our planet’s latest entertainment: the 2016 US Election.
I felt the pleasant buzz settle in as I finished off my bottle of wine. Swaying slowly in time with the music, my consciousness drifted among the sea of students celebrating the start of our mid-semester break. The dim lights illuminated my friend Sarah’s long, curly hair as she threw her head back and laughed for no apparent reason.
“Wait—you’re from the US, right?”
I turned to face the tall brown-haired boy with the dark green eyes and the lopsided smile. Our conversation was easy if a little superficial, and my attention strayed to his hands, mesmerised as each syllable was emphasised by a new twist of those long fingers.
“Hmm? Oh, yes.”
A new song came on, the speakers booming out the base chords with enough strength that the walls trembled with each consecutive beat. I gently brushed Sarah’s flailing arms out of my immediate vicinity.
“What do you think of Trump?”
My carefree smile faded as the pleasant buzz shattered.
One of the first things I had to do upon arriving in New Zealand was brush up on my knowledge of the nominees for the upcoming election: Donald J. Trump and Hillary R. Clinton. The irony of having to read-up once having left the US has not been lost on me.
It’s as though people here are equal parts horrified and fascinated by the decisions and actions of the two main characters in their favourite TV show. They’re not sure they really want to see how it ends, and yet they’re unable to look away. As an American, every other local I meet wants to discuss politics, to get the informed inside scoop from someone who was “on-site” not too long ago.
I’m sought out for a first-hand American perspective on the election, put in the spotlight and practically demanded to explain how the current situation was crafted. They want to know how I think it will and should resolve itself.
The level of disgust with each candidate, and the system in general, seems to have become an integral part of the standard vetting processes for my New Zealand classmates during the burgeoning stage of any new friendship—a seemingly useful way to weed out Americans they would rather avoid.
It should come as no surprise that an overwhelming anti-Trump sentiment permeates through most of New Zealand. The level of respect granted to Hillary Clinton, though, varies greatly from discussion to discussion. The general consensus, at least among the student population at the University of Otago, is rather simplistic: he’s insane, she’s corrupt.
Due to the time difference between New Zealand and the US, the presidential debates can be streamed live at 2 p.m. in the afternoon of what is technically the next day. Everyone on campus was settling down or meeting up to watch the last debate.
“Are you coming over this afternoon?”
“Jarrod’s streaming it for us, putting it up on his TV.”
Jarrod, the only Kiwi in a flat with four Americans. Why doesn’t it seem odd that he’s the one organizing the event?
“I’ll be there, it’s too depressing to watch alone.”
“I know. Bring popcorn?”
The US election has become entertainment for the rest of the world, watched with incredulous, mocking and disgusted eyes.
But it is watched. What people in America don’t seem to realize is how much our nation is watched by the rest of the world. Our politics, decisions, rulings, and stances hold a lot of weight in the international community, setting a template that many follow. A small country like New Zealand almost has no choice but to keep an eye on the larger players.
And standing outside our borders, the current situation seems almost impossible to defend.
“I hope Trump wins.”
My head whipped around, knocking the bowl off the counter. Jordan’s hand darted out, catching the gnocchi before dinner became modern art floor decor. I stared, incredulous, visions of a future of turmoil, increased radicalism and racism flashing before my eyes. I tried to remind myself that my boyfriend was not, in fact, a Trump supporter by any stretch of imagination.
I did not hide my disgruntled confusion.
His eyes were dancing as he placed the gnocchi back on the table.
“I want to see what happens.”
“You know, some of us have to go back and live there once the election’s over.”
For so many reasons, I was nervous to discover the outcome of this election—yet it seems as though the damage has already been done by the lengthy campaigns. The US has been ruptured into strongly opposing segments, with radically different ideologies, fed by a questionable two-party system that has jeopardised our future as a united nation.
The damage on an international level has been equally tarnishing. I have watched our nation become the subject of mockery, disbelief, and entertainment. My classmates no longer look at the US as a strong, unshakable international power to emulate; rather they now see it as just another fractured state with an uncertain future.
I stood behind the counter, staring up at the colorful McDonald’s sign and trying to decide between nuggets or a burger. I had abandoned my spot at the library a few hours ago despite the final exam the next afternoon, unable to focus as the votes poured in. It was now nearly 8:30 in the evening, and I’d finally left the couch in favor of locating some food. We’d been streaming NBC news for hours, and the entire race was moving sluggishly.
“Hillary conceded, Nicole just texted.”
I blinked. Blinked again, and turned to look at Louise, who was poised behind me, eyes simultaneously sympathetic and startled. It wasn’t exactly unexpected—the distribution of electoral votes had turned grim, slowly trickling towards Trump—but NBC still hadn’t called Pennsylvania or Michigan, considering the states were still too close to call fifteen minutes ago.
A startled numbness gripped me, and Louise gently pushed in front of me to place her order.
“Trump’s the new American president, can you believe it?”
“Oh my god, no way. For real?”
“I know. We left the TV for five minutes, and the world goes sideways. Honestly, I—”
“Could… could I have a hug?” I interrupted Louise, the shock still running through me. I was afraid.
We’re a resilient country, we will prove that. We will ride the coming waves of change and pull through; all the stronger for it as a nation.
Louise slung an arm around my shoulders, pulling me forwards with a simple explanation to the woman behind the counter. “She’s American—lives in the States.”
“Oh.” The sympathy on the woman’s face as I ordered nuggets was almost unbearable. It was the same look you’re given when a family member has died, and no one can quite figure out what to say.
“Here, hopefully this will help you perk up. Free of charge.”
I startled slightly, thoughts having drifted to friends and family, beginning to try and coldly calculate the potential impacts of the election.
“Oh. Thank you.”
When a complete stranger in New Zealand feels so bad for you that you’re offered a free McDonald’s ice-cream as consolation for the results of a political election half-way around the world, there’s not really much more you can say.