What Is America So Afraid Of?

The most surprising thing about last night's result is that it wasn't a surprise. Travelling around the country in 2016 gave me plenty of signals as to where America was headed.

Earlier this year, I travelled with a British friend to Louisiana. After a few days spent eating po boys and sweating with alacrity in New Orleans, we rented a car and drove through a couple of states into Alabama. In Fairhope, my friend snapped a photo of me under the sign of a street called “Equality Avenue”, and we laughed. Even before checking to see what the demographics of the town were (91% white; 5% black; almost 3% Hispanic), we knew. As we’d driven in, we’d made our own private mental notes. By the time we booked into the bed and breakfast we’d hastily researched on the road, we’d seen almost no people of colour. On the dining table, we saw a brand new rifle, still in its open case. Our hostess, who had asked about our accents, laughed self-consciously as she explained that her husband had bought the weapon that very day. She told us there were only two left in the store. “People are buying guns around here,” she said, “but it is safe.” Her smile was supposed to be reassuring, I’m sure. My friend and I carried out an entire conversation with just our eyes – it’s amazing what you can telegraph via the size of your pupils – before landing on a mutual conclusion, eyes narrowed. We were decidedly not reassured.

In our delightfully quaint cottage, we turned to one another and asked, simultaneously, “What and who the hell are they so scared of?”

Everything, seemed to be the answer then, and again on 8 November. Every damn thing.

Despite what Donald Trump said about the US election being “Brexit plus, plus, plus”, the two things are not the same (the events share DNA, though, in that people were rejecting a larger-than-life bogeyman made up of big government and inarticulate frustrations with the idea of sovereignty).

What is the same, for me, is the feeling that began to sink in, only minutes into watching the first few results trickle in as I stood in a bar in the East Village last night, that I was about to have a horrible, no good, very bad day, that would perhaps extend to many more days – at least four years, to be exact. I don’t know if I will still be living in America in four years’ time, or what the status of my residency will be, but suddenly, I was thinking about it a lot more urgently. To be honest, I didn’t expect to feel the same kind of pain that I felt back in the summer when Britain voted against remaining in the European Union. But it arrived just the same and quickly became visceral: At first I felt nauseated, and then it settled into a dull ache – a butter churn in perpetual motion, remixing stomach acids in a (mostly) steady rhythm. A brick pressing down in my belly. In a WhatsApp message I received just before the first polls closed, a British friend enquired as to my state of mind. “I’m still Brexit-scarred,” she wrote. I confirmed we were in the same canoe.

I’ve travelled in a few states in America this year, and helped by a British accent, have been able to strike up conversations with strangers with increased ease. I’ve spoken to immigrants and the children of immigrants, taxi drivers and waiters, undocumented people, middle class people, wealthy ones, and the working poor. I have eavesdropped on too many conversations to count, taking notes as rapidly as my fingers would go, and I have pressed people to explain themselves and their way of life more fully to me.

In many ways, the only surprising thing is that Donald Trump's victory was not a surprise. 

And they have opened up and told me. Immigration was a problem for a good number: They were worried America would be hit by a deluge of needy, open hands, and that those hands would also be criminal (that came up even when I was talking about the death of Prince in Minneapolis). In Las Vegas, I spoke to a Hungarian-American who told me that African-Americans would likely never receive a fair shake in their country, because their country was simply incapable of it. He also said America was going the way of all empires (hint: the direction ain’t “up”). In Cleveland, two separate middle-aged white men joshed with me about Brexit (they thought we had fucked up), and fretted about a Trump presidency, and what that might mean for women and racial minorities. A day after those conversations, I watched a man carrying a gun almost as tall as he was walk in ever tighter circles around a public square in Cleveland, chin jutting forward, practically asking to be challenged. In New Orleans, I spoke to a young black woman, a hotel worker, who told me her hometown was a “working poor” city, before telling me about her health benefits. In our freewheeling conversation, we touched on Black Lives Matter and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. In Philadelphia, a young black man told me he was Bernie or bust, and he was tired of compromising. In Queens, a Cypriot American laughed as he explained to me and my friends how certain European identities are tangled in ways that are not easy to unravel. People were scared, and that manifested as either a widening of their arms, or a defensive shutdown. The fight-or-flight urge had been flattened to just “fight”. And sometimes, it just looked like lashing out.

I nodded, and I challenged where possible, and then I got out of the car, or pushed away from the table, or shook their hand and walked away to begin transcribing my shorthand or audio tape. I arrived in this country on the first day of March, a Super Tuesday, and I have kept my eyes open from the moment I landed, greedily taking it all in. I have watched the news channels, and absorbed the entertainment, and I’ve read books and all the longform my eyes can handle. I have observed and I have engaged. I attended rallies and protests. I have tweeted, and transcribed hours of audio tape, and filed thousands of words to my editors. And my conclusion, the final take home to the knowledge that Donald J. Trump is the president-elect, is this: In many ways, the only surprising thing is that his victory was not a surprise. In the context of 2016, in the context of America, it was merely a clarification. “The American people have spoken, and the American people have chosen their champion,” said Vice President-elect, Governor Mike Pence at 2:44am. A spontaneous chant broke out among the assembled faithful at the Hilton. “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!”

This is who we are, and being the people that we are, this is how we act.

As the first projections were coming in on Tuesday night, I was wandering in New York’s East Village, filled with nervous energy. I heard a man on his phone say gravely, “I’ll check in with you after the election.” As if it was a forecasted natural disaster. I witnessed a trio break apart. “Goodnight, and good luck,” a young couple echoed the journalist Ed Murrow to their friend. It was an unseasonably mild November night, and I saw a party of five seated outside clink their glasses and toast: “To Hillary!” followed by nervous laughter. A harried and bespectacled woman in a white T-shirt that read "NASTY WOMAN" rushed past me. If New York City really is a left-wing bubble, it didn’t feel like it on Tuesday night.

I’d been teetotal for a half hour at a bar on 12th Street, observing voters drink and worry themselves into acceptance. It was a young crowd, and many of them bore their “I Voted” stickers with the unself-conscious insouciance of youth. In front of me, I saw a redhead turn to her dark-haired friend, and say, “This is the most stressful night ever.” Her friend leaned in and said an emphatic “Yessssssss.” They hugged, before joking-but-not-really about their dual nationality.

When I eventually left the bar, I found myself thinking of the title of Mark Ravenhill’s 1996 play, Shopping And Fucking. When the hum in my head got too loud, I ducked into a store and bought some skin care products. Holding the cold lotion bottle in my hand, I felt instantly calmer. I thought back to our B&B proprietor in Alabama, and her dining-table gun; did the presence of that semi-automatic gun in her home, in her 91% white town, in a state that just voted Republican, make her feel calm? Did it soothe her to know it was close by, and would be useful to her if the occasion ever arose? And what would that occasion even look like? And, who gets to determine what is “safe”? What will America be like in six months, a year, or three? Who will wake up afraid tomorrow morning? Who should be frightened?

What are they so scared of?

Nothing much. Just every damn thing.

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