The US presidential election through foreign eyes

Adriana Tache | SIPA Class of 2017

Fourteen days before the most polarized election in the world, the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University hosted an event that brought together foreign correspondents who have been covering the US presidential race for citizens of their countries. They came to tell students and academics about the foreign perception of the US democracy and the struggles they face while explaining our perplexing political system.

Today is the day. Americans from all over the world will elect their next president after a long race that started out “as funny at the beginning, then [became] sad for America and scary for the rest of the world”. These were the words of the charismatic Anya Schiffrin, one of the main event hosts and the director of the Technology, Media and Communications specialization at SIPA. She also said it was not unusual for her to be asked by foreigners “what is going on [with the American people]” just moments after she started any conversation with them. This quickly became the sentiment that the seven panelists shared for the rest of the evening.

The advertised evening talk attracted far more speakers and guests than the organizers predicted. In a room that could comfortably fit 70 guests, about 90 of us were packed in, taking all the chairs and window sill space we could find.

Larry Heinzerling, a former reporter for the Associated Press introduced the speakers: Tove Bjorgaas representing the Norwegian Broadcast Corporation; Mattias Kolb, political correspondent at Suddeutsche Seitung, Germany; Maria Cristina Ramirez from the Panamanian La Prensa; Vladimir Lenski, anchor at RTVI, a Russian-owned television network based in New York; David Brooks, US correspondent for La Jornada, Mexico; Vincent Ni from the BBC China section; and Yasmine Ryan, independent journalist for Middle East Eye in Tunisia.

The rise of Donald Trump, who has consistently instilled fear in his supporters that they can no longer live the American dream because the country is heading towards disaster, is not based on new rhetoric. Bjorgaas said the Scandinavian countries and even Western European countries like Austria are now experiencing the same populist movement. What makes it different in the US, she pointed out, was the 24-hour media cycle that allows Trump to reach a bigger audience. The far right-wing Freedom Party of Austria founded by former Nazis came very close to winning the elections last summer, when it lost by only 0.6 percent to Green Party.

Kolb, on the other hand, claimed that even though populist parties affect Europe, they eventually get overrun because the parliamentary system, made of powerful multiple political parties with candidates rising from within, serves as a check. However, the escalated attention that Trump has received in the US made Europeans cringe when Der Spiegel, a well-respected German news outlet, called him “the most dangerous man in the world”. For fear to not be associated with Trump, most European politicians refused to attend the July Republic National Convention in Cleveland. However, two of them who openly share his views attended: Geert Wilders, Dutch founder and leader of the Party for Freedom best known for his criticism of Islam, and Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party and one of the main supporters of Brexit (UK’s exit from the European Union).

Panama is also familiar with Trump’s rhetoric. Ramirez pointed out that Ricardo Martinelli (the former billionaire president) ran a campaign similar to Trump’s in 2009 causing the media to react in the same way: it laughed at his jokes because it improved ratings until it realized that this publicity increased his odds of being elected. The negative reaction along with inequality, she added, cause poor people to believe that “the establishment, government and media [did] not represent them” – a phenomenon we now see with Trump. Ramirez, who claims to make all possible efforts to report on both candidates in an unbiased manner, criticized the American media for not pushing the candidates hard enough to talk about actual plans for their country. She said that just as in Latin America, the debates have been completely devoid of policy discussions and allowed for other news “to make noise”.

As for Russia, the state run media is Trump’s biggest supporter, Lenski contended. The outlet he represents seeks to report in a manner similar to the Western media to tone down the otherwise biased and censored Russian reporting. After the second presidential debate, Lenski monitored weekly reviews aired in the weekends and noted that they presented sex scandals as normal for the Americans. They also claimed that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, whose image is that of a “grandma”, made use of these scandals to overshadow her email misconduct and the WikiLeaks revelations. Lenski also said that Russia has its own Trump, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, avid supporter of the Republican candidate and, ironically, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. He and the Russian elite oppose NATO and American expansion and consider Donald Trump a friend, because he is an enemy of their enemy – the hostile Hillary Clinton.

Correspondent David Brooks jokingly said that Mexico is the most powerful country in the world after Russia because of the threat posed by its “criminals, rapists, Carlos Slim” and NAFTA, alluding to Trump’s constant references to Mexico. He referred to the Republican candidate as the man who brought back the word “gringo” that describes the “ugly American” among Latin Americans. In addition, he said, US – the beacon of democracy – also surprised the world with the millions of voters calling themselves “socialists” when supporting the independent candidate Bernie Sanders who lost the primaries to Hillary Clinton. All the guests nodded in approval when Brooks stated that he had never envisioned he had to use words like “fascist”, “socialist”, “women genitals” and “groping” when covering American elections and that he was equally surprised by all the death threats journalists received when portraying candidates unfavorably. This election, which Brooks said featured the two most unpopular candidates in history, pressured journalists to analyze issues that were put on the back burner: such as immigration. He sees our society transforming from the white-dominated America, which Donald Trump is trying to bring back by encouraging supporters to “Make America Great Again”.

Trump’s popularity in China was high even before the elections as he is an inspiration for many Chinese entrepreneurs, Ni who writes for BBC China section told the group. This made it particularly hard to explain to them the sex scandals and the accusations of groping. If the election of the first African-American President, Barack Obama, in 2008 sent the message that democracy was working and even blacks could become presidents, the world is now left with the impression that even “gropers” can be elected to run a country, affecting the way American values are perceived abroad. This however does not convince some Chinese citizens who live in the US that Trump is unfit for presidency. During a street interview, Ni spoke to a Chinese American who only applied for US citizenship, after holding his green card for many years, so that he can vote for the Republican candidate. Ni learned that Trump resonates with the American dream that many Chinese people believe can be brought back to their children if they didn’t elect the establishment candidate.

Covering for the Middle East Eye, Ryan who reports mainly on issues of Islamophobia, said that Trump’s presidential race gave her a lot of content to write about. However, leaving aside his and his supporters’ perception of Muslims, Ryan believes that some voters have legitimate fears that push them to vote for the Republican candidate. When interviewing a truck driver from Alabama, this Trump supporter who worked three jobs to support his family expressed concerns about illegal immigrants, low wages, potential job loss and saw Trump as the savior. In the context of the Middle East, Ryan thinks that Clinton’s support for interventions in Libya and Iraq may deter Middle Eastern voters from voting for her.

Regardless of who loses today, the international media will most likely continue to cover post-election America because of the contentiousness of the race. Many Americans will be happy with the result and many will be angry. Today is the day to tell ourselves and the world once again that America remains the “melting pot” in which different cultures feel free to express their identities and contribute to the diversity of our society.

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