Article Thumbnail

From Britain to America, With Empathy

We saw this coming before you did, but trust us: We’re not laughing

Among the condolences and grief I saw from fellow Europeans across social media this week, in the wake of Donald Trump being elected actual President of the actual United States of America — everything from the anxious messages from people of color, women and the LGBT community about how they will deal with the result, to the joking references to David Bowie’s having been the glue that bound the universe together — there were words of calm. Assurances, generally from the older generation, that they’ve seen it all before. That the world is better off now than it was in their day. That all politicians, when it comes down to it, are the same. That Hillary was bad too, actually. That it may not seem like it right now, but we are making progress.

If 2016 is progress, then progress is overrated.

This was the year when our generation was finally supposed to have a political allegiance we could believe in. For many of my friends in the U.K. who doubled down on their political apathy when the Liberal Democrats abandoned their youth-focused principles for a shot at power, there was renewed vigor. Jeremy Corbyn had been elected to be leader of the Labour party with the largest mandate of any Labour leader in the post-war era, galvanizing more young people than ever before, and there was a referendum to be had on Britain’s future within the EU, for which there only seemed to be one sensible outcome. We had a team! And for a time, it really felt like we were on the winning side.

This was mirrored in the States, too. Watching from afar, the idea of Donald Trump campaigning for the Republican nomination seemed so ridiculous it wasn’t even worth considering. On the other side, you had this exciting groundswell of support for Bernie Sanders, who seemed very much like Corbyn’s equivalent, but you also had the possibility that the first black president would be followed by the first female president. Progress.

Then the year began, and things just got steadily worse. Corbyn’s Labour wasn’t the firebrand opposition we hoped it would be. The referendum campaign escalated, beset by anti-immigrant sentiment and bitter, hateful rhetoric. By the time the vote came, we were exhausted. We turned out, we slept, and then we woke up, and there it was. We weren’t on the winning team after all.

In the lead-up to Election Day in the States, there was a horrible feeling of déjà vu. Friends of mine who were going to bars to watch the results come in until 5 a.m. weren’t going with the mood of optimism that had followed them in the previous two U.S. elections, but rather with a sense of wanting to get a head start on drowning their sorrows. The polls were predicting a Hillary win — but the polls had also predicted a win for Remain. As well as being amateurish and unqualified, Trump was also openly racist and misogynistic. The polls closed, and a senior Trump adviser said it’d “take a miracle to win.” It didn’t make sense that Trump would win, so of course he was going to win. In the context of this year, his victory — at a canter — makes perfect sense.

As strong as the feeling of being let down by people is, there’s also a feeling of being let down by the system. The Leave campaign won on a string of deliberately manipulative lies and intangible rhetoric, which they reneged on almost immediately. For the U.S.—on top of the comparable heap of bullshit from Trump—there’s the electoral college system . Imagine this was your first chance to participate in democracy, and you went and voted for Clinton, and then you learn that, despite her having won the popular vote, she’s not going to be president.

For people who voted for Al Gore 16 years ago, to be let down again by this archaic system—which President-Elect Trump once called a “disaster for democracy”—must feel like a cruel joke. But even in 2000, Americans (and the world) were much less terrified than they are today. Right now, you’re being reminded to respect the democratic process, but that’s an even harder pill to swallow this time than it was then.

So now we’re at this odd, unsettling juncture. Conor Pope, a senior reporter at Labour List, wrote that this could herald “the end of ‘The West’ as we know it,” and that the same forces that drove Trump’s victory — a white working-class dissatisfaction with institutions such as the EU, NATO, IMF and WTO, which have been in place for 30 years or more — also drove Brexit. Since the referendum here, the ramifications have been so totally shambolic and intangible that it’s been hard to process what’s been going on, leading it to be filtered through news stories surrounding whether Tesco will stock Marmite anymore.

Now, with the High Court ruling that Parliament must hold a vote on triggering Article 50, everything’s up in the air again. Maybe the pattern will continue, and this bewilderment — this state of flux — will sweep America in the next few months, as the idea of a Trump presidency begins to take shape, but maybe that’s just more blind optimism. This feels worse; this feels more concrete.

It’s very, very difficult to see 2016 as anything but a year of backward steps. Racism has won, misogyny has won. The most vulnerable people in society are now worse off than they were 12 months ago. That’s not progress, that is the exact opposite of progress, and it’s really difficult to find a silver lining in any of this.

When I woke up and saw that Trump had been elected, I made a list of everything I loved about America — things that I still love about America, things that I’ve always loved about America. You’ve got to understand that as a kid growing up in small-town Wales, being American was about the coolest thing I could possibly think of. I thought of the blues, and I thought of protest music, and I thought of being in New Orleans, and it occurred to me that the common denominator across everything was that it was born from some kind of fight. If there is a silver lining, maybe that’s it, that the fight now will be stronger than ever, because there’s more at stake. Our team may have lost, but we know what mast to nail our colors to.