Tuesday 31 March 2020

Deciphering Malta’s intense interest in the US elections

This article first appeared in the Sunday edition of Malta Today 

There are many parallels to be drawn between the US election campaign and what happens in Malta every time we go to the polls.

I think this is probably the reason why this election, more than any other, has captured our country’s attention and had people discussing the outcome so passionately. There were those who were baffled by this overwhelming interest in the American election because “it has nothing to do with us”, and accusing those interested of simply “riding the social media band wagon”. But I don’t think so at all.

For a start, I think it is healthy for us as an island to look beyond our shores and actually interest ourselves with what is going on internationally rather than just indulging in our own minor petty political squabbles. While it may not affect our daily lives, the choice of the next President of the most powerful country in the world does impact us because we form part of the global community. Economic, trade and even environmental decisions made on the world stage all trickle down to us eventually. It also made a nice change to see that people were actually curious enough to try and understand the intricacies of America’s very different electoral system, how the Electoral College works and how come Trump was elected even though Hillary won the popular vote.

But let us be honest: the reason we really got our teeth into this particular election is because as a nation we love nothing more than two candidates who slice the electorate down the middle so neatly into two opposing camps. Of course, we are used to this, it’s what we live and breath all the time. For many, that is what gets their pulses racing as they rub their hands with glee in anticipation of election time. However, seeing the United States so divided into two opposing factions over politics is something which doesn’t happen very often; seeing families and friends unable to speak to one another and even unfriending each other on Facebook because of their political views was something I had never seen before.

The current cultural and social class rift in the US is disturbing for Americans who are used to shrugging off an election result and just getting on with their lives. In fact, a low turnout is quite common, because many are more concerned with what happens in their own state and county rather than in faraway Washington. As Maltese, let’s face it, when it comes to politics we are hard-core. We are used to the name-calling and insults thrown back and forth between supporters when their candidate wins or loses, but to the average American who is detached from politics, all this is very alien and even startling. By Wednesday evening, I noticed that most of the stand-up comedians had suddenly changed tack and were talking about getting along and the need to come together as Americans now that the election is over.

But over on my newsfeed and even on my timeline, you would think that some Maltese people had scored a personal victory because Trump had won. I noticed the same type of gloating, taunting and baiting which goes on in local politics (or football, or festi). There were the usual attempts to goad and needle those who would have preferred Hillary, into blowing a fuse, for all the world as if it was a Muscat vs Simon election. The trolls were out in full force, aching to get some kind of reaction so that they could have their moment of Schadenfreude (or as we say in Maltese, “jieħdu pjaċir jaraw in-nies jinħarqu”). The mentality behind this attitude is fascinating: what is it which makes us as a nation enjoy “burning” those who don’t agree with us so much? Can we only take pleasure in a victory if we see the other side gloomy and down in the dumps so that we can crow with delight at the misery of others?

Of course, I am also aware that so many people in Malta relate to Donald Trump because they agree with his extremist views. This was brought home to me after I watched The Naked Truth: Trumpland, a documentary which speaks to real Trump supporters and delves into their reasons for backing him. If it were not for the American accents, the interviewer could have been speaking to any one of the many people in Malta who hate immigrants and all foreigners, and blame them for everything which is wrong with their lives. From the guy who cannot make ends meet, who lives in squalor and whose power has been cut off, to the well-to-do Republican matriarch who endorses Trump despite the fact that her Argentinian daughter-in-law is scared she will be deported. There is one scene where young, bare-chested white supremacists are screaming at immigrants to “go back to your country” because “I am American” and “this is my country, we don’t want you.” Sound familiar?

And finally, the other reason this election captured the local imagination was because it pitted a male candidate against a female candidate for the first time in US history. Now, I never made this election about gender because I don’t think Hillary should have won simply because she was a woman….and yet from comments I have read, there are quite a few Maltese men who seemed to feel some kind of macho triumph that she did not win. All is right with the world and their egos are intact.
Sure, it would have been nice for a woman to have become President, but that for me was not the real issue. The most important thing in my opinion was to keep Trump out of the Oval Office because I still stand by the belief that he is a potentially dangerous man who has unleashed a lot of hatred which was bubbling underneath the surface.

Most of all, it is clear from those first photos with Obama, that the man is seriously and tragically out of his depth. Those were not the photos of a man brimming with confidence and self-assurance. His bluster was gone and if you ask me, I think he is as stunned as everyone else that he won. If I had to draw a cartoon bubble over his head it would have read “s**t just got real”.

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