Thoughts on the Election for My Japanese Friends

Photo credit: Craig Hickerson

NOTE: This column was first published in Japanese on Nov. 17, 2016 in The Asahi Globe’s online site. I wrote this for my countrymen who may feel far removed from what’s happening here and may not understand why so many of us were shaken up by the election results. This is the original draft that I submitted to the Asahi Globe, which translated it. The Japanese version carries a slightly different structure, but the content is largely the same.

As afternoon turned into evening on Election Day, the newsroom at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism grew increasingly quiet. Hours ago, the room buzzed with excitement and energy. Students were looking forward to a busy day writing articles and reporting on the scene at local polling stations and election watch parties.

But then the results from the swing states started coming in. Ohio. Pennsylvania. New Hampshire. Florida. All of them were too close to call, but most of them were leaning towards Donald Trump.

As a lecturer for the school, I was there to edit the students’ stories, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of the large projection screen tuned into CNN. As it became clearer that Trump was likely to win, some students became angry. Others were just silent. One female student was holding back her tears, doing her best to stay professional while wrapping up a story about the election results.

Just twenty-four hours earlier, I had been marveling at how far the country had come. Over the past few years, it became possible for gay friends to get married, and we had attended two gay weddings over the summer. Obamacare provided healthcare for anyone who needed it, and we seemed to be on the cusp of legalizing marijuana. I thought we were about to part with our first Black president to usher in our first female president. Hillary Clinton wasn’t a perfect candidate, but I didn’t doubt that the nation would choose her over Trump, a misogynistic, racist businessman with no political experience.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Over the last couple of days, my Facebook feed and my email inbox have been flooded with grief-stricken friends, alternating between disappointment, fear and anger.

“Sadly, I seem not to know my country,” posted one friend, an Iranian-American female novelist.

“I’m genuinely really scared right now,” wrote another, an Indian-American political science professor at Harvard University. It made me scared that he was scared.

Reality didn’t sink in until the following morning. It shook me that the country had chosen to elect someone filled with so much hate and anger. It felt like the country had voted against everyone who wasn’t white. I thought about a Facebook post by Jenny Yang, a Chinese American comedian. “Half of America hates us,” she wrote. I shared her sorrow.

In Japan, many of the concerns about a Trump presidency understandably revolve around two issues that directly affect them: the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the U.S. military bases in Japan. Just two days after the election, Congressional leaders have already declared TPP to be dead. Meanwhile, if Trump keeps his campaign promise, he could pull the military out of Asia altogether even as tensions with North Korea escalate.

In the U.S., however, the shock runs deeper, striking at the heart of our beliefs. I first came to the country as an expat when I was just three years old. While I’ve moved back and forth between Japan and the U.S., I’ve lived in this country for over 30 years. There are many values here that I have always held to be true. That the country was fundamentally inclusive. That most Americans are warm, accepting and generous. That it’s a meritocracy (at least more than Japan),and I can be a woman and a minority Asian and have a fair chance at success.

I also held assumptions about life: that society will progress and that the best candidate will win and that good will triumph over the bad.

For many of us, this election result upended everything we believe in about this country and our fellow humans. Trump ran a hate-filled campaign. He promised to build a wall along the border with Mexico and make them pay for it. He pledged to deny Muslims entry to the country. He refused to condemn white supremacists campaigning for him, and he repeatedly put down women. It didn’t seem possible for the majority of Americans to support that. This was a country that prided itself as the leader of the free world, the emblem of democracy.

In the last moments before Clinton conceded to Trump, I received increasingly distressed text messages from my mother-in-law, a 70-year old white woman who lives in the suburbs of Chicago.

“Oh my God what is happening?” she wrote. “What did we do wrong!” Then a few minutes later: “Guess I’m not in touch with what most people in the country are thinking. Makes me so very sad.”

By contrast, I was seeing joking Facebook posts by Japanese acquaintances. “I suppose I’ll buy some trump and head home,” said one. By “trump,” he was referring to the Japanese word for “playing cards.” I was stricken by how callous he could be about a president-elect whose had threatened to take major civil liberties away. Asians hadn’t been a major target for Trump thus far because we haven’t mattered to him, but I had no doubt that he felt the same way about us as he did about Blacks, Hispanics and Muslims.

In the days since, we’ve learned that Trump didn’t actually have majority support. Clinton had in fact won the popular election; she just didn’t have enough votes in the right places to win the electoral college.

In the days since, anti-Trump protests have been held nationwide in cities like Portland, San Francisco, Miami and Minneapolis. The American Civil Liberties Union, which defends civil liberties, has vowed to fight “any encroachment on our cherished freedoms and rights.” Donations to the organization have surged to record levels.

That restores some of my faith in this country, but none of it changes the fact that Trump will be in office for the next four years. With Republicans in control over both the House and Senate and a vacant seat on the Supreme Court, women could lose the choice to have an abortion, a right that we’ve taken for granted for over forty years. We could lose Obamacare, affordable and accessible healthcare that allowed me to get a kidney transplant nearly two years ago. The LGBTQ community could lose protections against discrimination.

Meanwhile, Trump’s win has emboldened some of his more racist supporters. The night of the election, someone spray-painted a swastika and racist graffiti on a South Philadelphia storefront. At San Jose State University in California, a Muslim woman had her hijab grabbed.

Even on a progressive campus like UC Berkeley, the chancellor felt compelled to send a short e-mail, reaffirming the school’s culture of respect and inclusion. “We must support each other at this time, and express solidarity with all groups and individuals who may fear for the future,” wrote Nicholas Dirk.

Many students, however, are still scared. On Friday, a UC Berkeley journalism student, Tian Chenwei, a 22-year old from Dalian, China, went to the Israeli Consulate to get a visa so she could visit the country over winter break. As she was coming out with her passport in hand, she said a white man told her it was “time to go back to your country.”

“The Bay Area is supposed to be a bubble of liberal thought and a relatively equal environment,” she said. “If I got that here, I’m wondering what it is like in middle America.”

Chenwei said she didn’t think international students would stop coming to the U.S. at least as of now, but she was worried that Trump would make it more difficult get the H-1B, a temporary working visa that allows highly-skilled foreigners to work in the U.S.

As a journalist, I’ve spent the last few days trying to understand how many of us had failed to anticipate this outcome. In school, we teach our student journalists to examine all sides of an issue with an open mind and make a sincere effort to understand their positions. And yet, we had convinced ourselves that Trump’s supporters were crazy and that there was no way he could get enough votes to win. I had made no effort to understand their point of view. As a believer in fair journalism, that crushes me.

I also couldn’t help but wonder if it might have been different if the media industry wasn’t in such a steep decline. When organizations become too desperate to make money, they start to focus too much on producing the kinds of headlines and stories that sell papers and ads and attract clicks online. At the same time, they lack the staffing and the funds to produce the kind of nuanced articles that require time and travel.

At my first class after the elections, my students and I discussed what they learned from the media coverage that led up to Trump’s win. A number of them thought that a greater effort could have been made to understand moderate Trump supporters and their fears, frustrations and anger. The class thought it could have perhaps made a difference to those very voters if the media had acknowledged their plight and lent them a voice.

Afterward, a student came up to tell me that he had been having a hard time focusing this week because his girlfriend and her family were undocumented immigrants. He didn’t have the luxury of thinking about the other side. He was too terrified of their fate. “It’s too close to home,” he said.