I am not a political pundit or an op-ed writer. I don’t wear my politics or spiritual beliefs on my shirtsleeve. I write stories. Not of war and peace, but about relationships, experiences, or simply a place–often overseas.
Twenty-nine years ago, we chose to leave our home in the U.S. and move to a country in Asia with two very young children. The initial motivation was a job opportunity. But the multi-cultural, international lifestyle suited us. So we remained abroad, living as expatriates.
From the beginning, we found ourselves experiencing stronger patriotic feelings toward our country by living outside it and looking back in. We talked about this with other Americans also living overseas. We weren’t alone in our pride.
People from other cultures have often told us how much they love and admire the United States. They openly wept and leant support in times of national disaster, 9/11 in particular.
They followed the details of our presidential elections. No matter what country we lived in, we have been asked to give opinions about current U.S. politics. Keen to the international importance of American leadership, people were interested in our “insider” knowledge. Which was, of course, simply what we ourselves believed.
This 2016 presidential election has been a turning point to wondering where in the world we belong. Yes, we are a generation older. Our global perspective feels very normal to us now. Yet, we are clearly outsiders looking back to a country we no longer recognize. We see a head-knocking clash of values and compromised national character.
This has been THE most difficult of elections to discuss or try to explain to non-Americans. During the campaign, my husband and I were often asked by neighbors in our Paris apartment building how Donald Trump could become a candidate for the Republican Party.
We fumbled for words that mostly ended in head-shaking silence. Throughout the whole painful cycle we hung onto the [naïve] hope that preparation and decency and respect for the responsibility of being President of the United States would win in the end.
Because it didn’t work out that way, we have stumbled. We feel stuck in a way that is difficult to shake. Or explain to others in our overseas world.
My personal upset, initially “all over the map”, was honed by something I read a few days ago. A female educator, in Massachusetts, initially thought her sorrow would be about the loss of a qualified woman to lead the U.S., the loss of knowing what could have been.
She went on to say, “…but that’s not where the disappointment is for me. The disappointment is in the values that won and what it means for lots of people.”
In other words, our collective sorrow should be directed towards the dread of a man whose character and values make him a devastating choice both at home and in the world.
And there, in a nutshell, is my sticking point.
Values are goals to strive for, abstract standards to live by. They are the moral fiber that makes us human. Having them defines character. We grow up. We get to choose personal values that play to our individuality, defining the path by which we live.
There is also a history of values that Americans have culturally ascribed to those serving as U.S. President. Intelligence, preparation, responsibility to service and inclusion of all others, integrity on the job–these are a few.
Living in Europe the past eleven years has solidified for us the valued role American leadership has played historically and continues to play globally. In Normandy, where we repeatedly visit, United States and French flags are flown side by side. At the American cemetery on Omaha beach, French school children annually adopt an individual gravesite to take care of, remembering and learning about the soldier who lies there.
On this windy, northern French coastline the memories of WWII remain very strong. People in Normandy beam when they learn you are American. All Europeans remember that in 1948, via the Marshall Plan, the U.S. pledged to rebuild a devastated continent. It was a remarkable historical first–the victor rising to aid the vanquished. These events [including the noble Berlin airlift] occurred because of morally responsible government leadership and values that represented the best of America.
One more story: Today, my husband went to pick up his dry cleaning. The normally reserved woman at the counter looked directly at him and asked, “How are you doing?’ Then she said, with utter despair, “I have no words!” It was raw emotion.
This election isn’t solely about disenfranchised voters with a myopic view of what they “think” is going to change and “the guy” who can get the job done. It isn’t solely about the inability to break a ceiling by a woman capable of doing so.
This election, as all before it, is also about the recognition, reputation and stance of the United States in the world. It has unnerved people internationally that much of our American-ness, the compassion and cultural values exercised and upheld for 240+ years have been cast aside by so many. At what cost?
And now, for the first time looking upon my country from afar…I feel ashamed.