The subdued atmosphere that accompanied Trump’s inauguration quickly turned to anger for many liberal Americans as protests quickly and repeatedly broke out across the country. So how did it feel to live in a country so divided?
A year ago, Donald Trump was inaugurated the 45th president of the United States. I had been working in the US in the eighteen months leading up to that moment, but as Trump took to the stage in Washington DC last January, I watched from my new home in Guilin, China. Like many observers I had been deeply shaken by Trump’s victory. Despite the frustrations of manoeuvring over China’s internet firewall, I remember seeing Trump and being struck by my own relief that I was no longer in the US.
Indeed it was the Great Firewall itself that went on to become a major source of continued relief. If I wanted to engage with foreign news outlets, I had to actively decide to do so. This required turning on my VPN and waiting as websites that usually load in seconds took minutes. In this slow, difficult way I followed Trump’s first six months: the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, the conveyer belt of ousted political advisors, the Executive Orders restricting immigration. I didn’t keep up. But however much of a respite this initially felt, it was illusory. I also couldn’t access Netflix: it took too long to load. I couldn’t listen to podcasts for the same reason. It wasn’t much different with Facebook and Instagram, too. While it felt good to have some distance from American politics, the implications of this distance quickly became stifling.
Before coming to Guilin, I had spent 2015-16 living in Charlottesville, Virginia finishing my PhD in American history. I watched as Trump-the-laughed-at-candidate increasingly became Trump-the-terrifying-possibility. I spoke with people in bars, diners, and at university events and was met with a range of political views. Self-described radicals who declared they wouldn’t be voting at all. There was no difference between Clinton and Trump, they claimed, and besides, the system was rigged: Clinton would win anyway. White Virginians, snug in their Old South wealth, who ardently and aggressively supported Trump’s proposal to build a wall. Others, whom some might label “establishment sorts,” worried about what was happening to the electoral process. Some, so disillusioned with the political system that they said—only half-jokingly—“bring on the apocalypse.” Now that they couldn’t vote for Sanders, they would vote for Trump, so America could “start again.” People, mostly men, who said they were voting for Trump because he was a businessman and would set things right.
By the time of the election in November 2016, I had relocated briefly to Los Angeles. Sitting in a packed bar in the hipster neighbourhood of Silverlake, I saw a mostly white crowd become more and more subdued as the reality of a Trump presidency set in. A loudmouthed guy with a beard was telling anyone who’d listen he’d been LIVING IN A BUBBLE, MAN. Strangers were hugging. People cried in the street. The next morning, I watched as Clinton spoke to the country, insisting that due process must continue. Her stoicism was incredible to see. I went to UCLA that day and was overwhelmed by the eeriness of a campus filled with students yet starkly quiet. There was a fog of disbelief. The noise of protesters shutting down LA’s highways and declaring “love trumps hate” was to come later.
Not long after that I moved to China.
Most recently, in the first two weeks of 2018, I returned to the US for a conference and revisited Charlottesville. Catching up with colleagues and friends, we talked about what has changed since I left. Looming large in our conversations were the events of August last year, when a group of white supremacists marched through Charlottesville armed with tiki torches chanting “white lives matter,” “you will not replace us,” and “Jews will not replace us.” They told me of the woefully limited response from police. Of the fear and sorrow Heather Heyer’s death evoked. A close friend of mine had been standing just inches from where the car ploughed into the crowd and killed Heather. In the days that followed, the University of Virginia held a vigil, replacing torches for candles and singing civil rights-era songs. Today, the statue of Confederate leader, Robert E. Lee, which sparked the Unite The Right rally, remains standing in Emancipation Park, covered now by a black tarpaulin.
In some ways Charlottesville is a microcosm of liberal America: it’s a small, picturesque, wealthy college town with a long history of white gentrification and Democratic leadership. And like in many parts of the country, Trump’s victory and the violence of August has been met with renewed opposition. Academics in Charlottesville have organised multiple public lectures including on the history of Civil Rights and meaning of fascism, grassroots campaigners have renewed their push for living wages and sanctuary for immigrants against federal authorities. Just a few months ago, in November, this opposition came to a head, when Virginia became the site of the first major election since Trump came to office. Local organisers, including the Charlottesville branch of the nation-wide group Indivisible, lobbied people to get out and vote. It worked: Democrats picked up 15 new seats, and, breaking all records, women won all except four of them. A year earlier the most qualified person to ever run for president—who happened to be a woman—lost. The Virginia election—as with the Alabama senate election, where Doug Jones became the first Democratic senator from that state in 25 years—represented a small but perceptible backlash against this.
And it’s here, perhaps, that there was an unexpected symbolical potency in watching Clinton lose. The #metoo moment may not have quite the same tenor if not for the broader context in which it is playing out: one in which the United States did not elect the first female President, choosing instead a sexual predator. The absence of what could have been has been galvanising. Not only did women march on Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration, but as Nicole Hemmer has argued, it started much wider political engagement. EMILY’s list, an organisation that assists women run for office, has seen its membership increase from 1,000 before the election to over 22,000 today.
I may have felt an initial relief at the media reprieve during my time in China. But it was shallow and didn’t last long. As difficult as American politics has been this year, and as hard as it’s been in Charlottesville, in stark contrast to China, American journalists are still able—and most are willing—to call their leader out on his lies. Revisiting Charlottesville and seeing the invigorated engagement of ordinary people in local politics was a reminder that many are fighting back harder than ever. Trump may be unwinding an already frail healthcare system, he may have passed one of the most unequal tax bills in over 30 years, he may be implementing one of the most draconian immigration policies in a generation, but the din of opposition may also only be growing louder.
Dr Elizabeth Ingleson is an American historian at both the United Studies Centre and History Department at the University of Sydney. She is currently writing a book on Sino-American trade relations in the 1970s.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.