So my former colleagues at the ABC had me write a thing about the ongoing presidential election circus, from the perspective of one of us goddamn immigrants who steal all the good jobs.
Less than 10 minutes after it was published, I received a 500-word email comparing Trump and Hitler ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Anyway, I’m posting it here because this piece ended up really emphasizing the “free” in “freelancing,” and since it got no promotion, I may as well bank on some clicks for my own site. Enjoy!
It appears I’ve got something of a knack for finding myself in newsworthy situations. In 2011, I lived and worked in ground zero as parts of Brisbane were submerged by deadly floods.
Then, in late 2013, having had no prior experience with snowy winters, I relocated to central Maine, in the northeastern United States, just in time to feel the wrath of a polar vortex.
Two and a half years later, I’ve relocated again: this time to Florida, one of the key swing states in the U.S. presidential race. Unless you’re a diehard fan of baseball spring training, or Miami Heat basketball, the Republican and Democratic campaigns are the biggest show in town.
For transparency’s sake, I’ll throw this out there up front. As a U.S. permanent resident, my eligibility to vote is the same as that of a convicted felon or someone on parole in Florida: that is to say, I have no eligibility. Because I can’t exercise my democratic right to vote for the next leader of the free world, I’m embarrassingly a little politically apathetic here.
Don’t get me wrong, though. That certainly doesn’t mean the campaign isn’t constantly on my radar. For starters, I live in West Palm Beach, where former Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson hangs his shingle, albeit not in the same street. Just minutes away, across the Intracoastal waterway, is Palm Beach, the glamorous island strip where Donald Trump is a part-time resident and long-time ruffler of feathers in the “old-money” community. The real estate mogul and longtime New York socialite owns a private club called Mar-A-Lago, numerous luxury hotels and golf courses in South Florida.
Head an hour further south on Interstate 95, the federal highway corridor that runs from my former home of Maine all the way down the east coast of the country, and you’ll hit Miami, the birthplace of yet another Republican candidate: Marco Rubio. Democratic hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders aren’t from around here, but they’ve made their appearances in the Sunshine State too as the March 15 primary approaches.
If the proximity of all of those potential presidents isn’t enough, Palm Beach County has a permanent place in election lore. In 2000, with George W. Bush and Al Gore fighting it out to become the Commander-in-Chief, it came down to Florida’s votes to decide on the presidency. A tiny margin in the election night vote count forced an automatic recount. Among other factors in the impossibly close race, Democrats alleged that due to the design of the ballots in Palm Beach County, some residents’ votes were marked for conservative Pat Buchanan instead of Gore.
In the end, we know how it ended up. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the state Supreme Court’s ruling on manual recounts, and Bush became the nation’s 43rd president. However you look at it, there’s no denying it: living in South Florida and working in the newspaper business has me right in the thick of it all, whether I can have my say or not.
The Sound and the Fury
When I started at The Palm Beach Post last November, Trump’s campaign was really starting to gain more attention, if you can possibly imagine a time when it didn’t. The saturation of coverage has steadily increased since because, whether you agree with him or not, he’s a walking website traffic magnet, and clicks are currency in the digital news business.
The airwaves – particularly cable news channels – are equally flooded with the candidates’ faces. It’s impossible to avoid, even for your typical millennial “cable-cutter” such as yours truly. These days it takes one hell of a news event to knock the 2016 presidential race off the agendas of CNN, MSNBC or Fox News, depending on what’s on rotation on the newsroom TVs.
Given I don’t have cable at home, I haven’t had the privilege of seeing any of the candidates’ debates in their entirety, but spending nine hours a day in front of Twitter at work means I never miss a beat. That’s certainly an eye-opening (and occasionally eye-rolling) contrast to campaigning back home: it feels so much louder here.
And yet, amid all of the shouting, it took me an embarrassingly long time to establish what each of the candidates’ policies were. Regardless of party affiliation, it feels to this expat like more time is spent on muck-raking and slinging of the proverbial excrement than it does explaining how they’d be the best choice to run a world superpower.
In saying that, I can’t point the finger and say that’s something that’s unique to American election campaigns. The (anecdotal) common stereotype about the United States is that everything is on a bigger scale: meal portions, pick-up trucks, cities, football players. I don’t think that sniping and attacks between politicians is any less prevalent. It’s just a matter of scale.
Since my first vacation in the U.S., almost a decade ago, I’ve always made a point of keeping an open mind. Sure, some things might be polar opposites to the way I’m used to, but that’s the best thing about travel, y’know? Experiencing how other countries do it.
But when a co-worker asked me last week, “are elections like this back in Australia?” I felt compelled to respond to him frankly.
“It feels much more like entertainment here.”
By that, I don’t necessarily mean it’s must-see viewing that the whole family should crowd around after dinner of a weeknight. And given the fact that one recent debate devolved into a quite literal penis-size contest, it probably wouldn’t get a G-rating anyway.
There certainly are elements that feel like a scripted television show, though. We’ve got a couple of career politicians running against an actual reality TV show fixture, and on the other side of the battle there’s a former First Lady and potential first female president of the United States facing off against a 74-year-old man attracting a millenial supporter base by urging them to #FeelTheBern.
Minor story arcs that could appear in any network TV drama include Clinton’s email scandal, the legitimacy of photos depicting Sanders at civil rights rallies in the 1960s, a Weird Twitter movement demanding that Ted Cruz reveal himself as the Zodiac Killer of the 1970s (this is not a joke), and pretty much any of the controversial statements Trump has uttered in the past eight months.
While I’m on the topic of barely believable, showing your support for candidates seems to go further here than the Labor Party’s “Kevin ’07” T-shirts which appeared during the first election campaign I worked for the ABC in 2007. Trump’s unmistakable “Make America Great Again” baseball caps are one thing, but Cruz, for a time, sold American History X-esque posters which read “Blacklisted and loving it” on the merchandise section of his website.
Social media has obviously played a large part in the daily circus, as well. Anyone who follows Trump on Twitter knows the sheer volume of content – sometimes incendiary – that he posts each day. Sanders supporters have adopted the #FeelTheBern hashtag, while the Clinton campaign has seemingly attempted to harness every digital trend possible in an attempt to hit voters from the Buzzfeed generation.
And to feed the beast that is the 24-hour news cycle, sometimes you’ve got to think outside the box. On top of all of the news coverage you’d come to expect from dozens of cable channels, newspapers and every other medium, you’ve also got airtime filled by a less conventional form of correspondent. One of my favorite instances of this was via Vice, a magazine-cum-website which covers lifestyle, culture and, increasingly over the past few years, news. Vice sent legendary Houston, Texas rapper Bun B out on the campaign trail to file dispatches from the road. I’m sure that I’m wrong, but I can’t think of an instance in recent memory where a major news organization sent an entertainer – particularly one about as far removed from the traditional idea of political coverage as you can think of – to report on the stumping. And what he produced was excellent:
“This isn’t about politics. This is about a famous person from television coming to town. This election isn’t really about the issues at hand—it’s a popularity contest, made for reality TV. And this dude is the Honey Boo Boo of this political pageant.”
But let me be very clear: It hasn’t all been confusing, confronting or in-your-face quasi-entertainment. I’ve also watched democracy in action in the most grassroots of ways. Some of the close friends I made during my time in central Maine have been loud, proud and active supporters of one candidate in particular, which culminated in their preferred presidential hopeful winning the majority of delegates. That’s the power of the people, right there.
And there’s at least one definite upside to all this yelling and social media bickering and election drama that will continue deep into 2016: plummeting gas prices. For reasons that no one can actually explain to me in any sort of scientific manner, the cost of a tank of petrol has dipped in a big way, and “it always happens before elections.” For perspective: when I first moved out here in 2013, gas averaged around $US3.20 per gallon, or about 91 Australian cents per liter at the time. Now, in Florida, it’s now around $US1.81 a gallon, or 63c a liter. My comprehensive survey isn’t complete, but I’m pretty confident that no one’s upset about the fact that it costs less than $20 to fill the car up.
Unfortunately the price of a gallon of beer – eight pints – isn’t quite as low, but it’s still affordable enough to see me through until my adoptive homeland has a new Commander in Chief. No different to Down Under, sometimes we need a cold one to make the campaign a little more palatable.