Will I dare say it aloud? But then, everything about “politically correct” seems thrown to the dogs these days. And perhaps the core of the problem is we’ve had an overdose of political correctness, which has drugged the capacity to see, and hear, and feel.
So I’ll say it outright: I’m not surprised at the results of the American presidential election. I am only surprised, in a way, by America’s surprise.
I’m an islander. I come from the confetti-island of Mauritius, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, off the eastern coast of Africa. As a writer, I am here courtesy of the International Writing Program in Iowa City. As a journalist, I arrived here eager to understand. I was eager to understand what was happening to America, the country which had just recently elected its first Black president, the famed melting pot, the country where Dream with a capital D could come true. I was eager to understand what was happening to the version of America that it had brought to the very doors of the presidential office, a man acting and talking in the worst racist, excluding, xenophobic, aggressive, unlearnt, and sexist way, like an angry, fretful and gesticulating caricature of a caricature from a Muppet Show turned sour and alien.
For the past three months, I have been binge-watching and listening to people across America, attending Clinton and Trump rallies, trying to be in contact what was foreign to me.
Three things struck me.
First was the energy I found in Trump supporters. They were intent, galvanized, ready to march to the polling offices, determined. They possessed something clearly lacking in Hillary Clinton’s rallies, which were not driven by any strong force, but rather the depressing feeling of having, some way or another, to get up and vote against something, not for a person or a project of society.
Second, the diversity of people expressing, even reluctantly, their intention to vote for Trump. I’ve met so many, who have gradually brought me to understand that it was too simple, and limited, to think of Trump supporters as just plain bad, racist and stupid people. I could give so many examples but I will just use one, which to me sums up a lot. Lynn is 20, studying psychology at Iowa University. She was adopted from China when she was two. Lynn is a bright, sensitive, civil, reflexive young person, who first told me, three months ago, that she knew she had to vote, but was at a loss to know for whom, so uninspiring the two candidates appeared to her. When asked if she had made up her mind one week before the election, she shrugged and sighed: “I guess it will be Trump in the end. Because if we’re not happy with him, he’ll be easier to get rid of compared to Hillary who knows and manipulates all the state’s inner workings and machinery.”
Much remains to be analyzed about the “angry white man” phenomenon, and about the impact neo-liberalism is having on our individual and shared humanity. Much remains to be analyzed about the fear of a future of which many people feel to have lost all understanding, let alone control. Much remains to be analyzed about the distrust and defiance towards a political and economic establishment which seem increasingly cut off from people’s daily lives and basic issues of concern. Much remains to be analyzed about the latent racism of a country which, barely fifty years ago, still had laws that made black people inferior in rights and existence.
As an islander, coming from a country still struggling with and striving to build on its ethnicity, I recognize islanding. And this is what I felt here. People islanding away from each other. The United States of America taking the face of an archipelago of islets who, under a strange and disruptive force, were sent drifting apart.
As islanders, we know how attentive we have to be to signs when a cyclone approaches. As much as I felt that something very intricate and forceful was coming on, I felt like a lot of people here didn’t want to have anything to do with it, didn’t want to know. (I was even asked, in disbelief and mild suspicion, if I was becoming a Trump supporter for wanting to meet his supporters and attend his rallies!)
We do protect ourselves as we can. And the mere presence of Trump at this level of American’s political life is understandably something a lot of people would prefer to wipe out altogether. But this has its limits, and dangers, as the results of this election shows.
After the disbelief and the shock, after choosing to go leaf-raking with a rage or to vow humanity to its death, we will perhaps have to learn, all of us, that we won’t be able anymore to avoid looking complexity in the eye. After Brexit in England, Trump in the States, Marine Le Pen coming up strong for France’s presidential election in 2017, will we be up to the challenge of really looking inside, listening, hearing, discussing, really trying to confront ourselves with what’s happening in people’s lives, heads and hearts? Vilifying the Trump voters as “deplorables” has shown its limits. If we want to overturn that trend, we won’t get away with just dismissing it. Instead, we’ll have to dig deeper, however hard it might be to overcome our ingrained dislikes and prejudices.
Amirtha Kidambi, of Indian parents, born and living in California, sings songs inspired by carnatic music and plays the harmonium. With saxophonist Matt Nelson, bassist Brandon Lopez and drummer Max Jaffe, one Jewish American, the others from Puerto Rico or El Salvador, they have created the group Elder Ones (inspired by Lovecraft). On the night of the results, I watched as this New York based band played its incredibly creative and powerful jazz while wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts. What does it mean to say that this is also America?
No man is an island, wrote Shakespeare nearly 400 years ago. And what if this was a wake up call, for various and dispersed energies to come together, and fight to understand, and overturn the divisive strategy?