America From Afar

Sickening. Heartbreaking. Surreal.

What is happening to America? Waking up on Corroboree, sitting down to a peaceful breakfast, the sunshine of another beautiful Australian day slanting through the portholes, the celestial music of Beethoven emanating from radio, it is staggering to see and hear the news unfolding in the United States 9,000 miles away. It looks like an overblown disaster film playing out in some alternate universe. It feels like the end of the world.

I rarely include my politics in this blog; that’s not what it’s about. There are already plenty of voices reporting, analyzing and arguing every position on the spectrum. There are way too many slinging opinions like sledgehammers and flaunting fake news without the least concern for facts. I refuse to join the melee; I doubt could add anything new. But I can’t go unrecorded. I can’t let anyone reading my blog think that Eric and I are unaware, unconcerned or dismissive of current events. We have family and friends in Chicago, Portland OR, and other US cities where rioting has occurred. In two months’ time our first grandchild will be born in Atlanta where vandalism and looting have brought out the National Guard.

In our three and a half years traveling abroad we have often been asked by people in the countries we have visited about various issues in the United States from politics to culture to everyday life. We are careful in responding to separate fact from rumor and to identify our personal opinions as such. We have asked for and received their impressions of America in return. In that time we have felt a shift in their attitudes. They still like Americans, overwhelmingly so, but they are finding the United States increasingly difficult to comprehend. Increasingly, we have shared their confusion and dismay. Now, hearing the latest news reports, we are torn between grief and utter disbelief at the hatred and violence that is swamping America. We feel like dazed foreigners regarding America from afar.

When we sailed from Florida in January 2017, Donald Trump was about to take office. I’m sure you know how we voted. Interestingly, even today, when that election is mentioned, people from other countries tell us how stunned they also were by the result. It was as if everything they thought they knew about the United States had taken a body blow. Nevertheless, they were willing to give it a chance. As one Englishwoman comfortingly told us, “Don’t worry. We’ve bad leaders before, too. You’ll get over it.” We agreed. Governments are bound to change, but with its strong tradition of democracy, its system of checks and balances, a free press, and leadership in so many fields of endeavor, the United States could survive one bumbling president.

Indeed, that general opinion held for the first year, and wherever we went, Corroboree flying her American flag, we were welcomed. Overall, people seemed to regard President Trump as a joke and would tease us about his latest fumbled pronouncement or social gaffe. They didn’t bother to ask first whether we were Trump supporters. They assumed that even if you had voted for him, you would happily acknowledge he was a great source of amusement, like a laugh-a-day desk calendar. Then they went back to debating the actions of their own governments and politicians. No need to spend too much time on America’s politics when you have your own issues and cast of characters to praise or revile.

By the time we crossed the Pacific in March 2018, we were less sanguine, and we began to sense a change in other people’s feelings toward Washington as well. At this point, the United States had begun to withdraw from some international organizations and go its own way in both commercial and political spheres, leaving countries that were once strong allies to fend for themselves. The USA’s trade war with China was especially worrying to South Pacific nations, from small nations like Samoa and Fiji to their larger neighbors New Zealand and Australia. These countries live in China’s shadow, and every time the United States and China retaliated against each other, their economies got jerked this way and that.

By 2019 Donald Trump wasn’t funny anymore. Most of all, people seemed to feel a sense of loss that America, once their staunch friend, had abandoned them. Why? What had they done to deserve this? Didn’t we share the same values and aspirations? For me, this was a revelation. Having sometimes encountered ugly Americans in our overseas travels, I had thought even our allies would occasionally get fed up with our boasts of being the number one superpower and leader of the free world. No. Though they may find our boasting tiresome, though they certainly can and do forge their own political and economic deals, they still want and need us to take a leadership role. My first job out of college was at United Nations headquarters in New York, and to me, that the United States has willfully removed itself from the international stage is nothing less than a dereliction of duty. A telling comment came from a vet tech we worked with at the animal shelter in New Zealand. Originally from South Africa, she said, “It’s sad, because America used to be the country everyone looked up to.”

Now, many of the people we meet are no longer merely disappointed in the United States, they are aghast. A president who thinks Covid-19 will disappear like a miracle. Armed protestors besieging state capitols. Yet another black man murdered by police. Riots across the country. Normally very outgoing, some Aussies now enter discussions with us cautiously to determine where we stand politically before commenting on current affairs, and most sigh in relief to hear we are not supporters of this administration. Others charge right in and demand, no holds barred, “What’s the matter with your country? How could you let this happen?”

How could we? I don’t know, and with President Trump’s malicious campaign against mail-in voting, Eric and I are in danger of not having any say at all. This may seem a minor concern in the face of riots and murder, but Americans working and traveling around the world depend on mail-in voting to be heard. In the 2018 mid-term elections, we voted by mail from Fiji, and it is a right no citizen should ever forego. When you restrict or hinder voting by any means, you no longer have a democracy. That should chill everyone to the bone.

Will America survive? Are we headed for another civil war? I can’t imagine returning to a country reduced to shambles, but I don’t have a single solution to offer that makes sense in this chaos. We can only watch and hope from afar.