A year ago, Donald Trump was inaugurated the 45th president of the United States. I had been living and working in the United States in the year and a half leading up to that moment, but as Trump took to the stage in Washington DC last January, I watched from my new home in Guilin, China. Like many observers I had been deeply shaken by Trump’s victory and, as an historian, I knew that making sense of this moment would be a long, slow process wielding no simple answers. Despite the frustrations and difficulties of manoeuvering over China’s internet firewall, I remember seeing Trump on stage and being struck by my own relief that I was no longer in the United States.
Indeed it was the Great Firewall itself that went on to become a major source of continued relief. If I wanted to engage with American or Australian news outlets, I had to actively decide to do so: with the internet censorship, this required turning on my VPN and waiting as websites that usually load in seconds took minutes to do so. This was the slow, difficult way in which I followed the first six months of the Trump presidency: the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, the dizzying conveyor belt of ousted political advisors, and the executive orders restricting immigration. I didn’t keep up. My time in Guilin was quieter than the news-saturated life I’d lived in the US. But however much of a respite this felt at first, it was illusory. While it felt good to have some distance from American politics, the limitations quickly became stifling.
Before coming to Guilin, I had spent 2015 and 2016 living in Charlottesville, Virginia finishing my PhD in American history. It was there I watched as Trump-the-laughed-at-candidate increasingly became Trump-the-terrifying-possibility. I spent my time speaking with people in bars, diners and at university events and was met with a range of political views: self-described radicals who declared they wouldn’t be voting at all this election as there was no difference between Clinton and Trump and besides, the system was rigged and Clinton would win anyway; white Virginians, snug in their Old South wealth, who ardently and aggressively supported Trump’s proposal to build a wall; others, whom some might label ‘establishment sorts,’ worried about what was happening to the process of electing the president; a few, so disillusioned with the political system that they said—only half-jokingly—“bring on the apocalypse” (now that they couldn’t vote for Sanders, they would vote for Trump so America could “start again”); people, mostly men, who said they were voting for Trump because of their own experiences of economic exclusion: he was a businessman and would set things right.
By the time the election results were announced in November 2016, I had relocated briefly to Los Angeles. Sitting in a pub in the hipster neighbourhood of Silverlake, I saw bearded men crying and a mostly white crowd become more and more subdued as the reality of a Trump presidency set in. A loudmouthed guy was telling anyone who’d listen he’d been “living in a bubble, man”. Strangers were hugging. People were crying in the street. The next morning, I watched as Clinton spoke to the country, insisting that due process must continue. Her stoicism was incredible to see. I went to UCLA that day and was overwhelmed by the eeriness of a campus filled with university students yet starkly subdued and quiet. There was a fog of disbelief. The noise of protesters shutting down LA’s highways and declaring “love trumps hate” was to come later. Not long after that I went to China.
Most recently, in the first two weeks of 2018, I returned to the US for a conference and revisited Charlottesville. Catching up with colleagues and friends, we talked about what has changed since I left. Looming large in our conversations were the events of August last year, when a group of white supremacists marched through Charlottesville armed with tiki torches chanting “white lives matter,” “you will not replace us,” and “Jews will not replace us.” They told me of the woefully limited response from police and of the fear and sorrow the death of Heather Heyer evoked (a very close friend of mine had been standing just inches from where the car ploughed into the crowd and killed Heather). In the days that followed, students and administrators from the University of Virginia held a vigil, replacing torches for candles and singing civil rights-era songs. Today, the statue of Confederate leader, Robert E. Lee that sparked the Unite The Right rally remains standing in Emancipation Park, now covered by a black tarpaulin.
In many ways Charlottesville is a microcosm of liberal America: it’s a small, picturesque, wealthy college town with a long history of white gentrification and Democratic leadership. And like in many parts of the country, Trump’s victory and the violence of August has been met with renewed opposition. Academics in Charlottesville have organised multiple public lectures including on the history and meaning of fascism and grassroots campaigners have renewed their push for living wages and the provision of sanctuary for immigrants against federal authorities. In November last year this opposition came to a head, when Virginia became the site of the first major election since Trump came to office. Local organisers, including the Charlottesville branch of the nation-wide group Indivisible, lobbied people to get out and vote. Female voters proved crucial to the Democrats picking up 15 new seats and women won all except four of these seats. A year earlier the most qualified person to ever run for president—who happened to be a woman—lost. The Virginia election—as with the Alabama senate election, where Doug Jones became the first Democratic senator from that state in 25 years—represented a small but perceptible backlash against this.
And it’s here, perhaps, that there was an unexpected symbolical potency in watching Clinton lose. It played a galvanising role in American society. The #metoo moment may not have quite the same tenor if not for the broader context in which it is playing out: one in which the United States did not elect the first female president, choosing instead a sexual predator. Not only did women march on Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration but, as Nicole Hemmer has argued, this was the start of much bigger political engagement; EMILY’s list, an organisation that assists women to run for office, has seen its membership increase from 1,000 before the election to over 22,000 today.
I may have felt an initial relief at the media reprieve during my time in China. But it was shallow and didn’t last long. As difficult as American politics has been this year, and as hard as it’s been in Charlottesville, in stark contrast to China much of the US media is able and willing to call Trump out on his lies. Revisiting Charlottesville and seeing the invigorated engagement of ordinary people in local politics was a reminder that people can and will fight back. Trump may be unwinding an already frail healthcare system, he may have passed one of the most unequal tax bills in over 30 years, he may be implementing one of the most draconian immigration policies in a generation, but the din of opposition may also only be growing louder.