I’m a soft-spoken journalist. Ironic, I know, but perhaps that’s how my country raised me.
Even though Singapore is a nation that is very much geographically shielded from international tensions between mega-powers, President Elect Donald Trump has already made Singapore question its economic and social stability, hinting that the Lion City will have to choose between China and America, as well as withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Many Americans are vocal about their disdain for non-Americans airing their opinions about domestic issue, but the ripples of the looming administration have been rocking our island nation to a degree that is hard to play down.
A few weeks before the reality television star’s swearing in as leader of the free world, I fly to the United States, to see what exactly has the whole world hot, bothered and swearing profusely.
On a freezing Saturday afternoon, days before the inauguration of the United States’ 45th President, Melanie (not her real name) and I are walking through Midtown Manhattan. The 31-year-old health policy consultant – who majored in public policy – had agreed to meet me to discuss the incoming POTUS.
“I anticipate a struggle of power between Trump and a Republican Congress over numerous issues, leaving states to fill in the blanks,” opines the consultant of U.S. government entities and healthcare service providers, about the impending administration. Trump had campaigned not just to revoke Obamacare, but also to privatise American public schooling. “Hopefully this in-fighting will stay in the swamp, and America will still see a revival of civic institutions.”
In light of her optimistic outlook, most of the world survived the 42nd president of the United States, George W. Bush, so this coming week’s swearing in of Donald Trump shouldn’t be a big deal right?
Just then, like a scene from an Adam Sandler movie, an angry mob marches through in the opposite direction. The cold has been biting through our winter wear, but the frigid weather has done little to dent the bravado of the chanting Black Lives Matter demonstrators.
Just like other activist organisations that precede them – and the many that will follow after – they regroup in front of Trump Tower, where a dozen news cameras from around the world have set up camp. Police, whose hats and coats are frosted with just as much snow as the plastic hoods on these video cameras, watch over both the chain-linked and cordon-taped 56th and 57th Street junctions of Trump Tower, with a strictness outsiders rarely associate with the United States.
While Singaporeans are bred to keep their heads down no matter what, demonstrations are common in America. However, America differentiates between riots and demonstrations. It’s hardly a riot here in New York – the protesters understand that the police are just doing their job, and the police understand that the protesters are just doing what they feel is their moral obligation. This morning, they probably picked up their coffees from the same Starbucks and Pret A Manger outlets, and drew their cash from the same Chase ATMs, before donning their respective, identify-defining clothing.
“5th Avenue hasn’t seen such a state of emergency since maybe 9/11,” I remark. I’m chatting with Hawk Newsome, the lanky 39-year-old President of Black Lives Matter New York, at the foot of the tower of power. Members of the grassroots organisation have slept in cars and on sofas, while travelling with him from demonstration to demonstration across America.
“If Donald Trump stays true to the promises he made during his campaign, it will draw the biggest divide in this country since the times of Jim Crow,” Hawk tells me. The tension and sober uncertainty in the air is palpable.
“Immigrants will be under constant attack. Muslims will be targeted in ways that will violate the constitution, in their homes and in their places of worship. Muslims who wish to travel to America will suffer a draconian-style process that exceeds what would be necessary to keep Americans secure. Police will be empowered with the authority kill and brutalise black people at higher rates than ever before. Racist white Americans will have the freedom to attack minorities and Muslims in the streets without fear of prosecution. Such hate crimes have already risen since Trump won the election.”
I’ve lost count of New York’s deluge of anti-Trump demonstrations. Some online news portals of America’s major cities have even been running listings on the plethora of scheduled anti-Trump rallies that one can pick and choose to attend in each city, a feat that none of the preceding 44 U.S. presidents can hold claim to.
“The irony is,” scrutinises Gwen F., a political activist who has worked on both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns, “most of America’s young anti-Trump activists who turned up to vote for Barack Obama refused to turn up for Hillary Clinton, which rang the death knell for the Democrats’ Campaign. Now they fervently protest the man whom they did not vote against.”
“She didn’t budge, so we didn’t budge,” remarks Hawk when we catch up just days before the swearing in ceremony, who called on Black Lives Matter activists to not vote for Clinton unless she promised criminal justice reform.
Hillary has no one else to blame. However, like how a sinner might beg for punishment, the advent of Trump heralds a cleansing of unhealthy constructs, along with beneficial policies. While US Presidents in recent decades have vouched for democracy through charismatic smiles, the cognoscenti saw past their facades, pondered the secrets they kept and the lies that they told. The Democrats’ best salvo was Hillary, and she proved that her word was no good even before getting a whiff of the Presidency.
A country whose diversity of opinions could be akin to a continent, the United States saw a significant number of minority-race campaigners showing up to support Trump’s presidential rallies. I run this dichotomy by Hawk, to which he quips, “I am not surprised at black Trump supporters and campaigners. I think that they come in many forms. Some of them are sincerely aligned with his ideals. Other folks are just tired of the Democrats and appreciated Trump’s straight talk.”
“Precisely,” Melanie tells me. “Yes, America is like a continent – America is a union of states. Americans’ views will always be extremely diverse across the country, but that’s exactly what defines us.”
Later, on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, I find myself hardly able to budge, standing in a sea of red ‘Make America Great Again’ caps, encircled by news cameras.
Ms. Clinton is getting side eyes from these red caps, who have flocked to Washington D.C. to fete the inauguration of the man who modelled himself after his notorious lawyer Roy Cohn, one of American history’s most ruthless solicitors.
Attendees are the polar opposite of those who had gathered around Trump Tower – mostly Republicans in a religious euphoria, who hail Trump as the messiah in their conversations. They scream upon the arrival of the man.
After awkwardly saluting Abraham Lincoln’s statue and taking his oath of office, Trump delivers a seemingly self-written speech whose points (building up the military, insular nationalism, burning bridges, making America great again, again) sound eerily like Adolf Hitler’s antebellum rallying speeches during the Great Depression, as activists clad in black clash with civil authorities. Heart sinking, forearms sweating; the fear I feel in my heart is very intense. I hope that my fellow men gathered around me recognise what’s coming their way and prepare for it.
In the presence of numerous presidents – Jimmy Carter (a vocal critic himself, who had to make difficult decisions concerning Iran and the Soviet Union), Bill Clinton (was impeached, fought Saddam), George W. Bush (was almost impeached numerous times, picked fights with more dictators than Clinton) and Barack Obama (did pretty good but still criticised on the right) – Trump flagrantly emphasises the disarray that America has fallen into over the course of the past few administrations.
He vows to hand the wealth that lawmakers had amassed back to the people, before leaving the stage to thunderous applause, together with his and the other former First Families. George W. spent the speech struggling ineffectually with a poncho, who in effect was getting simultaneously rained on and burnt by the incumbent president.
“On the other hand, Trump can bring jobs back to America. I hope that he implements programmes to teach financial literacy in impoverished communities. If his business expertise is what he claims, then he will boost the economy and improve on the progress that President Obama has already made. Trump can actually heal this country’s racial divide if he does something that the Democrats have failed to do,” Hawk shares.
It’s a reflection of the hope of many Americans: That Trump’s promises of prosperity will be kept, while the detrimental policies that he proposed will turn out to be hot air.
America’s decisions over the years have shaped much of what Singapore is today: The US military’s largest military wharf in the region is located in Singapore; the Monetary Authority of Singapore regulates reserves so as to follow the US Dollar as closely as possible; and many American MNCs have shifted their regional headquarters to Singapore, including Apple, the UFC and the WWE. Our aesthetically pleasing city-state is also where many Hollywood movies are edited for post-production aesthetics. Trump’s aspirations for a more inward-looking America must surely upset the directors and shareholders of these conglomerates.
Upon returning to Singapore from John F. Kennedy Airport, the news ticker announces that the President had pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He also swiftly pulls US outsourced jobs out of other countries after barely a week in power, which returns a few jobs to the US, but has been calculated by economists to cause slumps that will cost America even more jobs. So much for hot air.
People laugh at how socialism is an utopian construct that is doomed to fail, but it is disappointing how little democracy has achieved, beyond other failed forms of governance. While some Singaporeans complain that a single party holding majority of power cannot be deemed as true democracy, Americans lament how change is hard to effect, when they have to be agreed on by an entire house of lawmakers, divided in two.
In a global-scale case of schadenfreude, these obstructive lawmakers are the only line of defence between Trump’s will and the deconstruction of modern civilisation.
To me, the United States of America is like the big brother who has always taken care of his smaller siblings, and tolerated the nasty neighbours. America isn’t a saint, but he has made many sacrifices for the good of our global family.
And now we have Trump. The guy who won the electoral college, and lost the popular vote, by convincing a weary big brother that he should say “fuck it, I’m putting me first”. In a way, there’s nothing wrong with that – whether you live your life for someone else is your prerogative.
America is poised to stop helping out and is about to give its neighbours a piece of its mind; us smaller siblings cannot help but worry for both him, and for ourselves.