American politics elsewhere: The Trump presidency in the eyes of international students

Photo of Joe Biden on a Singaporean TV channel
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“I don’t know what things are coming to,” my father said at the breakfast table about two weeks ago, putting his phone away. He had been looking at one of those live election maps on some news website. “Did you see how close the margins are?” Before lunch, my friends from high school texted to ask me who I think is going to win. Later that day, I sat in a taxi listening to a radio DJ prattle on about President Donald Trump’s self-declared election victory.

I’m an international student stuck at home in Singapore, but chatter about the U.S. presidential election is everywhere here, as it is in most places in the world. The subject of American politics has been front and center in the international conversation since the watershed 2016 election brought Trump to power.

Perceptions of the United States have generally worsened: Only 53% of people surveyed by the Pew Research Center held positive views of the United States in 2019, as opposed to 64% in 2016 at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency. Even starker is the drop in faith in American leadership — only 31% of those surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2019 had faith in Trump, whereas 74% had confidence in Obama in 2016.

This is, perhaps, unsurprising. Trump has offended the citizens and leaders of many countries all over the world. For instance, he has blamed China for COVID-19, described African countries as “s—holes” and called Angela Merkel the “person who is ruining Germany.”

He has used these undiplomatic attacks against domestic opponents, too. For example, he has called Sen. Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas,” a dig at her claim of Native American identity; he has also called Sen. Bernie Sanders “Crazy Bernie.”

Ella Basing, a UC Berkeley freshman from the United Kingdom, sat down with me to discuss how people outside the United States perceive the country’s politics. She pointed out the rise of performance and personal attacks in American politics and seemed — to say the least — to disapprove. “When the first debate came out between the two, Biden and Trump, it was kind of like two children speaking, in a way,” Basing said.

She also disagrees with the United States’ recent shift toward isolationist and protectionist foreign policy, exemplified by its formal withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Basing described herself as an “internationalist” and told me, “We’re in a position where everyone is kind of striving for a similar goal, and that’s just to continue life in an equal, fair, safe-ish way. And so I don’t understand why it’s so hard for leaders of countries to cooperate with each other.”

I also spoke with Devang Jhabakh Jai, a campus freshman born in India who spent most of his life in Dubai. He, too, did not appear to enjoy the current state of American politics.

The immense influence the United States has over the rest of the world means that people care about what goes on within its borders and on Capitol Hill.

“As a developed country that has had this system in place for quite some time and has a largely educated population, I’m pretty disappointed in the way the country is handling the election, especially with Trump just outright declaring that he will not respect the results of the election,” Jai said. “Even Indian politicians, who are quite a bit more backward than politicians here, are still at least known for respecting the result of an election.”

He also described the “shady stuff” that happens in American politics, such as lobbying, funding and bribery.

To some, it might seem strange that people outside the United States are concerned about or interested in American politics — most people outside the United States did not have a right to vote in the 2020 elections, and whoever becomes the next president of the United States will not represent any one of them. However, the immense influence the United States has over the rest of the world means that people care about what goes on within its borders and on Capitol Hill.

As Jai told me, “It is the world’s largest economy, so if anything goes down there, there will be ripple effects across the world. … America is No. 1 in so many different ways, so we do look at them as a reference point for many different things.”

Needless to say, American foreign policy has huge impacts on other countries, particularly those that depend on it economically and politically (such as, for instance, India, which exported $57.7 billion in goods and $29.7 billion in services to the United States last year). Tariffs against states that rely on trade with the United States would be hugely detrimental to these economies.

Needless to say, American foreign policy has huge impacts on other countries, particularly those that depend on it economically and politically.

Recent anti-immigration shifts in U.S. policy have also affected many people abroad looking to build their lives in the United States. For instance, Trump’s recent move to make H-1B visas less accessible has hurt prospective Indian immigrants, who receive about 70% of H-1B visas, as well as India’s technological sector. Policies such as this one are hugely detrimental in material, economic ways, but they also harm immigrants on a less tangible, emotional level. “People are starting to come to the realization that this country, for some reason, really hates us. It’s starting to hate us, at least,” Jai told me. “I don’t feel welcome here at all, to be honest.”

As student visas also became harder to get, international students faced — and continue to face — a similar struggle. “I think a lot of us felt kind of very unwanted,” Basing admitted. “I’m pretty set on going in January, but I have the fear of being deported.”

Official policies aside, the rhetoric in American politics today is also hugely damaging for people abroad who intend to travel to or live in the United States. “I remember when Trump won the election — from that day onwards, my dad’s been warning me against coming to the U.S.,” Jai told me.

“This racist dialogue has existed in the U.S. for a very, very long time; it’s only recently that this dialogue has reached the top. And when that has happened, it’s empowered a lot of people to come out and be a lot more open about it,” he said.

When the performative, mud-slinging style of politics Basing mentioned involves immutable characteristics such as race and religion and discrimination becomes blatant at the highest echelons of government, a sociopolitical climate in which hate and prejudice is the norm is created. This has huge impacts not only on people in other countries who want to live in the United States but also on the entire world.

When the performative, mud-slinging style of politics Basing mentioned involves immutable characteristics such as race and religion and discrimination becomes blatant at the highest echelons of government, a sociopolitical climate in which hate and prejudice is the norm is created.

Basing told me about Boris Johnson, the United Kingdom’s prime minister, whom she says is sometimes thought of as “kind of the younger brother to Trump.” Trump’s stances and attitudes have affected his, in the same way that stances and attitudes in the United States in general have spilled over into other countries such as the United Kingdom. “I think the U.K. in a way takes inspiration from countries like the U.S.,” she said.

The United States is hugely important to the international community, and it must be acknowledged that the international community is equally important to America. On the level of ideas, for instance, people in other countries — such as international students studying at American universities — bring valuable perspectives to American politics that can help to better the nation.

“At the end of the day, the whole point of democracy is to promote dissent,” Jai said. “Wherever the perspectives come from, any perspective that helps promote dissent helps open people up to ideas, helps get the population educated about what the government is and isn’t doing. I think all of that should be promoted.”

Basing described how Americans, who are so “immersed” in their own politics, might find outside perspectives helpful in achieving an objective understanding of their situation. “Different points of view and open-mindedness (are) crucial,” she said.

She also raised the idea that foreigners, coming from countries that serve as positive examples as well as ones that are negative examples for the United States, ultimately bring with them lessons to be learned from abroad.

In today’s political climate and increasingly interconnected world, constructive discourse is more important than ever. In the wake of the U.S. presidential election, many hope that we will see more of it rather than less. However, to hope is not enough; the onus is on every single one of us to keep listening to and learning from one another, no matter what part of the world we come from.

Contact Lee Xuan at [email protected].