A visit to Australia in November 2016, turned sad on election night

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CNN on a television screen in a bar in Canberra, Australia, November 9 (AUS) 2016 (photo by author)

Author’s note: Four years ago I traveled to Australia during the 2016 election, and was at a bar in downtown Canberra watching the results come in from the far side of the globe. As the 2020 election nears, I retrieved my journal from November 8–9, 2016, and offer it here as a cautionary note…in the hope that the outcome will not be the same.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016 (still Tuesday, November 8 in the U.S.)

Bungendore, New South Wales, Australia

It’s 6 a.m. on a rainy, dull blue-gray dawn in Bungendore, Australia. The cockatoos and magpies are squawking and muttering in the trees. Small mobs of kangaroos patrol the damp brush on the outskirts of town. Across this bedroom community 30 miles east of Canberra, Australians are beginning their routines for the day. After brekkie (breakfast), a quick check on the weather (showers, temps in the teens centigrade — about 60-degrees Fahrenheit), and a scramble to get their kids off to school, commuters climb into their cars (left-hand drive) and head into the capital city.

A late spring morning like any other in Oz…except it’s not. Not for Australians. Because today, 10,000 miles away, on the far side of the international date line, it’s 2 p.m. Tuesday, November 8, on the East Coast of the United States, and Americans have been lining up at the polls for hours to cast votes that could well determine the long-term state of relations between the two antipodal nations.

Because my trip to Australia to visit with my new grandson coincided with the U.S. election, I took the opportunity to see how Americans living and working in Australia were coping with the nonstop drumbeats of the 24/7 news cycle assaulting them from half-way around the globe.

My son, Carter, has been living in Australia for three-and-a-half years. In my Skype and Viber conversations with him leading up to my trip, we discussed the opinions of his colleagues and friends, including the Aussie-Americans and the Australians.

Reaching out to expats and Aussies

As a result of those conversations, I reached out to a number of transplanted Americans in the Canberra area, and quickly got the sense that there was genuine concern for the well-being of their home country should Donald Trump win.

And what of the Australians themselves? Were our Southern Hemisphere friends experiencing the same heebie jeebies that were causing Americans young and old, to lose sleep, get into nonsensical fights with loved ones, or even act out on playgrounds?

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Americans and Aussies gather at P.J. O’Reilly’s in Canberra for an election party, complete with a cardboard Hillary greeting the crowd. The smiles did not last long. (photo by author)

Election party and CNN

In a word: yes. And by midday, their heebie jeebies had come to roost. At the invitation from the Democrats in Australia, Carter and I joined a happy, expectant, crowd forming at P.J. O’Reilly’s, a bar and restaurant in downtown Canberra. Televisions tuned to CNN hung from several walls. American flags, bunting, and red-white-and-blue decorations dotted the tables and windows.

Geoff Lazarus, 62, an Australian who described himself as a lobbyist at Parliament House, said a Trump victory would be a “…disgrace.” A bank manager in downtown Canberra wondered how Americans could find themselves in this position. “Is this the best America could do?” she asked, shortly before polls began to close in the U.S., 16 times zones away.

“Is this the best America could do?”

Mike Heffran, chairman of the Democrats in Australia representing approximately 10,000 expat Americans across the continent, said that a Trump presidency would lead to “instability in almost every way of life,” for Americans abroad, “not just here in Australia.” That word instability was the overarching single-word narrative in virtually all conversations with Australians about the 2016 election.

Comey’s October surprise occupied a seat at the bar

For Australians, the specter of a Trump presidency loomed large in everyday conversations, newspaper opinion pages, television, social media, and in the halls of Parliament here in Canberra. The announcement, on October 28th, eleven days before the election, by FBI Director James Comey, that the Bureau was re-opening their investigation related to Hillary Clinton’s email, did nothing to assuage the Australians’ and Americans’ jangling nerves. It seemed to matter little when Comey, two days before the election, confirmed the FBI’s earlier position that there was nothing in the Clinton emails to merit prosecution. There was a general sense among those in and around Canberra that if the Americans weren’t in disarray, they were certainly on a dangerous track.

“The next US president may retreat into international isolationism.”

In an October article in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Paul Dibbs wrote, “The US presidential election on 8 November could have grave implications for Australia’s security. The next US president may retreat into international isolationism.

“If President Trump wins there could well be serious consequences for our crucial alliance relationship with America and for our regional security partners, such as Japan. A President Clinton would be preferable for Australia in foreign and defence [sic] policy terms, but she’ll have a major battle on her hands at home with the economy and a dysfunctional Congress.” Dibbs continued, “A President Trump may prove to be an isolationist and a destroyer of alliances.”

It would be hard to find an ally anywhere on the globe closer socially, artistically, and philosophically to the U.S. than Australia, and harder still to find a nation more firmly aligned with U.S. geopolitical interests in this antipodal hemisphere. The very thought of having to reset the U.S.-Australian diplomatic, military, and economic relationships that would suddenly be in disarray under Trump’s unclear and unorthodox leadership did not sit well with our Southern Cross friends.

Ten days before the American election, Peter Van Onselen, contributing editor for the Sydney-based newspaper, the Australian, captured the nation’s mood in his column “No room for a Donald Trump-style leadership in Australian system.”

“Thankfully our parliamentary system at least partially insulates us from the descent into madness happening in the US.”

“Thankfully our parliamentary system at least partially insulates us from the descent into madness happening in the US. That a mainstream political party with a rich history could select someone like Donald Trump as its candidate for president is beyond disturbing. That tens of millions of Americans still plan to vote for him despite everything that Trump has said and done is even more worrying, because it speaks to the extent of mainstream disillusionment with politics in western democracies, especially in the US.

“The man is a sexist, racist and deplorable human being.”

“The man is a sexist, racist and deplorable human being. And that’s before we even get to the madness of some of his policy ­positions, the dangerous ideas he has when it comes to foreign policy, and the superficiality of his often blatantly wrong assumptions.

“In our parliamentary system a Trump can never and will never rise to lead a major party, so long as MPs and senators maintain their collective rights to vote for their leader. A little grassroots democracy that empowers lay members is OK, as Labor recently instituted, but too much of it can cause the sorts of problems we see within Labour in Britain. Party members don’t always have the self-interest or the centrist tendencies to pick leaders who can win elections.”

I heard similar analysis of Trump’s appeal to the less-educated segments of the population from Marc Beeston 29, an Englishman from Manchester who I met during one leg of my flight from Washington to Australia. Beeston was on his way to meet friends in Australia just a few days before the election. We struck up a conversation about the Trump-Hillary matchup, and Beeston shared his thoughts on how Trump has been able to sustain his position in the race. “He appeals to those with low education who are vulnerable, who aren’t interested in challenging false statements. He plays on their not knowing or caring.”

An airplane conversation hinted at the global unease

I heard similar analysis of Trump’s appeal to the less-educated segments of the population from Marc Beeston 29, an Englishman from Manchester who I met during one leg of my flight from Washington to Australia. Beeston was on his way to meet friends in Australia just a few days before the election. We struck up a conversation about the Trump-Hillary matchup, and Beeston shared his thoughts on how Trump has been able to sustain his position in the race. “He appeals to those with low education who are vulnerable, who aren’t interested in challenging false statements. He plays on their not knowing or caring.”

It is that not knowing that has many Australians concerned about Trump’s first 100 days and beyond. The president-elect’s appalling lack of knowledge about the day-to-day operations of the government he will lead, and his reluctance, perhaps even weirdly-strategic resistance, to steep himself in the complexities of foreign and military affairs weighs heavily on the minds of our allies in the southern hemisphere.

An expat’s perspective

The feeling of not fitting in in your home country

Ritu Clementi, 47, is an Indian-American, born in Nebraska to immigrant parents. When she was ten, her family moved to North Carolina. In her mid-twenties, she moved to Atlanta to attend graduate school, where she met her husband, Devin, an American-born Australian. Ritu and Devin lived in the New York City area for five years, had two children, and then moved to Nashville, where they lived for eight years before moving to Australia.

“I love the South — worked in very Southern companies — in textile mills and Coca Cola even. It’s my home. But the sentiment is getting scarier there. I think people question my ‘American-ness’ more than ever. It doesn’t matter that I walk and talk just like them. They just see my skin. Racism has become overt again.

“As much as I dislike Trump, it’s the popular American sentiment behind him — the anger of his supporters that scare me more. On my Facebook feed, I have a lot of high school friends from Charlotte. No one has posted anything overtly racist, but I do have quite a few Trump supporters. The South as I know it is different. When I grew up, people didn’t know what I was — they would ask if I were white or black? Now, I feel vaguely suspect, even more so since I live overseas.”

In 2010, Ritu and Devin left the U.S., and subsequently moved to Canberra in 2012. Devin’s parents emigrated from the U.S. in the 1960s and live 600 miles away in Adelaide, South Australia.

How do we survive this?

“The alarmist in me thinks it will be the end of America as we know it,” Clementi said in an email a few days before the election. “How do we survive this? If a country says anything even slightly critical about him, Trump will go on the attack. I see countries like China starting to pull their money out of the US — all it will take is a few insults to Xi Jinping. And the Republican Party will start to disintegrate — how does a career politician like John McCain support a narcissistic demagogue? Anyone that a shade of brown is suspect — let’s bring back stop and frisk, Mexicans are rapists, ban foreign Muslims… Flip comments like ‘women that have abortions should be punished’, or ‘Islam hates us’ — how do we even let a person say those things become a presidential nominee? But, I guess I should be happy that Trump ‘is a big fan of Hindu’ — whatever that means.”

The writing on the monitor

From highs to lows

By 1 p.m., Canberra time, the East Coast, South, and Midwest polls began to show a steady blossoming of red states, and fewer blue than expected by the crowd of Australians and Americans. Tensions were high as the results defied earlier projections of a much stronger Clinton showing in Virginia, and trending toward Clinton losses in Florida and North Carolina. By 2 p.m., the Northern Virginia precincts in my home state were beginning to boost the Hillary tide, putting the Old Dominion in the D column for the first time. The crowd in the pub let loose a barrage of applause and cheers as the new numbers flashed on the multiple screens around the restaurant. My son, monitoring the New York Times’ election meter, was shaking his head. Good news was slowly fading to bad.

Hope fades

Jake Tapper’s news that the Dow futures were down 500 points rocked the room here in Canberra, where many American expats are beginning to look at their 401(k)s with justifiable alarm. National television (ABC) crews were working the restaurant, interviewing Australians and American expats, looking for video bites of Democrats in distress — of which there were no lack as exit polls continued to show Trump moving steadily toward the magic 270 Electoral votes needed to win. Still, many key states were not fully counted, including Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.

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Australian television, ABC, interviews Carter Moore as the 2016 U.S. election results come in. (photo by author)

A cynical voice in the midst of defeat

With the fall of Florida and North Carolina, and a Trump victory looming on the horizon, the question circulating in the bar was “How did this happen?” In part, the answer was delivered by a German tourist, Philipp Karstaedt, 31, a business owner in Germany who saw absolutely nothing wrong with a Trump presidency. “Clinton’s years of corruption are worse than what Trump has said, and I think it’s a good thing for America in the end.” When I quizzed him on all the things Trump has actually said, and reminded him that more than 90-percent of Trump’s statements were lies, Karstaedt said he didn’t believe the media was a reliable indicator of who Trump really is. “I think of Ghandi’s quote,” Karstaedt said. “‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win’.”

“I think of Ghandi’s quote…“‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win’.”

Prophetic words indeed. I wondered whether German Chancellor Angela Merkel would think such philosophical thoughts about the American president-elect.

Embarrassment joins the party

Kimberly Cole, 32, a Michigander living and working in Canberra for the past two years, is a permanent resident of Australia. As she watched the returns move inexorably toward a Trump victory, she said that she would now consider beginning the process of applying for Australian citizenship. “It’s embarrassing. I didn’t expect this. It’s shameful,” she said, turning away from the television’s crimson screen. “I don’t think I could possibly go back to the United States under these conditions.”

“I don’t think I could possibly go back to the United States under these conditions.”

Every little bump for Hillary, like the New Hampshire projection of four electoral votes, brought a weak cheer from the now-thinning crowd at P.J. O’Reilly’s. It’s 4 p.m. in Canberra, and Wolf Blitzer, John King and the other CNN panelists are vainly trying to show how Hillary may still have enough juice to pull this one off, but the numbers were mystical, mythical, at best. For Ritu Clementi, there was no point in hanging around the rolling death of the Democratic party. “I just can’t contemplate what is going to happen now,” she said, leaving the pub with Devin.

“I just can’t contemplate what is going to happen now…”

Janelle Williams, 37, a marketing and communication professional, is an American transplant from New York. She moved to Australia eight years ago. Shortly before the election, she told me, “My opinion of this election and latest attempt at influencing the election is utter disappointment at the sheer lack of maturity and pettiness that surrounds the entire process.” Williams pinned down what she believes lies at the core of Trump’s ability to rouse his particular segment of American society: the state of education. She said, “My colleagues echo my sentiment about the circus this election race has become and the disbelief that a racist bigot like Trump got this far. It has spoken volumes about the poor education system in America and the small town mentality which has perpetuated his momentum in the race.”

Any air of a possible miracle was sucked out of the bar when the American election turned painfully, angrily, rightward and Donald Trump emerged victorious over Hillary Clinton. “Why the ___ would you do this?” asked one stunned Australian to his mates and American expat colleagues in the pub when it was clear Trump would cross the 270 electoral vote line.

Stunned silence and a long trip home

As the CNN commentators reeled off Trump’s victories state by state, the crowd in O’Reilly’s sat in stunned silence for several minutes. Then, one by one, the Australians began murmuring pained words of consolation to their stunned American friends, many of whom have spent years working in the Australian capital as transplanted Yanks. This was the outcome virtually no one in Oz wanted, yet now, faced with the reality of a Trump presidency, the crowd was trying to fathom the ramifications of this sea change in the American geopolitical and economic earthquake that will most certainly rock not only Australia, but the rest of the world as well.

The bar is emptying as Americans head to their Canberra homes to drink and cry in private. More than one reference to Xanax has passed the lips of those who remain. I get messages from home in Virginia, and from my daughters in North Carolina, and they are raw, pained missives, filled with anger, sadness, and disbelief all rolled into a ball of frustration at watching helplessly as so many of the nation’s voters chose to go down this uncharted road. By the time my son and I return to Bungendore, it is dark, and a new morning is creeping up on the United States half-a-world away. It is going to be a bittersweet flight home.

Written by

Journalist, former Capitol Hill staff (House and Senate), former Cabinet speechwriter, editor, photojournalist and bird photographer. Top Writer Quora 2016–2017

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