A date with destiny

IT was just past midnight on Nov 9, and there I stood in the middle of Times Square in New York City, among hundreds of Americans transfixed by the live election results that were flashing across the giant screens every few seconds.

A strong sense of anticipation and nervousness had filled the chilly air. Even my hands were shaking more than usual as I attempted to document the events that were unfolding. And it was only partially because I had forgotten to wear gloves.

You see, despite being an “outsider”, I was vested in the outcome of this presidential election.

Perhaps it was because America’s choice would have a ripple effect on the rest of the world, Malaysia included, or maybe I was just overwhelmed by the entire occasion.

It was likely a bit of both.

For more than a year, the US election campaign flooded news pages and social media timelines everywhere. The level of interest in it was “yuge”, as Republican Donald Trump would say.

In fact, several Malaysians and foreigners I met in the past year seemed to know more about Trump and his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton than they did about the state of affairs in their own country.

The amount of media attention given to this particular election and the sheer number of stories that emerged, be they true or false, made it a topic that was impossible to ignore.

To most of us, the 2016 US election had become this massive political phenomenon, or one really gripping soap opera, depending on how you choose to see it.

I dare say the hype even exceeded the spectacle of 2008, when Barack Obama made history by becoming the first African-American president.

Well, America was on the cusp of history once again and as fate would have it, I was given a ringside seat to watch it happen.

Courtesy of the US Embassy, I was selected to join an election reporting tour organised by Washington’s Foreign Press Centre (FPC), which involved covering the final stretch of the polls beginning in the traditional swing state of Ohio and concluding in New York.

With 24 other international journalists, we visited candidate rallies, campaign offices, voting centres, and engaged with experts to essentially capture the pulse of this election over a six-day period.

It was an incredible opportunity to peel away the layers of rhetoric and sensationalism to discover the issues closest to American hearts and how these affected their voting habits.

We found that things were not as clear cut as categorising more than 300 million Americans as simply Clinton or Trump supporters, or as Democrats versus Republicans.

Yes, as pointed out by Ohio State University academy professor Paul Beck, most Americans were a partisan lot and would vote according to their partisan beliefs.

However, those lines were signi­ficantly blurred in this election.

Take Hollice McCauley for instance, an African-American man selling T-shirts at a Trump rally in Wilmington, Ohio, who said he was a big fan of Obama but was going to vote for the Republican candidate because “he would bring back jobs”.

Then there was Grace Alexandria Fairro, a 52-year-old mother who came to the US from Ecuador 13 years ago, who said she would vote for Trump because “he said things to your face and not behind your back”.

Theoretically, no one would have pegged these voters to make the choice they did, for the simple reason that they belonged to communities – blacks and immigrants – that were seen as largely anti-Trump from the start.

But as post-election analyses showed, it was Americans like Hollice and Grace who swung this topsy-turvy election in the Republican candidate’s favour.

Ultimately, they did not care that Trump was painted as a racist, sexist, and a xenophobe by his detractors.

The idea that was perpetuated down to the wire by the media and pollsters – that a Trump win was impossible because voters would reject a candidate who was obno­xious, inexperienced, and disliked by his own party – was ripped to shreds in the wee hours of Nov 9.

As Baruch College lecturer Dr David Birdsell told us the morning after, this election was a massive setback for social science research in predicting the behaviour of electorates. And it’s a trend that is on the rise.

“We are losing the capacity to describe disgruntled populations in advanced Western democracies, and this is a concern,” he said, referring to the unpredictable year that began with Britain’s Brexit vote in June.

There will certainly be more opinion polls conducted on President-elect Trump leading up to his inauguration on Jan 20, and probably even after as his initial days in office are scrutinised.

Well, I for one will be taking those with a few pinches of salt, especially if they continue to root for his failure.

Trump has defied the odds right from the start, and proven that there is still success to be had after 14 seasons of The Apprentice.

To end on a personal note, covering the US elections as a foreign journalist was an opportunity unlike any other, though not without its challenges.

At times, doors were closed to us, while the level of access granted to foreign reporters for official campaign events were very limited.

So if anyone’s asking – no, I did not get to meet Clinton or Trump personally. But that takes nothing away from an experience that will not soon be forgotten.

Online reporter Akil Yunus believes the world would be a better place without politics, but also a lot duller, something he addresses in The Flipside. He can be reached at akilyunus@thestar.com.my

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Opinion , "Fresh Faces Young Voices"

Akil Yunus

Akil Yunus

Akil Yunus believes the world would be a better place without politics, but also a lot duller. He is a moderate at everything but eating, and feels people should make sense, not war.


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