Dear America, Why Did You Let Us Down?
SYDNEY, Australia — On the other side of the world from you, we are living in two time zones. One regulated by the rise and fall of the sun, the other regulated by the American news cycle. In our early afternoon you go to bed, in our late evening you wake again and news breaks afresh. We examine the entrails of the tweets of your president-elect for news of our common future.
In Australia, and around the world, we have been living this presidential transition with you. We watched the debates on our lunch breaks, we scrolled through news on our phones as the voting results were announced, in the warm light of a spring day.
Since the election I have cried many times, in the shower, in the car, as the conventions that define liberal Western democracy are stripped away by Donald J. Trump, with every distressful appointment, each impulsive outburst. I have embarrassment of grief for a government that is not mine and for a country that does not belong to me. It feels as if we’re mourning the death of an idea called America.
You may not know us, the people beyond your borders, but we know you. We absorbed your politics by osmosis, across the semipermeable membrane of celluloid. We know about Air Force One from “Air Force One” and the West Wing from “The West Wing.”
When I think of the political texts I know by heart, snippets of yours spring to mind — “ask not what your country can do for you”; “I have a dream”; “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” As a child I knew the Gettysburg Address and the Pledge of Allegiance, not because it was taught in class but because we heard them so many times in movies like “Kindergarten Cop.” America gave us a poetry of democracy that was grand and uplifting, which we were too reserved and sarcastic to speak for ourselves.
Visiting America itself gave us the sensation of having stepped into the television, into something bigger and better. For a time when I was a teenager my father worked in the coal industry in West Virginia. He would return with stories about new things we could not imagine, like cable television with 50 stations. Packed in his suitcase were running shoes for us, in styles that had not arrived here yet. That was more than 20 years ago.
Things were changing long before this election. Trips to Asia are now more likely to startle us with modernity. Bangkok, Singapore, even Mumbai have shocked me on visits over the last few decades, not just the wealth and development but also the music and fashion and public transportation.
For all the intractable problems in our region, there is a sense of forward movement. When we visit America now, it feels like the opposite, like decay. Roads, airports, an economy, perhaps even a society, falling to pieces. We are left in awe by the extreme poverty as well as the extreme wealth. And maybe it is because of your poetry about yourself that the turning current has been harder for Americans themselves to see.
The election of Mr. Trump feels like a sudden plunge after a gradual decline. Already he is goading China, befriending President Vladimir V. Putin, disregarding climate change and refusing daily intelligence briefings because he’s “a smart person.” None of this, we fear, will end well for any of us.
And here we Australians are on the edge of Asia, a small and loyal ally of the United States, with a significant and growing Asian-born population, caught between our strategic alliance with you and our economic future with China. Britain is tangled in Brexit, with neither the time nor the inclination to focus on a former colony on the other side of the world. We feel worried, lucky — and alone.
Earlier this year, Australia’s Department of Defense outlined the long-term outlook for our defense and security, emphasizing that the relationship between the United States and China will continue to be the most strategically important factor in the region. “The governments of both countries have publicly committed to a constructive relationship and it is not in the interests of either country to see an unstable international environment in which the free and open movement of trade and investment is compromised,” the department noted. That constructive relationship must now be spoken about in the past tense.
And no longer can it be assumed that Australia will always pick the United States over China, if forced to choose. When the Lowy Institute for International Policy surveyed Australians two years ago about whether the United States or China was the more important partner for our country, the United States led by 11 percentage points. This year there was a tie. The drift was more marked among Australians under 45, most of whom named China. Nearly half of the Australians surveyed said we should distance ourselves from a United States led by a president like Mr. Trump.
This distancing is already being discussed. While Australia’s right-wing politicians have taken the most literal and disheartening lesson from the election — Mr. Trump won, so be like Mr. Trump — a former prime minister of our country, Paul Keating, questioned Australia’s deference to the United States.
“This society of ours is a better society than the United States,” he said. “It’s more even, it’s more fair. We’ve had a 50 percent increase in real incomes in the last 20 years. Median America has had zero, zero.” He added, “We have universal health protection, from the cradle to the grave.”
For Australia to await a signal from the United States before thinking for itself “is a complete denial of everything we have created here,” he concluded.
This is a way of moving forward, in our own direction and with our own voice. Perhaps we could even offer you a different model of democracy, the way you once offered one to us.
Whatever happens, it will not dull my affection for the American people and the best of American culture. I was not raised in America, but I was raised in the American century. I am not yet ready to say goodbye.
© 2016 Lisa Pryor