Photo: Jessica Acosta
Alex Marx is a writer, reader, and conversationalist. The views and opinions expressed in this article are hers and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Matador Network.
On Aljazeera, the day after the US presidential election, I heard one American commentator say to another — “Did you cry?”
“No, I didn’t cry. But my kids did,” answered the middle-aged political scientist.
This man’s kids are probably around my age, which means they were most likely newly able to vote during the first Obama campaign. We, millennials, are the generation who has been reading soft-core feminist discussions on the internet for the last 10 years and arguing about the semantics of racism instead of actively fighting the reality of it. In short: we never saw a Trump presidency coming. We didn’t think it was possible. We were too busy being bummed that Bernie wasn’t running as an Independent.
Although I have always considered myself to be above-average politically aware — even active — I was absolutely blind-sided by the race we watched last Tuesday night. It was little comfort to hear that many of my more informed friends, working at not-for-profits and attending top law programs across the country, were no more prepared than I was.
On election morning I was excited to see whether Texas could be a swing state for the first time since 1976 but by 3 a.m. I was shaking from emotional exhaustion. I was not the only one who was crying at the bar while Pennsylvania’s count came in.
The bar in south Austin where we watched the election had advertised on its website: “Come see history made tonight as we elect the first woman president!”
None of us in there saw it coming.
And this, to me, is the worst part of the recent elections. We who live in big cities and consider ourselves global citizens, we, who have traveled abroad and love feeling mobile and able to pick up and move at the drop of a hat — we didn’t realize that our own country might still be debating the basic rights of its citizens and residents.
“So what, you’re going to burn your passport?” my partner asked me skeptically. I had just stopped to breathe during a tirade against my compatriots who believe physical, sexual assault is a fringe issue when electing a leader.
“Might as well!” I said. “We’ve lost all credibility. The rest of the world won’t even take us seriously after this.”
“My condolences,” a Canadian friend texted me at midnight. We heard around the same time that the Canadian immigration website had crashed.
It is not without some tears, and some conversation, and a lot of pouting on my part, that I came to the reluctant conclusion that this election means I won’t be leaving the country so soon. After bookmarking teaching English positions abroad for the better part of a year and saving my pennies for my next great adventure, I’ve decided to remain stateside for a little while longer.
I’ll even go one step further and submit a request to all of you who had a similar experience watching the election on Tuesday. All of you who have lived abroad and could again, who recognize the absurd global position the election outcome has put us in, and who, like me, shudder to imagine the regressive politics a Trump administration has promised to practice — please, consider staying for a while or even coming back if you’re already an expat.
Hear me out:
A major reason we travel is for perspective, right? Many of us have felt that we need to leave the country in order to better understand the opinions and lifestyles of people very different from us. Long-term travel and ex-patriotism is not the easy course, even if it does satisfy something restive in my personality. We travel because it’s hard and it makes us look at ourselves and our assumptions. Love of travel is love of learning. Because we value the human experience, we want to check our privilege, examine our biases, and enter into a broader conversation that involves all cultures and all peoples.
As it turns out, the most shocking stance I have encountered in a very long time is held by the people in my own country, most of whom come from a background that is seemingly similar to mine. America may not seem the most exotic destination to those of us who were previously planning backpacking excursions in the Himalayas, but based on the results of the election, middle America is a lot more foreign to me than I had thought. This culture, too, deserves our open-minded consideration.
To leave the US now in favor of an ex-pat life in a country that may be more like-minded, globally conscious, and even practicing of ethics which might better map onto my personal value system is the easier route. Fleeing to a more liberal, progressive society is to endanger myself of the same close-mindedness and fear-driven reasoning to which Trump’s voters were victim. They were compelled by Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric; I am just as afraid of them as they are of so-called “criminal immigrants.” Fear is something that travel helps me to limit. After willfully traveling solo in some small effort to break down stereotypes in cities where machismo culture dominates — I will not let myself be frightened away so easily by the same sentiments at home.
I’m not saying I’m not scared. When I review Trump’s campaign promises, I’m absolutely terrified. But I do not intend to let this be my primary motivator in leaving.
A further deterrent is the simple fact that I no longer feel the same luxury to travel abroad that I did mere days ago. This election was another reminder to check my privilege. Not everyone in this country who will be affected by the policies of a Trump administration has the luxury of picking up and leaving, or even believing that there might be other societies who would welcome them.
The power of solidarity cannot be underestimated, though. Standing with all of the people who were not adequately represented by the recent vote is more necessary now than ever. I was feeling hopeless and drained on the morning after the election. After a day of protests, I did not feel so isolated. I protested — and I work a job. The protests that passed below our office windows were the most comforting message imaginable.
The internet detractors cannot deter a democracy from exercising its right to assemble and feel anger. The protest movements in recent weeks may not be screaming the most articulate message, or even demonstrate that democracy is the protestors’ primary goal. Some among the mob may be as guilty of bigotry and unreasoning hate as the worst among our opponents — but when the metaphorical and literal ashes settle, what’s important is that we have stood in solidarity. It is vital that we continue to do so.
Those of us whose reality was trampled by the Trump campaign felt like we’d lost our voice on Tuesday night. Women who watched Roe v. Wade come under fire, racial minorities who withstood awful slurs thrown on public television, immigrants and their children whose contribution was not only overlooked, but credited for the downfall of the economy, and the LGBTQ community watching their so recently, hard-won marriage rights slipping away — we are historically powerless groups. We have made notable gains in recent years, but not without a lot of hard-fought battles. There are more battles to fight and this election comes as a reminder that freedom comes at a high cost, as cliché as it sounds. We have to check our privilege, limited as it may seem.
We are privileged to live in a democracy. We are privileged to stand among smart, articulate, and powerful actors. We are privileged that our freedom of speech is not yet threatened and that our right to assemble cannot be muted — our ability to stand together openly in the streets is, in and of itself, a privilege.
Refugees seeking asylum from all across the globe right now, aren’t able to share in these same privileges. They are envious of what we have — if we fail to protect the powers that still remain to us now, declare ourselves among the refugees and flee, we will never be able to help those people displaced by violence and religious war who look to us for aid. Until our own powers are stripped as thoroughly as theirs have been, we cannot flee from the opportunity to stand for our values of inclusion and multiculturalism.
The ancient Greek philosopher, citizen of the early democracy Athens, famously observed: “Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy.” We are making it all the easier for America to cease to be a democracy and a refuge if we minorities leave.
We international travelers have learned firsthand that there are so many diverse ways to live, many that are more true to the human condition and more inclusive than the one we see dominating in our country. Let’s start reflecting on what we love about the other countries we’ve visited and propose some real alternatives here at home.
So, putting aside my personal fears and checking my privilege, I am going to prolong my life-long plan to travel the world. I’ll be staying stateside for the next few years, it seems. I’m staying for my friends who are undocumented and my friends who so recently earned their marriage rights, but also for the people who I cannot now understand. I’ll be staying for the women who think that a man in power has a right to their bodies and for those who live in fear of the inclusive society I idealize. In the end, we have to stay for our fellow citizens who voted for the infringement of our rights and the rights of many others — even though they have certainly not asked us to stay.
During my lifetime, discourse has never seemed so essential, so I intend to put to use the skills that international travel taught me: open-mindedness, inexhaustible respect, awareness of my own biases. I do not need to travel now because I have never felt so much like a stranger in my own country.
What we need desperately in the aftermath of this election is thoughtful conversation and openness in the face of fear-mongering and bigotry. Instead of souvenirs and photographs from our travels, let’s bring home the willingness to exchange ideas and the courage to champion multiculturalism.