Shea: American polarization is highly visible abroad

Julie Kjær is a foreign exchange student from Denmark, currently studying at the College of Cork. According to Kjaer, Trump is capitalizing on the fear of the public. 

Delaney Shea, Columnist

Abroad perspectives provide clarity on how other countries view American politics and surrounding issues.

I often think about how blessed I am to have grown up in America, a country that prides itself on free speech. Although this has fostered the anti-political correctness movement, which I do not necessarily agree with, but will discuss more later, it also allows us to speak up and acknowledge fundamental problems.

I see problems in the way America approaches issues like race, or military spending, or gerrymandering, and I, like most everyone else in America, can discuss those problems without fear of jail time for the most part, or execution. 

I believe growth comes from constant disciplining of negative and bitter thoughts, as well as a focused attack on overcoming fears. And we have the freedom to do that, thanks to millions of Americans who have served or are serving to fight for our freedom, and millions of Americans who have spoken out to protect their rights and the rights of others. I want the best for America. But what do people who view America through the lens of distance see? All countries have their own problems, but sometimes it is easier for people from other countries to spot our national shortcomings, since they are not embroiled in America’s polarized political debates. 

Living here in Cork City, Ireland, I am surrounded by other cultures; merely walking down the street to school, I might hear Irish slang, Norwegian, Chinese, French, Spanish, Italian and more. So, I took the opportunity to ask around, making sure to seek out people of different regions, genders, ages and political orientations, to find out how their countries view America, and what they think we could do better. Essentially, having been grilled on Trump by nearly every native Irish person I have talked to — one eyebrow goes up: “American. So… Trump…” — I am now turning the tables, and showcasing opinions on modern-day America from across the world! 

According to the Pew Research Center, as of mid-Aug. 2017, only 33 percent of Americans agree with many, nearly all or all of President Donald Trump’s policies, and only 16 percent would say that they like how Trump conducts himself. For those who have not utilized this site before, the Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan organization, which describes itself as a “nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world,” and does a fantastic job, in my opinion. So, Trump has clearly committed many social transgressions, made many offensive statements and introduced widely unfavorable policies. Do other people from around the world still think that the Trump administration represents the American people? Do they buy into the common American stereotypes?

Aaron O’Leary is a journalist who grew up in Ireland but currently resides in the United Kingdom. 

“(U.S. President Donald Trump) very much used an already existing division in American politics to his advantage and then was happy enough to deepen that division,” O’Leary said. “Before Trump, you could at least have a discussion with someone on the other side. Now even if you look online or if you look at protests, anything like that, it’s a bloodbath, pretty much. He did something that no politician should do, ever.” 

O’Leary describes himself as someone who can see good points from the left, right and middle of the political spectrum, due in part to the nature of his job. 

Let it be known that I put a lot of effort into seeking out a solidly conservative exchange student or Irish citizen to interview.

“Our conservatives are liberal compared to America’s conservatives,” O’Leary said. 

This is the conclusion I drew, also. The whole political spectrum in Western Europe seems to be shifted to the left. 

This sentiment was echoed by other Europeans I have talked to while here. 

O’Leary is, however, center-left when it comes to social issues. Despite this, he sees Trump as a major threat to compassionate politics, as well as America’s ability to be taken seriously in the eyes of other world powers. O’Leary views Trump as an attention-seeker rather than a leader, and believes this is making it difficult for other countries to acknowledge Trump as a legitimate leader. This viewpoint is one that I have heard, emphatically, from multiple Irish taxi drivers, as well as native Irish people of varying ages whom I have met while staying in hostels all across Ireland. 

As for stereotypes, O’Leary admits to buying into the most common American stereotypes, that we are culturally and generally ignorant, obese and heavily patriotic, until he started actually interacting with Americans both online and in-person. He still associates America with intense patriotism, but he has a different view on where it is coming from. 

“America has the right to be patriotic after everything America has gone
through,” O’Leary said. 

All in all, he now looks upon Americans favorably, despite being solidly
opposed to Trump.

Also viewing Trump as a dangerous figure is an exchange student from China who goes by Sophia and is spending a semester attending University College Cork. She interviewed on the condition that her real name would not be used, for fear of retribution. In China, outspoken and visible political protestors can be thrown in jail and held. While Sophia does not expect that will happen to her, she did not want to take the chance. 

When I first asked her what happened to those who got in trouble with the Chinese government for being too critical, she cracked a joke. 

“Well, you might get invited to some tea…” Sophia said. 

It made me think how the turmoil in America is strangely comforting, because it means people are paying attention and exercising their right to free speech. I would rather there was less arguing of course, but the fact that we can argue is a privilege. 

Julie Kjær, an exchange student from Denmark, who is currently studying at University College Cork, said that Trump has been lucky with his timing,
capitalizing on anger. 

“Right now everyone feels cheated. Like the angry white man,” Kjær said.

Trump is creating a mindset of fear, and is simultaneously creating those fears, according to Kjær.

Florian Trampe, an exchange student from Germany, is living in Cork, Ireland for a year while attending University College Cork. 

“(Trump) knows how to use fear for his own purpose,” Trampe said. 

We are letting Trump get into our minds and work us up and play on our fears and our political rifts. He’s playing us. Outsiders see this. Why can’t we?

The question on everybody’s minds right now should be, “What can we do better?” The people I talked to were pretty much unanimous in their answers to my query. 

“That’s a good question. Because you people don’t actually have an answer for that… I think because America is divided, just like China, you must do more things to listen to each other. Listen to the opposite opinion. Especially listen to these people’s reasons for why they want to vote for Trump,” Sophia said. “I know most Trump supporters don’t dare to give their opinions…. I don’t think it’s a good trend. Even though you can disagree with others’ opinions, and yeah, I think Trump is kind of a disaster for America, you have to listen to this and understand why they do it.” 

When she says that China is divided, she means with respect to social class, location, age, etc. and how much those factions of people are listened to. 

O’Leary says that Americans need to work together.

“In Ireland, we have our ideals, everyone has their own ideals of what Ireland should be and what route Ireland should take, but we’re not afraid to compromise and we’re not afraid to overlap our ideals. I’m not saying we’re angels or anything like that, but we do listen to the other side,” O’Leary said. 

For example, in Ireland’s last election, the two parties with the most votes were in a stalemate, neither with enough votes to effectively lead the Irish legislative body. The opposing parties agreed to cooperate, the slightly smaller one supporting the slightly larger one in a minority government, in order to prevent any government shutdown. Is Ireland’s government perfect? No. They certainly have political tension and gridlock. But they were able to have talks to prevent a government shutdown. The U.S. has been having government shutdowns since the 1970s, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, under both Democratic and Republican-majority Houses and Congresses. However, please note that the term ‘government shutdown’ does not necessarily mean government operations cease, it means that there is a funding gap in the government. 

Trampe believes that polarized politics and letting parties have more than half of the seats in a governing body is a recipe for trouble. In Germany, politics are driven by compromise, and he loves that about his country, according to Trampe. 

“On one hand, the U.S. is a lighthouse of democracy, but on the other hand you just have two parties to choose from and we have six parties who are all in parliament, so this is what diversity and democracy looks like for me,” Trampe said.

Along with Ireland and Germany, Denmark also prioritizes compromises
in their government.

“We have the different parties and the different spectrum, but all in all everyone always works together, so even though I say I am for liberalism, it’s not the super hardcore,” Kjær said, regarding Denmark.

What I’ve thought for a long time, and what my interviewees put into words very nicely, is that we need to suck it up, put aside bias for a little while—or a long while—and compromise. What they think we as Americans should do is improve, since clearly many people aren’t happy with the state of the country, and the divide grows stronger every day. We need people to reach across the aisle, like with the newly introduced Graham-Booker bill, which seeks to protect Special Councils from being dismissed at the whim of the president. 

I came into this article wanting to understand how America appeared to the outside world, to escape the finger-pointing I see at home and calmly examine what we’re doing right and wrong. I did not conduct interviews, draft or edit this article with the intention to criticize Trump, only to get an accurate view of international opinions on him from all over the board. But it has become more and more clear to me that we look ridiculous, so far past compromise that our government shuts down sometimes. I, myself, am in favor of a government system that allows multiple parties to be in power at once, via a different system of voting, but I am aware that that is probably not possible at the moment. 

Sophia said that when she learned about America in school, she learned about the value of freedom and democracy, and that is what she associated with America. But we are not setting a very good example right now.

A willingness to understand and compromise, to learn and admit mistakes, to serve the people with respect and kindness and not their re-election, is what I admire in a leader. And what we all should admire in a leader. This is not an easy mindset, but learning to acknowledge major, glaring problems, even problems with something you are immensely proud of and hold respect for, is crucial. Whether this is an opinion you hold, a cake you tried to bake or your country, approaching growth without fostering resentment is absolutely essential. 

This starts with us. Enough hateful memes on Facebook. Making the “other side” look stupid with a snippy caption might provoke a smirk, but it’s also petty and unnecessary. Try to quash that smug righteousness when you “win” an argument. Be mindful and conscious of when that flicker of anger at an opposing viewpoint burns up the truth and the chance to find compromise. We are better than this.

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