My stomach fluttered throughout the day on Tuesday, November 8. As night approached, I hunkered down in front of the television. Realizing that the time difference would make it a long night, I returned to my room in the early morning, checking my laptop intermittently for live updates. I drifted off to sleep, awaking at 5am to check the results again. At this point, Trump had taken the major swing states, including my own, Pennsylvania. Sleepy confusion gave way to fatigue and I feel back asleep, not wanting to process the truth just yet.
I woke the next morning at 10am. My phone had blown up with messages. I skipped reading them and went straight to the results. No, it can’t be true—the trope of post-election white liberal denial.
The implications of the results slowly sunk in on Wednesday morning. A fellow American was visiting me during this time, but we had very little to say to each other that morning. Instead of talk, I stewed in visceral fear for my friends at home, a feeling I shouted into the cacophonous abyss of social media.
In the United States, I had worked for refugees in several capacities: as an intern at two resettlement agencies, as a volunteer at a refugee health clinic, and as a student conducting research with Iraqi women refugees. My first thoughts post-election were of what I would say to them. I’m sorry / I tried / I voted / there was nothing I could have done / please be safe / this country should be for you / I’m sorry that you are not welcome here / I’m sorry that we have failed you / I’m sorry.
To many, “refugees” are not so proximal, an object of political discourse as if they were some non-human entity like taxes. To me, they have names, faces, memories, stories, and are friends. My co-workers in resettlement now face potential unemployment, and the global refugee response, largely funded by the U.S., is in peril. I feel an enormous amount of responsibility to my former clients and to the cause. The election result felt like a personal failure.
After a lot of crying, my friend and I decided it was best to leave Ustinov College and went on a tour of Durham Cathedral. When our tour guide asked where we were from, we lied and said Toronto.
I had never wished so much not to be American. At the same time, I had never wished so much to be home. Starting that morning, I have been coming to know home as a different place.
On Wednesday evening, photos appeared of public property defaced with swastikas and “Sieg Heil” in Philadelphia, the city where I have lived for the past four years and the birthplace of the nation. My sister told me that a swastika appeared next to her house in Michigan. The Holocaust is a tragedy close to my family: my mother’s family is German-Jewish, and we have Holocaust survivors in our family.
I’d firmly believed that the tragedy of the Holocaust represented a universal understanding of right and wrong. Now, I’m forced to doubt how universal this understanding really is.
Similar hate crimes appeared across the country. Later in the week, I learned that Black freshmen at my alma mater were sent hate messages, called slurs, told the date that they would be lynched, and sent images of lynching as forewarning. The weekend after the election, I attended a talk by a university professor from Texas. She began her lecture by apologizing for being out of sorts: in the past week, she had received death threats from an armed militia of students because she identified as queer. For the first time, I questioned if it would be safe to publish papers myself. I felt betrayed.
For my British and otherwise non-American friends, Trump’s victory was largely a spectacle. For me, it is a lived reality that is threatening the safety of my friends, my family, my future, and my sense of home.
One of my flatmates had voiced support for Trump earlier in the term. After the election, we ran into each other, whereupon he began praising Trump’s tax plan for small- and medium-sized enterprises. I threw back a half-hearted retort, wishing that he would go away. I don’t care about his tax plans—that’s not important right now. I didn’t have the energy to explain. This episode illuminates disconnectedness that I have experienced in my conversations (and non-conversations) recently; a divide between the ways that non-Americans discuss the election and the experiences of violence and discrimination that are being experienced in everyday life at home.
In my head, I have taken the time to explain my post-election feelings to him over and over again. I have also drafted and re-drafted emails to my degree tutors asking for time off to go back to the U.S. I am growing increasingly intolerant of my inability to take action. Is this different from the paralysis of people at home? I am not sure. Either way, I would much rather be resisting this new dystopia with my family and friends.
Some of my friends look to me for a comment as The American. I usually make a joke, shake my head, or make a short, pointed remark. What I have learned in the past few weeks is that most people don’t really care much about what I have to say—they are more concerned with their own passionate opinions about my country. My terseness is usually met with a trite response, generally starting with a reference to Brexit and ending with a prediction about the future of the Trump regime. How do you engage in conversation with someone for whom this is pageant, not personal?
It seems to me that people outside of the U.S. sometimes feel as though they know what it is to be American, perhaps because of the prominence of United States in media and social discourse. Yet there is no intelligible political or social reality that amounts to understanding what it means to be American. In fact, there isn’t even one way to be American, and the current political climate is challenging this very notion of American-ness.
The American experience is not something that one can claim to know, now more than ever. Please keep that in mind when you talk to me about Trump.
Photograph by Nick Pezzillo