What It's Like To Live In Australia And Have Trump As Your President
January 20 marks two years since perhaps the most bizarre historic moment of my lifetime:
the day a brash, narcissistic reality TV show personality and business mogul, known for his bad haircut and penchant for firing people, placed his hand on a bible once owned by Abraham Lincoln and swore to faithfully execute, to the best of his ability, the Office of President of the United States.
As an American who’d called Australia home for five years, the sight was disorienting in the extreme.
What had happened in the years since I’d been away? How on earth did this man secure my country’s highest political office?
In my mind, and likely in the minds of many Australians and Americans, Donald Trump’s candidacy was a joke, a bold play of showmanship, the worst parts of American culture personified -- something he gleefully leapt into to feed his endless self-obsession, his insatiable PR machine and to trumpet his personal and business brands. Like a deranged peacock displaying its plumage, ignorant, or perhaps well aware, of how ridiculous it looked, but carrying on for effect.
His candidacy was a good thing, even -- no entirely sane person was going to vote for this man, who also, in my mind, championed misogyny, racism, bigotry, stupidity, greed, incompetence and immorality -- if anything, his nomination would spell disaster for the Republicans and a slam dunk victory for the Democrats.
Of course, there were those who were taking him seriously, dire warnings that his nationalist and populist message was in fact resonating with large factions of the public, or at the very least, once a voter was all alone in a voting booth, pen to paper, there would be a strong temptation to say, ‘fuck it’, to explore ‘what if’. Wouldn’t it be funny?
But those warnings were easy to ignore in the face of common sense.
Well. Here we are.
On election night, if nothing else, I learned how wrong I was. I learned that common sense is relative, that the ridiculous can become normalised, even glorified, particularly when people are struggling. I learned that anything can happen.
On election night, as I watched the live ‘likelihood of victory’ meter grow larger and larger in favour of Trump, I felt eyes on me in the newsroom.
Everyone wanted to know what I thought, how I felt, the resident American. This man was now the face of my nation. Without a word, one colleague stood up and gave me a hug. Others shook their heads, dumbfounded. Others smirked. Oh well, another said. It’s not the end of the world.
And other Australians I’ve spoken to, who may or may not share Trump’s brand of casual xenophobia, think he’s actually onto something. For me personally, to see a man who embodies many things I abhor, who rejects things like rationalism, inclusion, diversity, compassion, depth of thought and understanding, intellect, facts, kindness, humility, the ability to listen, to be wrong, to learn -- to see a man like that become the leader of your nation is defeating.
But living in Australia, it’s easy to distance myself. His policies affect me much less directly than they do my family and friends. His face isn’t in my living room every night. Here, even if I don’t agree with a particular leader’s platform, policy or party, at least I have some confidence in their ability to understand their KPIs.
When I talk to my mom, a solid Democrat, and my dad, an independent, who has voted equally for Republicans and Democrats throughout his lifetime, they are both exasperated at Trump’s policies, antics and personal character, and wary of the social shifts that have come with his rise to power.
They keep holding out for impeachment, that maybe a personal or political scandal will finally stick -- with the full knowledge that scandal is his brand, his badge of honour. As Trump once famously said, he could shoot someone on New York City’s Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters.
The midterm election was Trump’s first major litmus test -- a barometer of the nation halfway through his presidency -- and it was heartening to see voters swing back a bit. Democrats recaptured one chamber of congress, the House of Representatives. But it was equally as disheartening to see other Trump-esque candidates, who espouse his same brand of nationalism, swept into office in Republican strongholds.
I feel very fortunate to live in Australia. As a permanent resident and not a citizen, I can’t vote here, but regardless of who is in power, I feel much more taken care of than I would back home.
I often wonder if Americans -- but particularly Trump supporters, many of whom voted for him after years of job losses and eroding personal prosperity in their communities -- enjoyed the same social programs that Australians have, if they would feel as disenfranchised, if they would need to embrace such extreme candidates in order to feel their are voices heard.
If they had Medicare, for instance, instead of a patchwork of for-profit, often predatory private health insurance companies. Or if they had HECS instead of tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of dollars in student loan debt, payable despite financial circumstances, with hefty interest. If they had four weeks paid vacation, instead of two weeks, or none at all, depending on their job and position. If they had a year of maternity leave, instead of being back to work within a week of giving birth. If they had adequate financial support if they were out of work, until they could secure a new job, and if they had accessible and affordable avenues of job training.
I don’t know to what degree that would cure society’s ills, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt.
I wonder how much momentum a swing toward populism and nationalism could sustain, if, instead of stoking its fires, which often have racist and xenophobic roots, blaming outsiders for societies’ troubles, politicians provided Americans security through effective social programs.
But admittedly, I am not a policy expert nor a social commentator.
But I am an American, and I can wholeheartedly tell you that Trump’s voice does not represent mine. It also does not represent millions of other Americans, who remain bitterly disappointed in his election, and bitterly disappointed about what his election signifies about our country in the first place.