Inexcusable (or, Living Abroad in the Age of Trump)

This is the first official week of the United States 2016 Presidential Election. Americans have been preparing for this for over a year. A child conceived on the last, halcyon day before Donald Trump threw his hat in the ring is now qualified to be his speech writer. How did we f — — it up so bad?

After subjecting the rest of the world to the race to the bottom the United States decided to join in, led by two of the least popular candidates in US election history. However, this is not about the campaigns nor is it about Democrat vs Republican. Rather this is all about Donald Trump — something I suspect he whispers to himself every night. Say what you want about the Clintons’ secrecy, their scandals, and their careerism; Hillary has proposed actual, detailed plans based on policy positions she developed during her very real and extensive experience in public office. She is, for better or worse, a consummate public servant and politician. People understand her. The same cannot be said for Donald John Trump.

I have been fortunate enough to spend most of my time abroad while President Obama was in office. At the time I didn’t realize how good I had it. I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Indonesia from 2012 to 2014 and often the first thing people said to me when they found out I was American was “Obama!” (In fact, many went further, joking he was actually born in Indonesia. If only the birther movement had been a bit more cosmopolitan they would have found 250 million Indonesians willing to testify Obama was not born an American.) These talks were often a delight, with people talking about how impressed they were and how much Obama inspired them. I doubt many Americans have said that about any President since JFK much less a foreign national.

I currently work in Mali where in the most recent poll Obama had an 89% approval rating. The only thing that Malians approve of more is the super-sweet, super-caffeinated tea they take shooters of in the afternoon to stay awake in the stultifying heat. They do not understand how Trump has gotten so far. I explain to them that, to be fair, most Americans don’t understand how Trump has gotten this far. I just spent the past six months assuring them that “Yes, in America, literally anyone can run for President — and that’s a good thing!” to “Yes, he’s made some headway in certain areas but America is a big place,” to “The reason he’s surviving is mathematics; if there were fewer candidates he’d have already lost,” to “I honestly have no f — -ing clue what just happened.”

There are only so many times you can explain to friend or colleague that bans on Muslim immigrants or the racism that Trump regularly spews not only are not the views of most Americans and illegal, they are the antithesis of what we stand for as a nation. Once such a candidate is elevated to the head of one of our two major parties and his outrageous proposals are put into the party platform, can you still say that this is not the American Way?

This is to say nothing of Trump’s penchant for the bizarre. Many Africans are familiar with Trump’s braggadocio, narcissism, and craven capitalism. As Trevor Noah skillfully pointed out, they’re all too familiar. But no one approaches the strange with such a sociopathic disregard for reality as Trump. Such as when Trump ate a Trump tower taco salad to show he loves Mexicans and a coworker asked if he was serious. Or when a friend read the Trump New York Times interview and asked “How is my English?” When I responded it was quite good he then asked me “How is Donald Trump’s English?” Or when I showed a friend a clip of Trump taking a bold, anti-mosquito position and he just looked at me and asked “He could be President?”

But why should Americans care? After all, this is an American election and can we be blamed if we want to put “America First” or “Make America Great Again”? Those are valid points and people should and will always vote for what is in their best interest. But, the foreign policy of the United States of America has been predicated since our founding on a kind of moral superiority. We encourage other countries to democratize, to submit to the rule of law, to free the press. We say that inclusiveness and a level playing field are important for economic prosperity.

Even if the US foreign policy hews closer to realpolitik than such idealism, to many aspiring democrats around the world, the United States is something to be looked up to. And to many more around the world it is a place they wish to one live and prosper in. We are and have proclaimed ourselves to be role models. What else do we mean when we incessantly chant that “This is the greatest nation on Earth”? American Exceptionalism, insofar as it exists, comes from the fact that for over 200 years we have been able to successfully elect individuals who cared more about the nation than themselves. By electing Trump, by even allowing Trump to get this far, we are repudiating this heritage.

This is why I think so many of my Malian friends here have been watching this US election cycle with such a deterministic despondency. If Trump can happen in the US, what chance do developing nations have? One friend has been saying all along that he thinks Trump will win. When I asked him why he said that eventually every republic ends in a dictatorship, from Caesar to Mugabe.

Some will say that I think the sky is falling but when I was in South Africa for a visit the people I met were just as concerned. Well into the second term of an equally divisive and scandal ridden Jacob Zuma, the South African drew many parallels between Trump and Zuma save one: “Zuma, like Mbeki before him, rode into office on the coattails of Mandela and the ANC. But it seems like Republicans hate Trump too. How is this happening? Why would you do this to yourselves?”

After a year of trying to explain the inexplicable, I’m out of excuses.