After the 2016 U.S. Elections: Whose Land Will It Be?

Los Angeles, California

November 14, 2016

This American election, unlike any since the Civil War, has been nation and earth shattering in its implications. This was not normal, and it may take awhile to determine America’s moral compass and role in the world.

The country that I passionately love and have lived in as a Vietnamese-American immigrant and citizen for over four decades suddenly appears to be a less welcoming place than I and many others had thought. I had hoped that unity was a shared national objective, not a lingering question. I can’t help but feel like a foreigner in my own land even in California, on the liberal edge of an increasingly ‘Divided States of America.’ I noticed similar nativist sentiments while visiting London this past summer during the Brexit vote, which seems to have spread across the Atlantic and taken invasive root in the Mid-Western heartland with the surprising election of Donald Trump. I can only imagine what millions of undocumented migrants must be feeling now about their uncertain future.

This land is your land, this land is my land

From California to the New York Island

From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and me. © (Woody Guthrie)

The folksy notion that “This land is your land, this land is my land,” may not be what millions of voters or even half the country believes in given the results of the 2016 elections. Rather, exit polls indicate that a majority of white Americans voted for Trump (52 percent of women, 63 percent of men) and those without a college education did so resoundingly (67 percent). Americans that feel most threatened by immigration and job loss were drawn to Trump’s tune to “Make America Great Again.” Tellingly, America may not be “made for you and me” as the cherised Woody Guthrie song goes, and did not fully embrace Hillary Clinton’s slogan of being “Stronger Together.”

“There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.

The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’

But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing.

This land was made for you and me. © (Woody Guthrie)

Woody’s daughter Nora Guthrie has commented that some politically-motivated verses in the original version were removed due to the looming threat of McCarthyism in the 1950s towards expressions that could be perceived as un-American. So the lyrics about “a big high wall there that tried to stop me” and its sarcastic undertones about unity and private enterprise, never made it into the popular version. Perhaps as Guthrie foresaw, America is bent on building barriers to keep people apart – and possibly along the southern border with Mexico based on Trump’s heated campaign rhetoric.

America has been, and hopefully still can be a beacon of tolerance to the world, and by example, help bridge the many political challenges and cultural differences that divide us. We celebrated the election of our first African-American president with Barack Obama, who steered the nation towards economic recovery, ensured more equal rights and healthcare benefits to many citizens and advanced climate change and other progressive initiatives. But, prospects for expanding this legacy have hit a “big high wall.”

Hillary Clinton, the candidate I supported strongly in the 2016 elections, seemed a week ago to have gained enough support to become the nation’s first female president, with her broad coalition of young, educated, female and ethnic voters. On November 8, that coalition enabled Clinton to win the popular vote by nearly a million votes and growing, but not the electoral college which decides the election.  Clinton could not withstand the crumbling support in the Mid-Western “Blue Wall” as white, working-class voters connected with Trump’s outsider status and promises to improve their livelihood and “drain the swamp” of the political establishment.  These voters favored Trump despite his many flaws, or perhaps thought Clinton was more dishonest given the investigation into her private email server, which was arguably less equivalent a sin compared to Trump’s scandalous behavior and frequent disregard of the truth.

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In defiance of the statistical polls, media pundits and coastal elites, voters chose to erect a monolithic political wall as Trump will govern along with the dominance of Republicans in the House and Senate, and a likely majority in the Supreme Court. It has been a decade since one party had control over both chambers of Congress and the presidency, which allows it to purse laws and policies that have lasting impact.

I used to work in Washington DC for over a decade in international economic policy, and have witnessed how majority rule can undermine minority interests and overreach the people’s will when there are few checks and balances. Democracy gives politicians a mandate, and much can be enacted or blocked by the power of the executive and whoever controls the agenda and budgets in Congressional committees. Emboldened egos with political power can seriously undermine personal liberties at home and America’s standing abroad, which is the frightening scenario we may encounter over the next two to four years, or longer.

We are in uncharted territory, as a Trump regime seems less willing to engage abroad than since the end of U.S. isolationism during the second world war. We are at risk of reneging on trade agreements, environmental commitments and security treaties. The retreat of the world’s superpower is dangerous as 95 percent of the rest of the world’s population is affected by the leadership of the 5 percent in America. We benefit from their success and they from ours. Moreover, friends and adversaries are keen to fill the vacuum of American leadership, which would result in unpredictable and destabilizing consequences.

Closer to home, many U.S. residents including myself have faced discrimination before, and acts of hate seem to be on the rise whether targeting differences in race, gender, orientation or perspective. After this election, many feel more anxious than ever that the victors may impose an oppressive vision on the country that could permeate in American attitudes and values for generations to come.  We can’t help but think that up to half of the country is threatened by people who are not of their color or creed, or by a woman or LGBT person. This uncertainty and fear of each other’s intentions is a sad way for us to live.

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Although post-election protests can emphasize the need to preserve rights and create sanctuaries from abuse and discrimination, they are unlikely to overturn election results and the daunting power of the parties in charge. Still, we must hold President-elect Trump and the politicians in Washington accountable by any legal and peaceful means, lest they try to unravel the American fabric of multiculturalism, which are essential fibers in our efforts to form a “more perfect union.”

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling

And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling

A voice was chanting, As the fog was lifting,

This land was made for you and me. © (Woody Guthrie)

Guthrie’s song may provide some comfort and remind us of America’s harmonious spirit. We can only hope that leading voices will chant with dignity and help lift the bitter fog that hovers over us. If so, then the graceful light of America’s star may shine for all residents who believe “this land was made for you and me.” If not, then we are facing a long, dark winter and many divisive days ahead.

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