Visiting America in the Time of Trump

The last time I was in the US was December of 2015. The primaries for the 2016 presidential election had yet to begin, but the campaign was well under way.

Donald Trump seemed like a joke candidate, and I certainly didn’t expect him to win the election a little under a year later. I didn’t realize how much anger was bubbling beneath the surface of his supporters, but I saw signs of it: white men complaining endlessly about minorities, transgenders, Obama, women, etc.

I viewed Trump’s ultimate victory from abroad with disgust, and election night was the drunkest I’ve been in a while. For a time I considered simply not going to the US during his term, but that wasn’t realistic.

Now we’re eight months into his nightmarish presidency and I’m on a plane to the States. Almost every morning I wake up to some fresh Trump-related hell on Twitter, and it’s incredibly sad. As a straight white male I know I have little to fear in Trump’s America, but as a journalist I just might.

Watching Trump’s relentless, unhinged attacks on the press has been frightening, and his ‘fake news’ bullshit has been picked up by autocrats here in Southeast Asia with glee.

Working as a journalist in Vietnam, with its tight censorship and completely opaque government, has never been easy, but several of the country’s ostensibly democratic neighbors have taken the ‘fake news’ banner and sprinted with it.

Next door in Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen is leading a stunning reversal into outright dictatorship: the head of the primary opposition party has been arrested and charged with treason, and a strong anti-America current is running through the government (to China’s benefit), while numerous independent media organizations and radio stations have been threatened with closure.

Arguably the most high-profile of these, The Cambodia Daily, was actually forced to close last week over a ludicrous tax bill. I interviewed for a job at the Daily earlier in the year, and watching its collapse in real-time on Twitter was heartbreaking. I looked at the paper’s hard-nosed reporting on illegal logging, corruption and myriad other important issues with envy and awe. Over the years I’ve been told that Cambodia has a much freer press than Vietnam — that may no longer be true.

(There are many good pieces to read on the Daily’s closure, but I’ll just recommend this one from the New Yorker since it’s the most recent one I read.)

Meanwhile the Burmese military is carrying out an ethnic cleansing of a Muslim minority group called the Rohingya with the silent acquiescence of democratic icon and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Burmese and foreign journalists reporting on the violence have been accused of spreading fake news via Facebook and Twitter, and even threatened with violence in person.

Of course, I’m not entirely blaming Trump and his favorite pet phrase for these dire situations, but they are reminders of what can happen when someone with a lot of power takes the ‘fake news’ accusation to its extreme end. This should also remind Americans how valuable free press is, and how lucky they are to have access to it.

I find that journalists and the work they do are very misunderstood. I expect to encounter arguments about Trump, ‘fake news’ and the media while I’m in the US over the next three weeks, and I’d be happy to talk to anybody who cares to listen about the trade.

I know I won’t face anything back home similar to what many brave journalists in countries with weak rule of law experience on a daily basis, but going to a country where the president has been blasting your profession for almost two years is unsettling. I’m excited to see friends and family, eat well and get some fresh air, but I anticipate some pretty unpleasant encounters as well.

Time to get on a plane for 24 hours.