We still have over five months to go until the November 6 polling day in the US presidential elections. If that seems like an awfully long time for the rest of you to be watching this tense campaign, do spare a thought for our American expatriate friends. All of us are observing the contest nervously, but none more so than the 7.6 million Americans who live outside the USA.
As a general rule, Americans who move abroad are highly skilled and educated. Kent University in Brussels tells us that 95.3% of them have a Bachelors degree and 56% have a Masters. US expats tell us they are having a very hard time explaining the current US political situation to their host countries and the wider expat communities in which they live.
“Honestly, the whole thing is an embarrassment.”
“When I hear Donald Trump’s comments about Mexicans, women, Muslims, whoever else he’s attacking… I just cringe inside, wondering how my friends from other countries can feel about the US when they hear that,” says a Democrat voter currently on a three-year assignment to Paris.
Americans overseas talk about the “dinner party syndrome” where they feel anxious that they are going to be cornered at a social event and asked to explain how someone so divisive as Donald Trump will receive the Republican party nomination. The question they find so hard to answer is “Can he really represent the views of so many Americans that he is even a contender for the presidency?”
Americans who live abroad also talk about the way their own politics have evolved during their time living overseas:
“We are very tuned in to the importance of America’s standing in the world. We also see stability as a key factor. Donald Trump threatens both of those with his volatility and his insults to various communities. His tone hurts America abroad,” explains one US expat based in London.
Another American, a Democrat from Massachusetts currently living in Paris, adds: “I have become more global-minded since living abroad. In the US, the news is US-focused. International news gets barely a blip unless it’s something really big. I see how we need to come together and not be a bully who always thinks they’re going to get their way.”
I was especially intrigued to talk to Republican expat voters to get their take, given that Trump will almost certainly be their party’s candidate, whether they like it or not. One mainstream Republican told me she feels embarrassed by Trump’s aggression, hostility and the tone of his comments, adding she wishes the Republicans could have managed to get behind one mainstream candidate to stop Trump.
But, she adds: “The media have to take some responsibility. It is so shocking that his post-debate comments are given wall-to-wall live coverage across every single rolling news channel. It’s as though there’s been no check or restraint placed on him. Ironically, given his wealth, he’s actually spending less than Hillary on his campaign, because he just gets a media platform for free!”
But the big question for all of us watching is: Can America get behind Hillary Clinton to prevent Donald Trump? Can Democrat Bernie Sanders fans switch to Hillary? And perhaps even harder to imagine, can mainstream Republicans vote for Hillary Clinton?
Remember that in 2002, the people of France did exactly that. People who would never normally have dreamed of voting for Jacques Chirac gave him their vote to keep far right Jean-Marie Le Pen out of office. The posters of that campaign said: “Better to vote for a crook than a fascist”.
One Republican told me that maybe, just maybe, she could vote for Hillary Clinton if Hillary was very clear she would have someone very fiscally conservative on her team. But on further reflection she added that she would most likely not vote at all.
“I can’t vote for Trump and I can’t really vote for Hillary. For me she is not credible or trustworthy. We just cannot afford everything Democrats promise. The math doesn’t add up. It is hard for me to say this, but I guess I won’t vote if those are my choices.”
Many expats feel this is Hillary’s time.
“There is simply no question about it. She is by far the most experienced candidate. Hillary doesn’t need to play “The Woman Card,” as Trump so idiotically put it. Her card is that she’s fabulously qualified for this job and she’s America’s best chance. And while she’s at it, she’ll be an inspiration and a voice for women around the world,” added an American woman from New York now based in France.
For many non-Americans, the phenomenon of the left wing Bernie Sanders is fascinating.
I asked one Democrat to try and explain it. “He is a man for the people. He is looking out for every person. He is led by his heart, not his ego. College tuition, medical care, the environment. He has always spoken his mind and stood up when his opinion did not match the status quo. I feel in his heart he wants to do what is right.”
And did she want him as her candidate? “I like him but I can’t really believe he’ll be able to do everything he wants. So, sadly, no. I don’t care for Hillary but if it is her against Trump, she gets my vote. She definitely gets my vote.”
Is it strange to be away from home for expats at this crucial time? “Goodness me no!” laughs one American.
“I just don’t think I could take the relentlessness negativity of this campaign if I were back home.”
“It already gets a lot of coverage here in Europe. It would be insufferable to be back in the US at the moment. No, this is a good year to be an expat.”