So, I’m at my job on Wednesday morning — which happened to be election night in the U.S. — seated at my desk without a care in the world. A world to which, as far as I was concerned, Hillary Clinton was the heir apparent. It was a foregone conclusion.
But the furtive glances of my Japanese co-workers in my direction, and the general disquiet, announced that something — something related to me — was making them uneasy. After years of toiling in a Japanese workplace, I had eventually acquired that fundamental skill of “reading the air.” And the air read: uh-oh.
“What?” I asked my co-worker seated beside me.
“Trump’s ahead,” she said.
“Oh, that. Don’t worry,” I said to her aloud so that all concerned could hear. “Hillary’s gonna win. It’s a sure thing!”
I was as sure as I had been the night Sarah Palin did that Katie Couric interview back in 2008 — when the Republican veep candidate all but confessed she was clueless. That interview left no doubt in my mind that America would elect its first black president. And Donald Trump was Palin on Viagra. No way were we going to elect a candidate running on the promise of erecting a wall along our southern border. No way!
We might be baka (foolish) Americans but we ain’t that baka.
On everyone’s desk resides a computer, and on a number of screens were the Yahoo Electoral College map and results. The forecast was in for that traditional slew of Republican stronghold states; no surprises there. It would appear that no amount of misogynistic behavior and xenophobic promises could get those states to go blue.
“Are you sure she’s going to win?” the co-worker asked.
I leaned over and glanced at her screen. “Yep.”
I saw what had upset her, though. Texas’ results had just come in, and Trump had sprinted further ahead in what must have appeared to her as a feverish uncontested dash for the magic 270 Electoral College votes needed to clinch the presidency.
“Texas always goes red,” I said, looking at that Lone Star State, red as the blood of James Byrd, a black man who’d been lynched there back in ’98, chained and dragged behind a pickup truck driven by white supremacists. Can’t ever think of Texas without thinking of James.
“Texas is George Bush country. I don’t even think Clinton’s an option on their ballots. Relax.”
Also in were the results from those East Coast cornerstone liberal states — my own New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, Vermont, etc. On the map they looked like a skimpy, pathetic patchwork of blue that paled in comparison to the great swath of scarlet that blanketed the “heartland.”
But all was going as expected.
l left the office with that going-as-expected feeling. Can’t say I was excited, though, because for the first time in my life I’d failed to vote with my conscience. Instead, I voted for a candidate out of fear.
I’m not a big fan of Hillary — and even less a fan of the “lesser of two evils” scenario. But over the previous couple of months, I had gotten into a number of heated exchanges with friends and family. Most of them are liberals and of a mind that a vote for Donald Trump was a vote for the anti-Christ in jackboots. And they held nothing but contempt for anyone for whom a vote for an openly racist candidate wasn’t a deal-breaker, or anyone with lingering skepticism about Hillary.
When I looked at Trump I didn’t see Hitler or smell brimstone, though. I saw your garden-variety narcissist and smelled bulls—-. I saw a racist of convenience, race-baiting and pandering to tribal instincts — tactics quite common in American politics, particularly among conservatives. Only thing was, Trump’s style of openly divisive rhetoric was almost refreshing when compared to dog-whistling bigots or elitist hypocrites, of either party, who’d eagerly shake your hand, kiss your baby, take your vote, then turn around and sign legislation that screws you and yours for generations to come — also a fairly common political practice.
Perhaps many of us had been spoiled by eight extraordinary years of President Barack Obama into believing America was truly on the threshold of a post-racial, progressive era, I figured. But the America that Trump foreshadows stands in stark contrast to that vision. By no means, though, is Trump’s agenda poles apart from those of a number of prior presidents, so I suspected many people had either normalized Obama or have very short and selective memories.
But the fierce admonitions of people I respected made me second-guess myself. Had I totally misread this guy?
“A vote for anyone but Hillary Clinton is a vote for Trump,” one white friend said when I mentioned that I was leaning towards voting for Jill Stein, the presidential candidate for the Green Party. “You trying to get that fascist elected? You want the KKK in the White House? You?”
“Are you kidding?” another white friend asked when I said Hillary is quite hawkish and pro-fracking. “You’d choose a racist who hates Muslims and gays and black people over the most qualified presidential candidate ever? And you’re a black man! You should know better.”
“I’m very disappointed in you,” my sister cried disgustedly when I suggested Hillary was a seriously flawed candidate that I can’t see myself ever trusting. A little later she even hit me off with a volume of Hillary’s impressive CV. “You’d rather Trump have a hand in Supreme Court appointments? That’s absurd!”
“Trump is a misogynist,” a black friend said when I told her I didn’t think Trump was as evil as people had made him out to be. “I know you don’t condone that, do you? You’ve been living in that crazy country too long!”
Maybe she had a point. Here I am, in the lap of Japan, so how could I possibly be as vested in this election — as informed as the people who are directly impacted by what springs from his toxic rhetoric? I’m getting my Trump secondhand.
While I preferred to think of my perspective as being objective, and therefore slightly advantageous, I began to think that maybe they knew something I didn’t. Sure, we read the same periodicals, watch the same news programs, post and read posts and memes on the same Facebook, the same Twitter, the same Instagram, but as connected as the internet tends to make one feel, I wondered if perhaps there was some disconnect.
So I surrendered to their presumably superior takes on Evil Incarnate, motivated on my part primarily by fear of unwittingly contributing to the upending of the Supreme Court. I took the blue pill, the lesser evil.
Once I got home from work and turned on my computer, that going-as-expected feeling vanished. Hillary was in deep poo. On the electoral map, it was clear that several states, desperately sought after by the folks in blue, were red as the flames licking at Obama’s legacy. I was aghast! Think I might have even gasped, “Holy s—-!”
The shock only lasted an hour or so, though — long enough for me to realize that my mind had been in “white liberal responding to the rancor of the white working class” mode. I find myself in that state more often than is healthy because of the almost exclusively white liberal media I consume.
Back in my youth, I was more focused on the struggles of the black community. A frame of mind cognizant that whether you go blue (prison reform, welfare reform, NAFTA, etc.) or red (racial profiling, Patriot Act, “I’m the law-and-order candidate,” etc.), chances are you’ll still wind up on the business end of some policy that makes the rich richer, afflicts the poor and working class in general, or harms minorities specifically.
From that mind-set, I would’ve responded to the Trump victory over Clinton as so: “Oh wow! Looks like the KKK beat Wall Street. Who woulda thunk it? Oh damn! The Knicks lost, too …”
I miss that me sometimes. Less stress, less gray in my whiskers …
But the reason the shock subsided so quickly this time around was that it simply wasn’t that surprising. Even from thousands of miles away, I could see that America had remained divided on Obama’s watch, along black and white as well as red and blue lines. His victory in 2008 had not sat well with Republicans, obviously, and they’d set in motion the full-court press to prevent him from fulfilling as many of the promises he’d made as they could. And since they had control of Congress, they did a heckuva job of it.
Moreover, in snatching the presidency from 2008’s heir apparent — Hillary Clinton then, as well — Obama had weakened her a bit. Add to that Trump’s birther nonsense, unprecedented disrespect of the Oval Office, that tea party fiasco, weekly black snuff films, etc., etc. Nope, didn’t need to be in the States to see the state it was in.
The next morning I went to my office on edge, head hung low. I just knew everyone was judging Americans based on our having chosen Trump as our leader — judging me. I felt ashamed, the complete opposite of how I’d felt just a few years back.
I remember clearly coming into that very same office in 2008, once Obama had won the election, feeling that we Americans had shown the world that our republic was stronger and more inclusive than ever! That we were more than capable of voting in our own best interests.
Us, baka? Uh-uh. I walked the streets of Yokohama with my head held high then because I knew that here, in Japan, black is black, and so Obama represented the entire race in Japanese eyes. And, for a change, it was a good look!
“Congratulations!” the country collectively sang. “You must be proud!” Damn right, my wink replied.
Would my co-workers remember that day, how I strutted my black self around the office, basking in Obama’s glory, savoring my association with him — especially since now I was dragging myself into the office with my country having elected a man endorsed by white supremacists, who brags about molesting women? Would they greet me with “Kawaisō ne,” (“That’s a damn shame”) or “Shō ga nai jan” (Whatcha gonna do?) and keep their true feelings on the matter to themselves?
Upon seeing me enter the office, most of my co-workers just smiled — all-purpose unreadable smiles, where the onus is on you to make heads or tails of it. But, they didn’t fool me. I knew what they were thinking, what I would be thinking if I were them. I knew what was coming.
I sat at my desk waiting for it, coiled like a spring, but nothing came. Just the usual greetings. I was about to relax when the woman who sat beside me tapped me on the shoulder. I wheeled on her.
“Yes, OK. I admit it! Americans are baka! Happy?”
She smiled, flushed and pointed down at the floor.
“Your jacket fell,” she said.
Black Eye usually appears in print on the third Monday Community Page of every month. Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. See www.bayemcneil.com. Send comments and ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.