found this kind of cute- Norwegians are so polite that they didn’t want to make me feel judged for my country’s own self-sabotage; something that is so clearly negatively impacting them and the rest of the world. Often times in Norway I decided to do the dirty work myself and find any excuse in conversation to criticize Trump. This made me feel far more at-ease, and I like to think it did the same for any Norwegian who worried that their guest was a raging Trumper.
It didn’t help my case that Americans are stereotypically obnoxious and ignorant whilst abroad. I did feel pressured to not only be the exception, but also (hopefully) shift people’s negative views of Americans to some extent. I quickly learned that rural Norway is not a common place of tourism for Americans, and that I was the first ‘real life’ yank that people were meeting.
Given, all this anxiety could’ve been in my head. It’s no question that I’m self-conscious when it comes to being native to a country so wildly influential and controversial. I’ve never been one to stand on the back of a pickup truck waving a giant flag with an eagle flying over me. In fact, I’ve always considered myself neutral, or as of late, actively un-patriotic. Do I like living in America? Sure. I’ve been lucky enough to grow up in a safe, extremely diverse community full of progressive people. I’ve gone to good schools and had great opportunities. However, do I consider myself proud to be American? That’s where I hesitate. I used to be, and perhaps I will be again in the future. That being said, we have a long way to go politically and socially before I can feel again how I did after Obama’s election.
The United States can be an amazing place to live. Sure, we have our flaws just as any other country does, but what makes us unique is the international attention we receive. Since 2016 I’ve found it increasingly difficult to remember what our good attributes are. I have to remind myself that while yes, it was us that elected such a leader, Trump only won by the skin of his teeth. Since his election, I’ve seen a division in my country that feels unprecedented, at least in my lifetime. However, I’ve also experienced a strange, newfound unity among those that oppose him that makes us feel stronger. I’ve attended rallies in Chicago; marches for stronger gun legislation and women’s marches that project how fed up so many of us really are.
To the rest of the world, it might seem like America has become a land of people filled with hatred that is so far gone, there’s no tempering the climate we’ve created. There very well might be an element of truth to this. If it’s any consolation, however, I’m beginning to see a very different side of America; ignited by Trump. A side that continues to stand up for what’s right, and for what we believe being American is actually about. Hopefully, this is the same group of future voters that, come 2020, will truly Make America Great Again.
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