Ceritalah USA

Karim Raslan

Posted at Nov 04 2016 02:08 AM

Without the Brexit (and later, Donald Trump), I would never have headed off for the United States. 

Landing in London on the morning of 23 June 2016, I was amongst the many millions who were stunned by the voter backlash against open borders, free-trade and liberal, cosmopolitan elites.

So while Ceritalah USA is a straightforward endeavour, I would like to think that I am trying to explore what’s really at stake for the world. 

On one level, my dispatches will seek to help my readers–whether they're in Quezon City, Danang, Kuching or Surabaya – to understand what the ugly slugfest between internationalist-cum-technocrat Hillary Clinton and “America First” Trump could mean for our region. 

We need to know if the USA is still the world’s leading super-power, or has its prestige been fatally damaged? Having dominated the Asia-Pacific since the Second World War, can the Americans continue to do so? 

Or will they shrink in the face of China and allow Southeast Asia to become little more than the Sinic equivalent of the Caribbean?  

Has Barrack Obama's "Pivot to Asia" been a bold repositioning or will the Trans-Pacific Partnership's (TPP) almost-certain failure mark the death-knell of such ambitions? 

In true Ceritalah style, I'll also be hitting the ground and listening to the voices of ordinary Americans, especially the Southeast Asian diaspora. 

Are they (there are estimated to be 4 million Filipino- and 1.8 million Vietnamese-Americans) upbeat about the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave? What do the PhilAms think of President Duterte's “separation” from the USA? 

I'll also be exploring different parts of the country, including the Silicon Valley with its world-beating tech industries, the Latino enclaves of southern Texas, the rural backwaters of Arkansas, Michigan's Rust Belt, the inner-city decay of Baltimore (of “The Wire” infamy), Washington DC and finally, the ultimate global capital: New York, New York (“so good they named it twice”). 

But as I said, I’d like to dig a bit deeper for my American sojourn.

I had landed in London on the day of the Brexit to see my 83-year-old mother who had just broken her leg. 

My Bangladeshi-born cabdriver was a staunch “Remainer” who told me: "I make a living off the visitors. I'd be crazy to vote for Brexit. But there are a lot of people who aren't happy, who feel there are too many immigrants around, who don't like it. It's not really reported, but like this morning when I was queueing up to vote, I was surrounded by them and they're very determined." Strangely, he never for once thought of himself as an immigrant. 

Later, at my mother's hospital in rural Suffolk (where the vote had been overwhelmingly for Brexit), I remember her shaking her head when I offered her a copy of the vehemently pro-Remain Financial Times: "Don't leave that here or there'll be trouble for me. They don't like me as it is!" 

Meeting up with old university friends in London, I was struck by their astonishment. The disappointment (and for those who weren't British-born, the anxiety) was palpable. 

My conversations during the trip continues to haunt me, even now. 

How had so many pollsters, journalists and commentators got it all so wrong? How had they missed the angry groundswell? How had the Brexiters won the day? Who had unleashed the xenophobia and could it be restrained? 

Having grown up on a diet middle-of-the-road centrists and liberals such as Alfred Bloom and Francis Fukuyama, I had taken the openness and tolerance of Western liberal democracies as a given. 

The “West” was constantly progressing: moving beyond race, gender and cultural affiliations. But now, sitting in my mother's house in Suffolk, I began to sense a far less receptive mind-set and indeed, an angry push-back against the credos of liberalism.  

Was Brexit and now the emergence of Trump with his racist rhetoric a sign of something uglier in the West? Has the push for free trade and increased globalization essentially gutted traditional working- and now even middle-class communities, leaving them scarred, impoverished and resentful? 

Were the elections of the first African-American President (Obama) and Muslim Mayor of London (Sadiq Khan) little more than "peak liberal democracy", to be replaced by the deep-rooted chauvinism of these societies rising up to reclaim the centre-stage? 

Is the American Dream metastasizing into an American Nightmare? 

Are we seeing a surge in nativist populism comparable to the 1930s as the world hurtled towards totalitarianism and war? 

Moreover, democracy's tribulations can't be viewed in exclusion. With China growing every more dynamic and prosperous, its avowedly undemocratic system has gained in credibility and stature. 

The 8 November Presidential polls will have an enormous impact on Southeast Asia and indeed, global politics. The two candidates offer jarringly different views of America and its engagement in the world. Were the US to retreat from advocating democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, transparency and accountability, the impact would be immediate and profound. 

So whilst this journey is nominally about the US elections and its impact on Southeast Asia, it's really about whether democratic ideals and principles—especially those articulated by Jefferson and Lincoln—can long endure. 

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.