Thursday, 10 November 2016

Think you can escape America? Think again

Horrified by what I was seeing from Americans, I left the country a decade ago. But I came to learn that wherever I go, the American people determine my fate.

On 2 November 2004 I made a fateful choice. I was living in Chicago at the time, and was watching that year’s presidential election results at a friend’s apartment. We were all pretty sure that Democrat John Kerry was going to win. After all, sitting president George W Bush had been completely discredited by the Iraq War debacle, right?

It didn’t work out that way. Despite polls predicting a Kerry win, Bush emerged victorious. People at the apartment were perplexed, some were crying. I left by myself and walked to Lake Michigan. I stared out at the water and decided I did not see a future for myself in the United States. I vowed to move to Europe.

My decision wasn’t based on fear of a Bush second term. He had already been president for four years, we knew what to expect. It was instead because of what I had witnessed in the campaign. Bush had won against all odds because of a concerted strategy by his campaign to exploit hate and fear among the US electorate. They strategically put referendums to ban gay marriage on the ballot in swing states, to drive up turnout by social conservatives. They ran race-baiting ads warning about out of control crime in inner cities. They exploited 9/11 and said Kerry would be soft on terror. 

Perhaps worst of all, they launched a campaign of disinformation with false stories about Kerry’s war service. Kerry was a medal-winning war hero, but the ads portrayed him as a coward and an enemy sympathizer. The ads featured a few members of Kerry’s former swift boat platoon who made up demonstrably false lies about their experiences with him. Despite countless media reports explaining that these ads were pure fiction, the image of Kerry as a traitor and a coward stuck with the public. Since then, when this happens to a politician analysts have taken to calling it “getting swift-boated”.

What was bothering me so much that night as I stared out at the lake was not what Bush had done in this campaign. It was how receptive the American people were to it. I was disturbed by the credulousness of voters, by the hatred, fear and bigotry that had motivated so many to turn out to the polls.

A lot of people were swearing they would move abroad that night, but I did it – moving to London in 2006. By the time of the next presidential election in 2008 I was living in Paris. I remember watching the win for Barack Obama come in, and getting texts from my elated friends and family saying “now you can move back!”

But I had no intention of doing that. Because I had also witnessed the stadiums screaming in adoration for Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. I saw the hateful rhetoric she peddled, the proud ignorance she celebrated, and the outrageous lies she spread. She may have lost, but were it not for the extraordinary political skills of a celebrity politician like Barack Obama, she could have easily won. And at the time, people were expecting her to run for president herself in 2012. Such was the degree to which she had captivated and enthralled half of Americans.

Those people never went away. They resurfaced in the Tea Party that brutally handicapped Obama’s presidency for eight years. And they came out again for Trump. They were always there, even if the American media couldn’t bring themselves to acknowledge the darkness in their fellow citizens’ hearts.

You can’t escape

In the hours and days following Trump’s victory, I’ve seen a lot of people posting their intentions to move abroad. The Canadian immigration web site crashed after being overloaded with people looking at ways to move there. 

Far be it for me to discourage anyone’s plans. After all, I chose this path myself 12 years ago. But do not delude yourself into thinking you can escape Trump by moving abroad. America is everywhere.

No matter which country you’re in, turn on your television and it won’t take you more than two minutes to find an American TV show. Turn on the radio and you’ve got a 70% chance of immediately hearing an American song. Pick up a newspaper in any European country today – Trump dominates the front page. On any day, there will be news from the US.

America isn’t just any country. It is the most powerful country on Earth, and at the moment, the world’s only superpower. When it comes to politics, European media seems to pay more attention to the US election than they do their own elections. Why? Because Europe is still an American military protectorate. Here in Germany, there are more American soldiers than German ones.

That is why everyone here is terrified today. People in Berlin are walking down the street with a dazed expression on their face. It is an expression that says we have just been hit by a world-changing event. Something akin to a meteor smashing into the Atlantic Ocean.

This is not just true for Europe. Canada, which seems to be everyone's preferred destination, is even more dominated by the United States.

It doesn’t matter how far I move. Those people - the ones who bayed at the Palin rallies and were goaded to the polls by lies and bigotry in 2004 - still control my fate. If the United States decides to end military protection over Europe, as Trump has suggested, this continent is left defenseless. And me and my neighbors are in danger.

Perhaps this will change with the Trump victory, as Europeans realize that Americans cannot be trusted to run the world. But even with the death knell of the ‘Pax Americana’ era which rung out across the world this week, America is still the dominant power for years to come. It will remain, now horrifyingly, the “indispensable nation” in the short term. 

You might think I feel immune to what is happening in America now. Perhaps I should even feel smug, because I got out when I did. But I didn’t ‘get out’. Nobody can ‘get out’ of America, because it follows you wherever you go. I’m no safer or better off than any of you in the US right now. In fact, I’m perhaps in even more danger in the short term, close as I am to Russia.

Nor can I pretend that the rising tide of populist nationalism is unique to the United States. It is also on the rise in Europe, as we saw with June’s Brexit vote. Far-right leaders across the continent trumpeted their praise for the new US president yesterday. His victory makes their victory ever-more likely, particularly in the French presidential election next year. And unlikely as it seems, Germany’s far-right could also see a significant victory in 2017. The Anglo-Saxon countries were probably only the first dominoes to fall.

If you’re thinking about moving abroad, do it. It’s been an amazing and enriching experience for me and opened my mind to new ideas and new people. But don’t move to get away from Trump, or to get away from the Americans who voted for him. Because there’s nowhere in the world you can hide from America.

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