When Donald Trump announced his candidacy last summer, I watched his speech and thought it would make a good segment on “The Daily Show.” Many late night comedies have since featured him for over a year, but now the jokes are more scary than entertaining. For most informed outsiders, especially international students in prestigious American universities like Yale, watching this election campaign has been a surreal experience.
Like many other Chinese people, I have always looked up to America. When my parents and I came to the U.S. 10 years ago, we had contributed nothing to this country and I did not speak English. Yet I was able to attend a public school for free. My father received funding from private American donors for his yearlong Nieman Fellowship at Harvard. This spirit of generosity and inclusion — the secret ingredients to this country’s success — was the reason for the world’s admiration of the United States.
Moreover, I was fascinated by America’s democratic system, which overcame the many challenges that stood in its way. While Americans are always critical of their own politics, the U.S. functions visibly better in many areas than other big countries like China. After returning to China for secondary school, I spent time reading U.S. history every day despite taking intense science classes. I read about the Trails of Tears and Wounded Knee, John C. Calhoun class of 1804 and the Civil War, robber barons and the KKK. But I also learned about Abraham Lincoln, the muckrakers, Brown v. Board and “I Have a Dream.” Every country has a dirty side, but not every country has a system that can produce progress as consistently as America, even if it’s debatable whether American progress is consistent at all. Aware of challenges in Chinese society, I believed what made the United States more functional than other countries was its politics — a system with checks and balances, a willingness to compromise and a reliance on common sense.
Until now. At this point of the campaign, I don’t see the need to describe the ordeal the United States has gone through. From conversations with my non-American friends, I know that most international students are frustrated with this year’s election. But despite the temptation of fatalism, I think it is crucial that we draw lessons from this election as citizens of the world.
No matter what the result of the election is, we should consider hitting the reset button on our assumptions about American politics. I used to think American democracy was robust and resilient, but I now see that the 240-year-old experiment can be easily trashed by a demagogue.
I used to look up to the vote as sacred to democratic politics, perhaps because Chinese people don’t often get to actually vote. Alas, I have been dismayed by the fact that nearly half of all Americans appear ready to vote for a candidate who threatens to throw his opponent in jail or reject the results of the election. What does the vote really mean? I do not have an answer yet.
As a beneficiary of America’s commitment to diversity and openness, I used to believe this country was exceptional. Now that I have witnessed all the ugliness that Trump has managed to elicit from the American people, my image of this country is far less idealized than it once was. To be sure, it’s an ugliness I can comprehend. There are similar strands of nationalism, sexism and discrimination in China, but Chinese people rarely call them out as problems in public discourse. Likewise, most international students can probably identify some of these forces back home (unless they are from Canada or Scandinavia, of course). On this count, America seems no better or no worse than much of the world.
Even though some American politicians and voters are isolated from the facts and realities of the real world, including the issues of climate change and globalization, them being cut off from reality is a reality in itself. Understanding this is painful for everyone who has paid America the reverence it never truly deserved. Nevertheless, a clearer picture of America is good for us all.
Yifu Dong is a senior in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .