How We In The UK Are Feeling About Your Presidential Election
American politics is, by and large, weirder and more sensationalist than British politics. Aided in large part by an amplifying, soundbite-focused news media that creates sensation as a habitual part of the political landscape, the American presidential election is loud, endless, absorbing, and overtly confrontational. Outside of that bubble of cacophony, though, things get eerily quiet, and the world looks at proceedings with a mixture of awe, confusion, and in this case of this particular election, intensifying horror.
Over here in the UK, my friends and I are a bit confused, America. Hillary we understand. But how did you let a man with no political experience and so many allegations of dodgy dealings get within breathing distance of the Oval Office? What kind of operation are you running over there? Of course, we've had no shortage of drama this year ourselves, and Britain's own political culture gives it an interesting perspective on the Trump-Clinton contest. As the two candidates meet Monday night for the first Presidential Debate, we'll be feeling a mix of interest, superiority, and abject terror.
If you'd like to pry yourself away from the television set and endless pundits contemplating the likely winner of Monday night's debate, envision yourself in Britain. This is what your election looks like from the country of tea, scones, and corgis.
1. We're Baffled By Your Tolerance For Bad Manners
There is no way in which you could declare politics in any country mild-mannered; when it comes to clashes of grand ideologies, humans are inclined to get heated. But the contrast between the argumentative natures of British and American politics means that the Trump-versus-Clinton contest has gotten our attention as an extremely strange and bad-mannered contest.
Great Britain is a country where a political insult is often something like one politician telling another that he looks a bit scruffy (the ex-Prime Minister, David Cameron, to Jeremy Corbyn, head of the opposition), or that somebody was "lily-livered" when it came to a policy (Cameron allegedly to now-PM Theresa May). The violent rhetoric of American politics has frequently been faintly strange to the modern British discourse, but this election, where Trump has specialized in bizarre comments about Muslims, menstruation, and other matters, has pushed that aspect to the brink. (I personally hail from Australia, where leadership "spills" to depose elected leaders are frequent and vicious, and swearing is pretty normal in Parliament — and even I look at the Clinton-Trump contest and wonder who's going to calm everybody down.)
The British political way to deal with opponents, at least publicly, is quiet vitriol and cutting remarks. Against this context, Clinton isn't particularly strange to me, but Trump has gone beyond the pale so many times we regard him as some kind of hyper-offensive orange space alien. Shouting matches between television commentators and the endless amounts of internet trolls only add to the surrealism. The tone is extremely jarring, and difficult to understand as serious political exchange between genuine contenders for the leadership of the most powerful country on Earth.
2. We Can't Believe How Long This Race Just Keeps Going
I also find the American electoral cycle exhausting. Your extensive campaigning and the labyrinth of primaries, super-PACS, and conventions gives the entire process the air of a traveling circus, drawn to bigger and bigger sensation to keep the attention of the beleaguered crowd. By the time election time actually comes, how can any of you actually see straight? We're unprepared for the onslaught of presidential back-and-forth, and find it difficult to see through it with clarity. Is it over yet?
3. How You Talk About Gun Control & Immigration Is Very Foreign
The main issues facing the Clinton and Trump camps can seem, to non-Americans, either idiosyncratic or quietly lunatic. America's gun control policy seems, to many other countries, Western or not, like a mind-boggling historical artefact that should have been disposed of alongside the horse and cart. (Severely restrictive gun ownership laws were brought in following the Dunblane massacre in 1996, in which a gunman killed sixteen children, a teacher and himself.) Abortion rights are generally accepted across Britain, Scotland, and Wales, though in Ireland it's a hot-button issue where restrictive laws have recently attracted enormous protests. In the British context, yelling about these things often seems radically bizarre.
Immigration is a concern in British politics too; after all, the recent Leave campaign to exit the EU made a promise to restrict immigration a cornerstone of its promises (one that it's since gone back on). Concerns about anti-immigrant sentiment and questions about the proper treatment of Syrian refugees circulate widely. But nobody in power is standing up and seriously declaring building a wall in Greece, or comparing vulnerable people to Skittles. It's not only the issues on the table; it's how American politics discusses them that can seem completely bonkers.
4. Clinton's Gender Seems Irrelevant
The UK had its first female Prime Minister back in 1979. We've had a Queen as head of state since 1952, and we now have another female Prime Minister, Theresa May. For Brits, the issue of whether a woman is competent or viable as a leader purely on the basis of her gender was settled quite a long time ago; when we debate Thatcher's legacy, it's on policy lines, not on her taste in skirts.
That said, sexism in politics continues to run through British media, with items on May's "daring" skirt taste, her shoes, and a female MP's leg-crossing on television earning outraged responses from feminists. (Marie Claire sarcastically published a "style file" on May's husband Philip May, lambasting the normal attitude towards politicians' wives and partners in British culture.) When we look at Clinton's campaign, therefore, it's with both a sense of annoyance — of course she can do the bloody job — and a feeling of deja vu. The superficial nonsense happens to female politicians all over the world; myself and other feminist activists in the UK can only see parallels with Clinton's treatment in the US media.
5. How Someone So Unqualified Is Running Is Beyond Us
The notion of "qualified" is an interesting one in British politics. The criticism of prime ministers here is generally that their experience tends to be all of the same kind: they went to Eton, read at Oxford or Cambridge, and go on to careers in the Cabinet. (Theresa May went to a state school, making her a change from tradition.) But the biggest outcry over qualification recently has been around the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected as leader of the party (and fought off a leadership challenge) despite being a backbencher, an MP who doesn't hold a government office and is consequently a bit less important. But he'd been a backbencher for 32 years. When people are squabbling over three decades of experience, Donald Trump, who has never held political office in his life, looks extremely bizarre.
6. Many Of Us Are Terrified To See Trump's Rhetoric Spreading Here
Trump himself earned widespread ire for turning up in Britain shortly after the Brexit vote and declaring that it was a good thing (particularly because he referenced Scotland, who had actually voted as a country to stay in the EU). The Scottish reacted with virulence on Twitter, with one calling him a "ludicrous tangerine ball bag.” Anti-Trump sentiment ran so high at one point that a petition asking the government to ban him from entering the UK on the grounds of hate speech was signed by half a million people; but, as Politico points out, some of his views have hit home, with a petition demanding the stop of all immigration, Muslim or otherwise, into the UK until ISIL is defeated also becoming very popular. While many of us are incredulous at the talking tangerine, clearly people in the UK are listening to his rhetoric, and that is a very, very scary thing.
7. We Know That The Unexpected Is Never Off The Table
Britons are apprehensive to call the Trump-Clinton fight in advance for the very good reason that we've just had a lesson in the power of the unexpected in politics. Brexit — the campaign to leave the EU that everybody thought would be quietly smashed and left in the dustbin of history — won an unexpected victory, prompting the Prime Minister's resignation and a bizarre competition to replace him (with drop-outs and dirty deals), economic jitters, and a governmental crisis as people tried to figure out what leaving actually meant. The opposition also folded in on itself after people accused the party leader of not doing enough to campaign to stay in the EU; dozens of MPs quit, they held a leadership election too, and the whole thing was only resolved a few days ago. The country has, for lack of a better word, been in chaos.
And that's the lesson that Brits interested in U.S. politics bear with them as they watch: that the inexplicable, the impossible, the just-can't-be-true, can happen — and happen with utter conviction — if you're not very, very careful. The rise of Trump is, to many British observers, a strange joke that is becoming increasingly more serious. Unfortunately, they are aware of what happens if you discount a political possibility as too unlikely to be true.
8. ... And We Are Afraid Of What That Means For Us
As the most politically powerful country on Earth, we can't look away from your contest, but against a British context you look, frankly, slightly out of control. CNBC, reporting widespread British support for Clinton over Trump, emphasized why: Clinton is a "known factor," while Trump's "unpredictability" makes him a less attractive candidate. Simply put, we have no idea what the man would be likely to do, and as we're meant to be in a strategic partnership with your country, we'd quite like you to ask us to do reasonable things.