US polls: What is an election, if not an enormous fractal mirror?

As the abstract absurdity of the polling system was revealed I thought: please just call it. And when they finally did, I felt nothing but relief.

Written by TJ Misra | Updated: November 22, 2016 4:10 pm
us elections, canada, donald trump, us president elect, america elections, justin trudeau, canada prime minister, us-canada relation, us-canada ties Washington : President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016. AP/PTI

“The Canadian immigration website crashed!!”, the message said

It was 22:30 on November 8th and I was in the “Irish Village”, an Ottawa complex of inter-connected pubs and site of the largest US Election-Night party in Canada’s capital city. I read the message aloud to the group of people around me and typed back “lol!” Yes, we thought it was a joke.

The warren of rooms and courtyards was filled with students, diplomats, government workers, retirees, entrepreneurs, and the other relatively privileged inhabitants and visitors to a G7 capital city. As the results wound their way north to our televisions and projector screens, it grew not quieter, but louder. This was a dramatic contrast with the footage of American viewing parties that the TV stations were covering. In the US, people were falling silent. Eyes brimmed, mouths were covered. But here in Ottawa, as the results starting looking more and more unbelievable, the level of debate and discussion rose. It felt as if the US-Canada border was a wall, permitting those north of it to safely watch the crashing waves and comment “this is the worst storm surge from the south in a long time, how come we didn’t see it coming?”

As the abstract absurdity of the polling system was revealed I thought: please just call it. And when they finally did, I felt nothing but relief. I am more relieved that it is over than I am dismayed that Trump won. I am relieved that the world has been confronted by the realities of the US electoral system, its media machines, and its living stereotypes on both sides of the aisle.

Over these past months, Canada has been my intellectual and emotional hill station, keeping me cool above the roiling heat and swirling pollution of the US election season. But the hill stations all have internet now, and I wasn’t safe on Wednesday morning. My phone filled with reactions from friends and family around the world, broadly generalized below:

“I can’t believe this!”/“Good call on moving to Canada early, we’re joining you!” (mostly California- and New York-based Americans)
“Aren’t you glad you chose us?”/“So when are you renouncing your US citizenship?” (mostly Canadians)
“Americans are so stupid”/“Now we’re all screwed” (mostly Europeans)
“Are you okay? Be careful, don’t get beaten up”/“Trump too shall pass, this banknote thing is way worse” (mostly Indians)

At times, being an American citizen of Indian origin who is based in neither country proves to be excruciating. Unsurprisingly, these times tend to peak with the tidal forces of controversial political and cultural news.

I’m still not sure how I feel about many of the sentiments I’ve seen and received. Amused, outraged, empathetic, defensive, protective, exasperated…and for the rare message that focuses on how I, not my passport, might be reacting— grateful. And since the election, I have turned time and time again to moments of dark humour in an internet of post-election mourning, celebration, finger-pointing, and, like this very article, think-piece therapizing. It’s funny cause it’s true.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had resisted commenting on the 2016 US election. With his government in a neutral position, he was ready to pivot and build relationships with whomever Americans declared their leader. And when he did speak, it was to say: “Canada has no closer friend, partner and ally than the United States. We look forward to working very closely with President-elect Trump, his administration, and with the United States Congress in the years ahead, including on issues such as trade, investment, and international peace and security. The relationship between our two countries serves as a model for the world. Our shared values, deep cultural ties, and strong integrated economies will continue to provide the basis for advancing our strong and prosperous partnership.”

When I read the above quote from the Prime Minister, one phrase echoed around my head: “the relationship between our two countries serves as a model for the world”. It is a baffling statement. Or at least, it feels that way. On the surface, it is safe, stable diplo-talk, completely appropriate and in-line with much of the polite reassurance that tends to circulate between the US and Canada. But what does it actually mean? That North America has one border not ratcheted with tension? Do we as a continent deserve global praise for that, given the resources, stability, and cultural overlap of the two nations in question?

I am deeply appreciative of what last year’s election of Trudeau represented to Canadians. In short – he was their Obama, their answer to the Conservative PM Stephen Harper who famously said “You won’t recognize Canada when I’m through with it”. Canadians looked in the mirror a year ago, and after a decade of the Harper administration, didn’t like what they saw.

Is what the US has done so different? I understand how Trump and Clinton could have been cast as Scylla and Charybdis in the eyes of many. But, I also see just as many are struggling to empathize with those who looked at Obama’s US and rejected it.

What is an election, if not an enormous fractal mirror, bending and reflecting the pain and hope of those who vote?

TJ Misra is a journalist covering the Canadian Parliament and Federal Government. She has a background in history and international affairs, and tweets @tjmisra.