Surprise, Or a Perfectly Predictable Payoff? – A U.S. Expatriate’s View on the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election

I have been an expatriate for over a year and thus not been in the middle of this election cycle. There is a reason I choose to live and work abroad. I am disillusioned with the state of American politics and discourse. Instead of focusing on key issues – helping the millions of impoverished Americans, providing affordable housing, improving the quantity and quality of public transport, reducing the costs of education, etc. – Americans focus on ideological differences pertaining to social issues, such as access to abortions, gay rights, separation of Church and State. Those are important, too, but they have overtaken the other issues facing the United States that require urgent attention if the country is to continue progressive development.

In the early hours of the morning on Election Day when I realized that Donald Trump was certain to win the election (thanks to our antiquated and corrupt electoral college system), I felt a sense of shock. I knew many Americans were uneducated and susceptible to populist rhetoric, but I thought the educated classes would prevail, that common sense would win.

I was fearful for the many minorities in the US. I worried about the course of American foreign policy under Trump. Surely the US would make fewer friends with him at the helm. Even more, I worried about the appointments to the Supreme Court, where, lately, many major legal issues are being decided because our Congress cannot seem to pass laws that respect the vulnerable.

Days after the election I still maintain my concerns and fears, but I am no longer as shocked. In fact, this really shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. I grew up in a largely progressive and educated bubble. The university I attended, although in the conservative state of Indiana, was in a small liberal town. I later worked and lived in New York City, the progressive bastion of the country, anchoring a progressive Northeast.

I now understand that I was in an echo chamber. Few people disagreed with my opinions or policy suggestions. We all thought more or less along the same lines. We believed in rights for minorities, outreach to the world, public services for all to enjoy and benefit from. But not too far away in the ‘forgotten’ stretches of the ‘Rust Belt’ (Pennsylvania through the Upper Midwest), there were many Americans who were not content with the way things were. They wanted ‘factory jobs’ to come back. They were afraid of change, of new people. They themselves were insulated. Insulated from the world, from progress. Their world was in shambles. Their job prospects were dim, their hopes dashed. Everything they had known had disappeared and there didn’t seem to be any help.

I don’t blame many of these people, but I do not believe for a moment that Donald Trump will be able to help them. There is a reason ‘factory jobs’ left America and immigrants have come here to take up low-skilled and very low paying jobs. The world has opened up and a middle-class white man demands a far higher salary and benefits package than his counterpart in China or Vietnam. That’s how capitalism works. To overcome it one must innovate and adapt. That being said, the government should offer assistance, especially in the form of education, which, unfortunately in the US, is far too expensive and out of reach for most.

The other cadre of Trump supporters are of a different sort. They spread hate and wish to ‘reclaim’ America from the ‘others’, basically anyone who doesn’t look like or think like them. These people, despicable as they are, are not the majority of Trump voters. Yet worrisome, they have opened a pandora’s box of what may be a new era of uncensored political discourse in the United States or even beyond. They have made it okay, through the conduit of Donald Trump, to publicly detest and loathe the ‘other’ and to antagonize them.

Politics in the United States has always been a popularity contest. Reason has never been high on the agenda of campaigners. This I am used to. Yet this latest election cycle has changed things for the worst. A new level has been reached and there may be no return. I had no plans to return to the United States. As a seasoned traveler to over 40 countries and a speaker of many languages, I know that the world has better to offer me. Germany is a country that needs talented young people to contribute to their economy and society. That is why they offer all foreigners a work visa after they complete their diploma. I must ask myself: why would I return to a country that has half its population in opposition to diversity?

Europe is not perfect. It has its own unique problems and a growing right-wing movement. Yet having lived here before and again now, I sense a different sentiment in society overall. There may be grumblings, but the majority of Europeans want a progressive, welcoming society. They will come together and reach compromises to continue moving forward.

Many Americans say now is the time to fight for change and protect the civil liberties a rights enshrined in the Constitution. That is an admirable call to arms. Yet as history has shown, the United States struggles with these forces. The principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were codified in 1776, yet the enslavement of men, women and children continued for almost another hundred years and, once freed, those former slaves were discriminated against and unable to vote for another hundred years. LGBT people may be able to marry, yet they can still be terminated from their place of work in nearly half the 50 states just for being who they are.

In my opinion, the United States is simply too large and too diverse to govern properly. There will never be enough people willing to compromise, let alone come together in agreement. Perhaps the election of Donald Trump has marked what no one will admit: the end of American Supremacy. If hatred, intolerance and isolation come forth with his policies, the United States of America will no longer be a beacon of hope, equality and peace. It will no longer be the Leader of the Free World.

Mr. Trump is passing on that torch to Europe.

Disclaimer: The views represented in this opinion piece do not necessarily represent those of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.

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Robert Ellis is a second-year masters student at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy specialising in Public and Nonprofit Management and International Political Economy. His research interests encompass urban issues such as affordable housing, public transport and spatial planning. Previously he taught English in South Korea, worked in the executive search industry in New York City and after his undergraduate degree interned in Washington, DC at the Halifax International Security Forum. He received a Bachelor of Arts at Indiana University with majors in International Studies, Germanic Studies and a minor in Dutch. He is originally from the New York City metropolitan area.

  1. Lukas-Simon Laux

    Dear Robert,
    Thank you for your article, which shows how difficult it is for many Americans to deal with the result of the presidential elections. I hope that this will not result in resignation. As a European, I could take your appraisal of Europe as a compliment, however I do not believe that there is a leader of the free world. There is no leader of the world at all. I am concerned that using such labels as “leader of the free world” is perceived (with good reason) as U.S./European hubris and superficiality. I know what you mean by that and the qualities of a democratic, liberal and rights-based order are evident, but we should not underestimate the amount of criticism and denial against these principles. In my point of view, more reflection about the role and actual policies of “the West” should be the precondition for strongly advocating its qualities.