I am sitting in a room. It’s November 2nd, 2020, the day before the United States presidential election, half past eight in the evening, Greenwich Mean Time. The room is small, cluttered and only lit by cool dim LED fairy lights and the glow of my iPad. The only sound I hear is the whirrrrring of a small fan and the muffled voices of neighbors speaking a foreign language in the house next door.
The room is in a village just northwest of the boundaries of Greater London, England. I have been here since July, with my fiance, who is local. The village is quiet and suburban, like almost the entirety of this country, which consists of a few galactic clusters of population — London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol — with smooth gradations of habitation between; the urban cores fade to suburbia with many or no centers, and sometimes to “rural” areas which, to the eyes of an American grown up mostly in Texas and the West, still look like suburbs, or maybe exurbs — the sort of places where people can keep horses, but where you’re never more than twenty minutes or so from a supermarket and the buses still run.
I haven’t seen much of England due to circumstance and the pandemic — just this area, bits of London proper and a day trip down to Brighton on the southern shore to be assaulted by thieving and violent seagulls intent on my fish and chips — but what I have seen mostly reminds me of The Kinks’ song “The Village Green Preservation Society”. It’s quiet and subdued and the police blotter in the local paper is like something out of a Bill Hicks comedy routine: teenagers knocking over dustbins in the high street or shouting rude things at elderly dogwalkers.
It’s a calm and lovely place to recover from an open heart triple bypass, which I had in March, in Las Vegas, where I came here from. Even my limited access to NHS services — which I keep attempting to pay for out of pocket, which seems to baffle the doctors and receptionists, who insist that someone will sort it out and bill me eventually — has provided infinitely better care than I received in my own country, where I do not and did not have health care. Aside from a single checkup appointment with a doctor, a month after I was released early from the hospital due to to concerns over the coronavirus, the only followup I have gotten from the hospital where I received my emergency heart surgery are daily calls to pay my bill, which would probably cover the cost of a decent house in one of those horse-friendly exurbs.
My heart seems fine, but I have had complications with my muscles, my skin, my nerves, in my chest and shoulders and my left leg, where they removed the veins they grafted into my heart. My entire chest is still painful to the touch, and even wearing a shirt is unpleasant. Sometimes when I breathe deeply, I have a sensation inside my chest like a dented car door buckling as it’s opened and closed, and my right rotator cuff has somehow gotten badly torn and is impinging the ulnar nerve in my arm.
The doctor up the road is doing what they can for me, but they’re limited by my lack of citizenship and the pandemic, which has been very costly here in Hertfordshire, and so at the moment my main course of treatment is physiotheraputic exercises and a shit ton of codeine and anti-inflammatories.
Perhaps because of the cold or the damp, today has been especially bad, and so I’ve taken a great deal of painkillers indeed, and so my mind is gently drifting on a cloud as I refresh my social media and news feeds, again and again, desperate for some new news.
I am terrified of what tomorrow will bring. There are almost no possible futures branching out after tomorrow evening, American time, that do not lead down very dark paths indeed, and all of them I can foresee — and foreseeing things is what I am very good at — lead not to the center, but to the edges of the spectrum that lies between fascism and chaos.
I am an antifascist, though I do not belong to the imaginary “antifa” organization that Trump and his lackeys have made such a boogeyman for the American right wing. I simply despise fascism, and fascists, and white supremacy and white nationalism and the intertwining of any religion and the state, and authoritarianism of any kind. I believe in a strong welfare state because I know that it makes a nation stronger when its citizens can live and work without the terror of having no home, no food, no medical care, no jobs. By European standards, this makes me a dull centrist; by American standards, it makes me Josef Stalin.
After the last election, in 2016, I got the word antifascist. tattooed on my left pectoral muscle. It seemed necessary. I am a big, burly, bearded cisgendered heterosexual middle aged white man with bad teeth who grew up in Texas and, until I came here, drove a four wheel drive pickup truck. My family were in the oil business and, by all appearances, I am Donald Trump’s exact target demographic.
So the tattoo seemed like a way of committing myself, a very tiny way of stripping away from myself my innate racial and cultural privileges. I can never be anything but a cishet white American man, but I could at least mark myself as an enemy of those who would place all of society’s wealth and power solely in the hands of people who look like me. The tattoo was an attempt to practice what I preach, to hold myself accountable to the stand I take.
(You can argue that, if I had been really intent on marking myself for what I am, I would have done it on some part of my body that isn’t hidden underneath a shirt, and you might well be right, but the truth is I put it on my chest because I didn’t want to mess with the aesthetic balance of my existing arm tattoos.)
And now, of course, I am facing the consequences of my decision… and the reason I am refreshing those feeds so often and desperately is because, if Donald Trump remains President of the United States, I will be in very real danger the moment I set foot on my native soil. As long as he and his cadre of fascists and white supremacists hold sway over America, I will be a refugee. Because I will not allow myself to be killed by fascists.
When I got to London in July, I was stopped at immigration and sat in a waiting area nearby — exhausted from the long, claustrophobic airplane ride and wearing my Covid-19 face mask for something like twenty hours straight, and confused and terrified — until a very friendly woman came to sit with me and announced herself as a detective from Special Branch, who handle counterterrorism and similar issues in the United Kingdom.
The interview was brief and friendly, but it became clear that, for some reason, my politics were in question, I told her that I had never been arrested, nor involved with any militant groups, and that I was about as radical a leftist as Jeremy Corbyn. After what felt like hours but was probably about ten or fifteen minutes of me tiredly babbling at her, she told me I was free to go and that I wasn’t in any trouble. Frankly she seemed to regard the entire thing as a waste of time.
Afterwards, I tried to puzzle it out. Why on Earth would they send a Special Branch detective to talk to me? When I spoke to the immigration official earlier, the interview was brief and cursory, with no obvious red flags. I wasn’t carrying any contraband or anything illegal with me. So why the counterterrorism cop?
The only sense I could make of it was that the Americans had put me on some kind of watch list.
It actually made sense, because last December the US Customs and Border Patrol had denied my fiance entry to the US to spend Christmas with my family and me. She’d not outstayed her visa on previous visits; it seemed that the entire issue was that she’d visited the US too often over the past two years, which they dubbed suspicious. The CBP and its individual border patrol agents have absolute authority over such matters; there is no authority to appeal to in such situations. They have absolute power over anyone entering the United States.
I told my fiance to stay in Montreal, where she’d attempted to pass customs, and immediately called my Congresswoman and my Senator, and flew to Montreal myself to help sort it out. Senator Rosen’s office were incredibly helpful, reaching out to both the CBP and the State Department, though her staff cautioned me that they had no actual power to reverse the CBP’s decision; they could only advocate on my behalf.
After spending a week and a half — including Christmas — in Montreal hotel rooms, the local US consulate finally issued her a tourist visa and we headed to the airport. I waited for her while an CBP officer grilled her in their office.
As I did, I noticed a tattoo on the arm of another officer who wandered by — an American flag shield that looked familiar to me. I looked it up on my phone as I waited, and though I only saw it for a second, and I could be mistaken, I’m fairly certain it was the symbol of the American Guard, a group which the Jewish Anti-Defamation League consider “hardcore white supremacists”.
They allowed Michelle in, with a stern warning that this was the last time she’d be let into America, and we managed to spend a week or so in Las Vegas with my family. Not long afterwards, a Vice reporter contacted me about reports of white supremacists infiltrating the ICE offices in Pahrump, near Las Vegas — I was a newspaper journalist in Vegas for many years and I keep an eye on such things — and as an aside, I mentioned my recent experience in Montreal and the CBP officer’s tattoo to her. She made a particular note of it, as I recall.
If she followed up on it, I haven’t seen any articles — I suspect the pandemic derailed a lot of long-term journalistic investigations. Or maybe it simply went nowhere. And maybe I was wrong.
But that, combined with my campaign through Senator Rosen’s office and my moderately large presence on social media, made me think that it was was entirely possible that the CBP put me on some sort of watch list. I have repeatedly condemned them and called them out for their frequent abhorrent treatment of immigrants and detainees along the Mexican border, and have openly offered to help anyone in Las Vegas afraid of being caught up in ICE or CBP sweeps avoid them.
So the idea of finding myself on their shit list doesn’t seem particularly paranoid to me… especially at a time when the sitting president of the United States refers to antifascists as “terrorists”.
The CBP has, as I said, absolute authority and can act with absolute impunity at any port of entry to the United States. In the current heightened climate, with a President and a Department of Justice and a State Department who will back them to the hilt without any hesitation, is it really that unrealistic to imagine myself detained upon my return to the US as a suspected terrorist or radical? And — considering that I had my breastbone sawed in half and wired back together and three veins extracted from my leg and grafted onto my heart, only a few months ago — is it really unrealistic to worry that if they decided to get rough with me, as American law enforcement at every level is prone to do, that an overapplication of force or restraint could fuck me up permanently or even kill me? They could claim anything they liked afterwards: that I was aggressive, that I attempted to escape, that I was trying to smuggle drugs or guns or anything at all into the country. They could promise a full investigation, and make frowny faces and say that “mistakes were made”, as they often do.
And I would be no less crippled or dead because of it.
I do not trust the Customs and Border Patrol. I do not trust the American government, so long as Donald Trump is running it, to treat me as anything but the enemy that he and his flunkies have openly declared me to be. And as difficult as it has been to pack away my life and leave my home country, I will not return until I feel safe to do so. If I can’t stay in the UK — if my fiance and I can’t sort out any way to do that — I will simply travel to and between the few countries currently allowing Americans to enter their borders, until I believe that I can come home without harm. As exhausting and difficult as that sounds at my age and in my current state of ill health, it’s better than the alternative.
So here I sit, in this quiet, dark little room; Michelle has gone to sleep early in the bedroom with the cat curled against her, but I am far from sleep. Tomorrow is one of those days upon which the fortunes of nations are settled or unsettled, but for me it’s not just that — what happens tomorrow defines my personal future as well.
I have no idea how the election will turn out. I don’t know if Trump will lose. I think he will almost certainly lose the popular vote again, but he might swing the Electoral College, by fair or foul. And even if he loses in a landslide, I don’t believe he will concede the Presidency. He will attempt to tie things up in a tangled, chaotic knot, and his supporters will, I think, try to silence and stop his opponents through intimidation and outright violence. I’m not sure how that plays out either — whether the American Left will simply cave under the threat of civil war, or whether they will fight back.
Donald Trump is a tumor in the body politic of America… and like a tumor, even if the operation to excise him tomorrow is successful, it’s no guarantee that the malignancy that spawned him will leave with him. And so tonight I feel like a man waiting for a surgery — a risky one that will require months or years to recover from and which may still not get the job done.
If it doesn’t, I don’t think the America I come from, where I was born, will exist for much longer, at least not in any form I recognize or could survive in. And that mental and emotional pain is as exhausting as my current physical pain. I’m tired of Donald Trump. I’m tired of fascists and murderous cops and corporate oligarchy. I’m tired of reading interviews with small town bigots in big city newspapers, where they are portrayed with sympathy as they spew witless, uneducated gibberish that can only come from people who’ve never been outside their tiny communities. I’m tired of QAnon and all the batshit conspiracy theories. I’m tired of Nazis and the Klan and the respectable face of white supremacy. I’m tired of watching incompetent nepotists mismanage the American response to the pandemic. I’m tired of watching black Americans die at the hands of cops and brown children of many nations lie on pallets on concrete floors in cages. I’m tired of the Electoral College making a mockery of the idea that America is or ever was a true democracy. I’m tired of seeing millions of Americans sleeping in the streets, rousted from their sleeping bags, treated like criminals for not having enough money. I’m tired of seeing guns have more rights than women or gay or trans people. I’m tired of seeing myself and friends and family members suffer and even die from lack of the same kind of taxpayer-funded nationalized healthcare system that every other developed nation has.
I am tired of the fight. And so I hope more than anything that I wake up on Wednesday morning to the dawn of a new American era, but I don’t count on it. I think the fight is only beginning, and I wonder if we still have the strength and will to fight it, collectively and as individuals.
And I can’t help but think of what Paul Simon once wrote, in a song about America and those who, in the past came to her shores seeking a better life. Though his song is about immigrants, it applies just as well to me, an exile in a green and pleasant land, watching with trepidation as the country I love slouches towards either rebirth or death:
We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
And sing an American tune
Oh, but it’s alright, it’s alright
Can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s gonna be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all, I’m trying to get some rest.