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Kristen Ghodsee: Reflecting on President-elect Trump

In the lead up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I lived for almost two years in Germany, with a full year spent as a fellow at FRIAS in 2014-2015. As an American ethnographer of Eastern Europe, I have long been a critical voice against my country’s imperialistic foreign policy and its domestic hypocrisy.

While American leaders (both Democratic and Republican) championed human rights and regime change abroad, they pursued domestic policies that disenfranchised millions of ordinary Americans while simultaneously entrenching an elite political class of quasi-oligarchs at home. 


In recent years, U.S. income inequality has skyrocketed. In 2015, one study found that life expectancy for American men in the bottom decile of the income distribution is less than half of that those in the top decile.  Rich men live about 14 years longer than poor men, and the gap is increasing.  The United States is one of the only industrialized countries that provides no federal paid maternity leave for women even though most American families are dependent on two incomes to meet basic needs.  In most states, a worker earning minimum wage lives below the poverty line with no access to health care.  Our police terrorize the African-American population despite the lofted ideal that “all men are created equal.”


When I discussed these realities, my European colleagues often seemed incredulous.  The strength and flexibility of the American neoliberal capitalist economy awed them.  They viewed the United States as a global intellectual and cultural epicenter, surging into the 21th century unfettered by the weights of continental welfare states, with their labor protections and high taxes.  But many Americans know that behind the innovation and entrepreneurship there lies a dark reality of deep economic injustice, infused with racism, sexism, and xenophobia.  For every Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, there are tens of thousands of uneducated and poor white men seething at a system they perceive as stacked against them.  Demoralized and apathetic, they rarely cast ballots at the polls.  Until Donald Trump.


While I was a fellow at the F. Schiller University in Jena in early 2016, I predicted that Donald Trump would win the Republican nomination, fully cognizant of the anger and poor education of the American populace.  My scholarly colleagues, both American and German, disagreed with me, telling me I was paranoid.  When Trump won the nomination, I also feared that he would win the presidency, even though all of the polls and pundits were against me.  As an ethnographer of Eastern Europe since 1998, I have spent almost 20 years studying the erosion of masculinity brought on by the vicissitudes of global capitalism.  Outsourcing and mechanization have devastated entire communities, leaving behind a vast underclass of superfluous men whose identities rest on their ability to “bring home the bacon.”


In March 2016, I wrote a short story about a dystopian future in the United States following eight years of Donald Trump as president.  In this story, I imagine myself in the year 2028 applying for political asylum in Germany after the United States becomes a totalitarian nation.  My editor and an anonymous reviewer forced me to cut this story from my book, believing that no one would remember that Donald Trump had been the Republican nominee by fall 2017, when the book is scheduled to appear.  I complied, hoping they were right.


On the Monday evening before the election, I read an article by the documentary filmmaker, Michael Moore called “Five Reasons Trump Will Win,” which convinced me that all my deepest fears were about to come true.  My partner, an eminently reasonable analytic philosopher, showed me all of the polls: Sam Wang at Princeton and Nate Silver at 538.  Everything predicted a Republican loss.  Trump’s going low would not defeat Hillary’s going high.


On Tuesday evening, we invited friends over to watch the election returns.  My 14-year-old daughter and I wore Wonder Woman t-shirts, and I bought two magnum bottles of Italian Prosecco to celebrate the victory of the first American female president and (hopefully) a new Democratic majority in the Senate.  I suppressed my paranoid tendencies, and tried to get into a celebratory spirit, ignoring the deep suspicion that Trump would emerge victorious.    


Trump is now the president-elect of the United States of America.  He will become Commander-in-Chief of the world’s most powerful military, and will have his fingers on the launch buttons of America’s nuclear arsenal.  He has appointed a white supremacist to be his top White House strategist, and has nominated a climate change denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency.  Trump has bragged about sexually assaulting women and promises to appoint right-wing judges to the Supreme Court.  And yet all of my liberal American colleagues are telling me that this is “just talk.” Trump will never follow through with his most nefarious of plans.


As I write these words from Maine, I wonder what my German colleagues would be telling me today.  Would they be more sympathetic to my fears?  As the clouds gather on the horizon, there is only one very small silver lining to the election of Trump.  My editor reversed her decision.  My story about a future me applying for refugee status in Germany has been reinserted into my forthcoming book. 

Kristen Ghodsee is a Professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies at Bowdoin College, USA. She was an EURIAS Fellow at FRIAS from August 2014 - July 2015.

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