This first appeared in The Sunday Business Post Magazine on November 13, 2016.
At the Pret a Manger beside my office in Manhattan last Wednesday afternoon, a soulless place, I removed a factory line burrito from a heated case and absentmindedly joined one of five short queues.
Hillary Clinton’s valiant concession speech had just been aired to a small and deflated congregation of my co-workers in a boardroom. Her self-command was on my mind.
Overnight, Donald Trump had been elected president.
The three hours’ sleep I had managed had begun to prove themselves insufficient. I was anxiously trying to process proceedings, faint with hunger, and short on time.
“Next on line," came the familiar New York City prompt. I stepped up to a gangly black guy at his till.
Around the world, the exchange at these counters tends to follow a formula. In the US, however, the uniformity and sense of performance is much more pronounced than anywhere else. And it ends in “Thank you! You have a great day!”
On Thursday, the cashier and I recited each of our opening lines as though it were any other day. My “Good, how are you?” automated and meaningless.
In place of the third line — traditionally and stubbornly the most chipper of the duologue, the biggest delivery — the cashier paused for a moment before saying quietly: “I’m so-so.”
It took me a couple of beats to realize what had happened. How could it be so unexpected for somebody to have truthfully told me how he was?
Slowly, I looked up from my open wallet. The young man looked so disarmingly solemn and sad. A few more beats elapsed as he searched my face to gauge whether I was similarly “so-so”, or not.
“I am too,” I said. We exchanged some glum observations and he offered me a coffee on the house. Did he have the authority to do that? Wide-eyed, I whispered my thanks.
Then I asked, what do we do now? Tip everybody as much as we can possibly manage? Be exceptionally kind and polite to every person we encounter? He laughed at me, a little relieved, I guess, more than entertained. We shrugged at one another. “You have a great day,” he said eventually.
I turned awkwardly for the exit, tears gathering in my eyes.
My moving to New York in March of last year coincided almost exactly with the beginning of the 2016 presidential election campaign, the worst and most prolonged and dispiriting public spectacle I have ever witnessed.
I flew out on March 24, 2015, the day after Republican senator Ted Cruz announced his bid for nomination, his plucky plan couched in a scripture-filled speech.
For an American citizen born to Irish parents in Alabama, the relocation from Dublin was straightforward. “You’re all set,” a Homeland Security worker bleated in my face at Shannon Airport, as though I or my pristine navy passport were used to being resident in the US, as though I had set foot in the country more than three times since departing it as an eight-year-old.
Eight is young, but it was not so young as to have absolved me from absorbing a lot of America that I would retain in unusual ways for years. If you pledge allegiance to a flag every weekday morning for your four most formative school years, that sticks with you, somehow.
If you learn all 50 states and their capitals on a map by the first grade, that also sticks with you. My accent stuck, albeit with a few edges knocked off it at school in Galway. My overall fondness for the country, which had been good to my parents, which had been good to me, was sticky, too.
But returning to the US at 26 could hardly have been termed a “return”. My America — characterised by little more than memories of extremely fine, seasonal weather, yellow school buses, early reading, and the unique allure of what my late grandmother disparagingly called “patent foods” — had been reduced to nostalgic figment, one which no amount of studying the country from afar could upgrade to real understanding.
Three weeks after I arrived, Clinton announced her bid and nine weeks after that, Trump announced his. In a short space of time, the presidential race, a demanding event, relentlessly covered, was in full swing.
America and I started over.
I started by reading “Between the World and Me”, a book by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the release of which generated a lot of chatter in the States. Desperate to be able to acquit myself online, at dinner parties I would never attend, and magazine interviews that I would wind up blowing regardless, I read it twice.
I carefully acquainted myself with the author’s impression of deep racial division in the US, one more coldly expressed and thorough than anything else I had encountered. I felt grateful for it.
The decision to try to begin to understand my place as a white person in a country of vociferous white racists and supremacists wasn’t noble, or creative. It wasn’t really a decision, it just happened. I never had to think of myself as white before, to reflect on my whiteness and what it meant.
My confrontation of it made me highly uncomfortable. My Twitter timeline was a whitewash. My reading was all written by white people. My co-workers were predominantly white, my friends were predominantly white.
Coates’ writing, and the work of other black writers and journalists, assisted me in beginning to comprehend the national mood, if such a thing exists, during a year in which the Black Lives Matter movement was forced to protest the killings of numerous African American men by police officers.
Some names will be familiar: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, shot dead within two days of one another last July.
In New York City, disappointment and pain hung in the air. I wrote a radio essay for RTÉ about a protest in Union Square that week. People stood in circles crying, supporting each other. They took turns to speak with composure about how it felt to be victimized, about their experience of living in constant fear.
America’s other trials and problems I had arrived prepared for. Gun violence and mass shooting I had become agonizingly familiar with. The elementary school I attended from 1995 to 1997 in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, to use a freak, widely known example, no longer exists. The building was razed in 2013.
Matters economic, I more or less understood. Sexism and the marginalization of women was not particular to the US, not new. Homelessness and housing crises have plagued every country I have ever lived in. A child of the Western Health Board and the HSE, I was mainly intrigued by Obamacare.
But the racism, the race-based discrimination and inequality, and this alarming division, this enduring, terrifying schism, I had to fully acquaint myself with and think hard about.
At the same time, Donald Trump and his campaign managers were thinking about the same split. They moved quickly and effectively to secure the country’s whitest votes, masterfully building what The New York Times described last week as a “unique coalition” of wealthy and working-class whites, college-educated and not.
Adding to a set of dependable conservative states in the south and Midwest were “millions of [white] voters in the onetime heartlands of 20th-century liberal populism,” per the Times, who “voted decisively to reject the more diverse, educated and cosmopolitan Democratic Party of the 21st century, making Republicans the country’s dominant political party at every level of government.”
In the last 18 months, I listened to many of the arguments made in Trump’s favor. I sometimes sought them out, wanted to hear them, interrogate them, and attempt to understand them.
I listened to a crotchety fifty-something taxi driver late one night outside Kansas City, Missouri, insist it was time for a change, no matter the price.
I listened to a thirty-something Floridian who, over surf ’n’ turf at a wedding reception with an open bar, said that he wanted to know precisely what and for whom he was voting, he wanted a candidate over whom there was no ambiguity. On this very peculiar position, he would not be moved.
I listened to a colleague, similar in age, who explained that a third-party vote was the only option for somebody by whom both candidates were found to be repugnant, even if one could be deemed more palatable and more reasonable than the other.
I listened to the people who alleged to really, really care about Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server.
The despondence and disaffection I was met with throughout the campaign was not unusual in any respect other than, maybe, the readiness with which it was shared on the streets. In fact, it was striking in its similarity to what I had encountered in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe.
In 2009, my Belgian then-flatmate wrote a paper about the politics of Geert Wilders, a Dutchman with an improbable, Trump-like way of styling his hair, and a frightening Trump-like way of looking at the world.
I remember sitting agape in our kitchen as she recounted rallies attended in which Wilders, the leader of a right-wing populist party of his own making, the PVV, or “Party for Freedom”, would berate Islam and single out nationalities of immigrants that had to go.
In 2014, he asked an audience if they wanted “fewer Moroccans” in the country, adding, “we will arrange this”. Last week, Wilders said Trump’s election was a “lesson’ for Europeans, tweeting #MaketheNetherlandsGreatAgain.
For several years between 2011 and 2015, I visited friends in Paris and Toulouse who were repeatedly horrified by the words and promises, of the National Front’s Marine Le Pen.
One sent me a text last Tuesday. “People are sick of liberalism and capitalism, and I can understand them. But they are turning to the wrong people. That’s what happened with Brexit, and that’s what’s going to happen in France with Le Pen.
“I am horrified that politics have boiled down to voting against someone. This is why I probably won’t vote in the next French elections. I’m sick of French people being held responsible for the National Front’s rise. It’s our sitting politicians fault for failing them and making them feel hopeless.”
It has become clear that Trump’s victory is as attributable to capitalizing on the concerns and self-interest of the white voter as it is to the apathy and opting out of millions of Democrats who made a decision, tacit, deliberate, or otherwise, not to defeat him. Trump received fewer votes than Mitt Romney in 2012.
One Saturday last August, I took a train from Grand Central Station to Bridgeport, Connecticut, and from there took a cab to the Sacred Heart University in Fairfield where Trump was to give an address.
I made the journey in order to try to get to the heart of what the he was offering to his support. To find the missing puzzle piece, to solve the mystery of this dismal contestant whose candidacy I first found risible, but quickly led me to stressed-out disquiet.
But nothing was to be found in that college auditorium. Nothing was to be found in Trump’s words, his carriage, his choice of music (unchanged, for months), in his allies, in the substance-free, repetitive answers his supporters gave to my gentle questions. Everything was as unusual, vapid, as crass as it seemed on TV.
For American voters, it was good enough. And if it was bad, it was not bad enough.