Four years ago, I woke up to find the world in a state of shock. It was the morning after Election Day in the United States. Enough results had already trickled in to declare Trump the winner of the 2016 presidential elections. I hadn’t seen it coming. Perhaps I’d been too naïve, maybe I hadn’t spent enough time reading Fox News. Either way, Trump’s victory came out of left field and I couldn’t help but feel like something was broken beyond repair. I sat down at the kitchen table with my head in my hands, going over the numbers, cringing at the statistics. An immense sense of loss came over me. This could not be the same country where I’d made most of my happy childhood memories. I could not imagine that place under Trump, whose campaign I’d taken as a personal attack against so many people I knew and loved. I texted my then-boyfriend, lamenting that my version of America had ceased to exist when previously Democratic states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin announced Trump had won there too. His reply knocked the last bit of air out of my lungs: He told me to stop whining, because “your America never existed to begin with”.
While I sat there, defeated, I was told that I had no reason to feel this way. After all, I had been in the United States under three different presidents already, so I could not lay claim to Obama’s America as “my America”. Bile rose in my throat as I read those texts. They didn’t stop coming, explaining everything I’d experienced stateside was wrong and short-sighted. On the day Trump won America, I lost it, along with a big piece of my heart.
Despite everything that that boyfriend said, America and I go way back. I first came to the States about a year before Bill Clinton famously declared he hadn’t had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. As interesting as this time might have been, I don’t remember anything about it. There is one vague memory of a swing and a slide in the backyard. I remember playing Candy Land when I was a little older, shouting out the names of colors with an excitement that only a four-year-old can muster. That was my America. Boardgames and playing outside.
As the years went by, my America became so much more to me than a big backyard and interesting snacks. I went back and forth between the Netherlands and California for most of my childhood: Winters meant freezing my toes off in a small town near Rotterdam, summer meant lazing about in the heat of the northern Bay Area. I was just a kid, waving flags on the 4th of July, not understanding why we didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving in the Netherlands. My little corner of California gave me something I never found in the town where I was born: A warm welcome. Acceptance.
Looking back on those days now, I realize how much I also didn’t know about my America. I happily handed my passport over to the officials at the airport without ever having to worry about a thing. My religion and skin color never caused me any issues. I found a happy home where many others wouldn’t have found one. There was always the undercurrent of that knowledge though. I remember it as my Mom’s loud curses when George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004. I remember it as not understanding why my uncles in Pennsylvania weren’t married like Mom and Dad. I remember it as carefully avoiding certain parts of Los Angeles.
My America wasn’t perfect, and it knew that, so it tried to be better. That country didn’t like to sit still; It changed. Sometimes it went painfully slow, sometimes I felt like I’d get whiplash from the rate at which we were moving. But moving we were, and always forward: America became the country where a Black man could be the head of state. America became the country where a Muslim Pakistani-American girl could be a Marvel superhero. And America became the country where my uncles could finally marry each other. It was still far from perfect, but worked on being better. That was my America, from Clinton to Obama. Until Election Day 2016.
America was going to be different under Trump, that much was clear to everyone from day one. Where before America was the place lauded as the ultimate melting pot, it now seemed hellbent on exclusion. For me, it was no longer the place where I could feel completely safe, not as long as a man was in charge who would grab me by the pussy if he felt so inclined. No matter how much I’d started to dislike Bush when I was in high school, at least he didn’t give me the idea that he’d think of me as an object rather than a human. Trump did. His election made me feel a second-rate citizen for the way I’d been born. And that was coming from a white girl, I realized, so what would Trump’s presidency mean for my friends who came from the “shithole countries”, my friends who chose to wear the hijab, my friends whose family trees came in the form of slave registries, my uncles whose love for each other is every bit as valid and real as that of my parents? How was there supposed to be a safe place for them in this America, if I already felt like mine was at risk?
The rational part of my mind told me to stay calm and see how things would go. Within months, things were rapidly changing in a direction that made me more uncomfortable with each passing day. I had always thought of America as a country where there would be place for everyone if we just tried hard enough. It was alienating to see a man in office who believed the opposite of that. It was even more alienating to see that man move through Washington DC like a bull in a china shop. Although an ocean separated me from my “home away from home”, keeping up with American politics became a necessity like never before. I’ve gotten myself in some trouble over it throughout the years. I’ve driven teachers at my previous degree course crazy reading news updates under my desk. I’ve anxiously chased a wifi signal on a Thai island to see if Trump had gone too far in provoking Kim Jong-un. But most stressful of all was the never-ending stream of tweets, posted with no regards for silly little things like spelling and syntax (I still occasionally giggle over “covfefe”).
There was no way of knowing what the headlines would be when you woke up, whether more Muslim countries had been hit with a travel ban or if we should all inject cleaning products into our veins to stop the pandemic. As those headlines kept piling up over the years, I found myself hoping my Dutch friends wouldn’t follow the news too closely, growing more ashamed of the American part of my background with each crisis. At one point, I even considered changing my accent, my American accent with a faint hint of Bay Area, that I’d used to use so proudly from the moment I could speak. Within a year after Trump’s election, it had become a scarlet letter. When in the past someone would ask me which state I was from, I’d proudly tell them I’d partially grown up in California, but was actually Dutch. Now, I hurry to tell everyone who will listen that I’m Dutch, that I just happened to be in California when I learned to talk. I’ve had to redefine what America was and redefine what America was to me. I don’t like the results of that process. With every school shooting and instance of police brutality followed by either deafening silence or a strangely inappropriate response from Trump, I heard Childish Gambino in my mind, stating that “This is America”.
I struggled with that America for a long time. It just did not compute, whether my experiences in America were seen as valid or not. Most of all, I did not understand how this man managed to have fans. Not just supporters, but actual fans, who cheer no matter what the man says whenever he’s thinking out loud again. So I once tried to understand what makes Trump supporters tick. My entire extended network is decidedly Democratic these days, so in the end I only got in touch with a Dutch guy who unironically wears a MAGA hat and praises Trump’s foreign policy. His answer to my question why he liked Trump so much ended with the words “So, are you dating anyone at the moment?”. That was the moment I decided to give up on trying to understand the appeal of Donald Trump. I don’t get it, and I never will. I was denied my memories of America and got a steaming pile of trash in return in 2016. It still doesn’t feel like a fair deal. The worst part is that I don’t have much hope of waking up tomorrow to a better alternative.
As I anxiously check the news this Election Day, I am constantly reminded of what happened four years ago. I don’t want to be caught by surprise again and I don’t even dare to hold any hope of a Democratic victory. Not that I’m a big supporter of Biden. He doesn’t pass the vibe check either, but at least he knows how to wear a mask during a pandemic. At this point, I just want Trump to go, although I know perfectly well that that won’t get me “my America” back. My America was broken, but glorified by the innocent gaze of a child. I will never claim it as a place where everyone could find a happy home like I did. We shouldn’t want it back, but at least my America was trying. It made strides forward. That America was replaced by a state that defined itself by egocentrism, that takes pride in not believing scientists and thinking that guns are the solution to every problem. I’m tired of Trump’s America. I’m tired of the country that tries to return to glory days of yesteryear, which, to be honest, don’t even look all that glorious through my nostalgia-tinted glasses. Hopefully, by this time tomorrow, we can let go of this messy state that claims to be the greatest in the world. But if Trump’s presidency has taught me anything, it is to always expect the least likely scenario to happen. So cheers to the great American democracy. Let’s hope it won’t drag us all down into chaos for another four years.