An American Abroad Part 2: Redefining “Presidential”

This series is best broken up as so because it was just too much to tackle in one blog post.  There are two separate ideas that I’m trying to grasp: the first was more concerned with the way “peculiar” questions from foreigners taste on the back of my tongue, leaving a residual bitterness.  This second idea tiene que ver, or has to do with, understanding “peculiar” realities through experiences abroad. The first idea was inspired by a conversation I had about former-President Obama, while this second is inspired by videos I watched of President Trump last week.  He addressed two very different crowds in a span of a few days, both of which provoked confusion and fear in me, so I decided I would process them through my writing.  While I was in Mendoza, Argentina for the weekend with drafts of Parts 1 & 2 saved on my computer, Judge Kavanaugh was confirmed by the US Senate.  Further confused and scared, I return to these drafts with the hopes of deconstructing and redefining what it means to be “presidential”.

A Less-than Eloquent President

The following quotes are from President Trump’s address to the United Nations, each of which I’ve followed with my uncensored, initial reactions I had while sitting in a café in downtown Valparaíso in between classes:

  • “From the beaches of Europe to the deserts of the Middle East to the jungles of Asia, it is an eternal credit to the American character that even after we and our allies emerge victorious from the bloodiest war in history, we did not seek territorial expansion or attempt to oppose and impose our way of life on others.”

Big on us!? We allowed for the death of a million people during Vietnam, we killed hundreds of thousands with the Atomic Bomb, but props to the United States for not further exploiting our power by colonizing Vietnam or Japan? As far as imposing “our way of life on others”, I beg to differ.  The United States government planted a right-winged dictator into power when Chile **democratically** elected a communist president. 

  • “We want harmony and friendship, not conflict and strife.”

So why are you tearing apart families and allowing for the disappearance of children? Mocking sexual assault victims is not friendship.  I understand that having the world’s strongest and biggest military might not directly create conflict, but why else would you need or want such a military? 

  • “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”

Totally destroy. Rocket man. Suicide mission. Who wrote this and permitted you to speak so childish-ly in front of the UN?

  • “The United States is a compassionate nation and has spent billions and billions of dollars in helping to support this effort.”

Look at me donating to charity! Give me a prize! I understand that the United States does contribute a significant portion to the United Nations, and I believe there are other nations that should pay more, but compassion is innately selfless.  The US doesn’t fund the UN to finance the humanitarian efforts and projects of other nations.  It’s just to ensure the UN listens to the US on issues we decide take priority.  

  • “Major portions of the world are in conflict, and some, in fact, are going to hell”

Who died and made you King of everything?

  • “We call for the full restoration of democracy and political freedoms in Venezuela. The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented.”

Refer to my first remark.  

A Less-than Compassionate President

And now, to review further quotes from Mr. President’s campaign rally in Mississippi:

  • “Aaaaand you know, I think war, military, you know, peace, I think those things are you know, pretty important.”

What do you want, sir? War or peace? Why does a great America have to be synonymous with a country that defeats other countries? Why can’t our military be known for well-trained, highly-educated officials who are tactically undefeated in their diplomacy? 

  • “What he’s going through: 36 years ago, this happened. ‘I had one beer.’ Right? ‘I had one beer.’ ‘Well, you think it was …’ ‘Nope, it was one beer.’ ‘Oh, good. How did you get home?’ ‘I don’t remember.’ ‘How did you get there?’ ‘I don’t remember.’ ‘Where is the place?’ ‘I don’t remember.’ ‘How many years ago was it?’ ‘I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.’ “

I don’t really have much to say except that to admit this invoked immediate tears, tears for Dr. Ford, for sexual assault victims past and future, for so many who were just reminded why speaking out against their perpetrators is frightening–because if you do, the President of the United States might mock you in one of his campaign speeches. And the crowd will cheer.

  • “They want to destroy people. These are really evil people.”

Right, the people who sexually assaulted them aren’t the evil ones.  The victims are the real danger you should watch out for. Democrats, the enemy.  Women, the enemy. 

  • “It’s a scary time for young men in America.”

Men are not the victim today or tomorrow.  False accusations are statistically as rare as false accusations of other felonies.  It’s unfortunate and I don’t know how to reconcile the few cases in which a person claims to be a victim but is not; I do know, however, that not only is a person wrongly-accused, but other victims lose their legitimacy.  We (#metoo) clearly have enough of an up-hill battle getting our stories heard.  If a young man is scared because victims are finally speaking up about how they have been mistreated, then they having something to be guilty about.  An innocent man has nothing to fear, whereas every day and every night women take countless steps to protect themselves–out of warranted fear.  This Facebook post went viral and reveals just how extreme the pendulum swings, and just how ridiculous the above sentence feels to a young woman.  

A Less-than Fair President

In his speech, Trump talked about his wall and the “loser” immigration laws we currently have in place.  He refers to the immigrants who cross our border as criminals and years later are “caught and released”, per the current policy.  Their names are taken then the “criminal” is released.  Given so, I propose a hypothetical situation.  Let’s assume there exists an immigrant who crossed the border illegally 25 years ago, the illegal entry into the States being his/her only “crime”.  The United States catches this immigrant and realizes his/her crime from 25 years ago and decides he/she should not be allowed to stay.   Why are immigrants who commit no other crime than illegal immigration decades ago punished retroactively, but judges nominated for the Supreme Court who sexually assaulted a woman decades ago not punished retroactively and allowed to stay, to stay in a high-profile position like a Supreme Court justice? He was caught, but President Trump and the Supreme Court wrestled with the tangled fishing line and managed to unhook the fish just in time to release him back into his murky waters.

I digress.

President Trump, Judge Kavanaugh, and the Latin American Feminist Movement

These “peculiar” realities made me wonder beyond what it means personally to be an American abroad.  I began to question what it means to be “presidential”.  President of the United States, International Presidential Scholar, Student Body President of Wofford College (if you haven’t met Fredy Madrid, you will know his name in a matter of years, believe me). In elementary school, we even had the Presidential Fitness test.  We have so many awards and titles which we consider “presidential”–but what does that really mean?

Etymologically, the term comes from the latin word, praesident, or “sitting before”, which transpired into the English verb “to preside”.  To sit before.  All of our presidential awards, titles and degrees generally imply that the recipient has done something worthy of a president’s recognition or association, that he or she deserves the praise from someone who sits before a company, a university, a Greek chapter, and sometimes an entire nation.  As president, you sit before a people who should do just that: come before you.  Presidents lead by putting others before them, not beneath them.

Even more, a president is then watched by those before whom he or she sits. A president of a student body ought to do more than improve the library or arrange for better snacks during finals week; a real president leads the student body as an empirical example of the school’s vales and ideals.  The same idea follows for chapter presidents of Kappa Alpha Gamma Theta and Kappa Sigma Pi Epsilon around the country.  I don’t remember often receiving the Presidential Fitness test award in elementary school (I was never flexible enough to reach the presidential standard in the “V-stretch”), but I do remember my peers who did–and surely enough they were also the students who encouraged the others in the gymnasium.  They cheered for those trying to reach the golden number of sit ups in seeking a word that gleamed so brightly on the certificates distributed at our annual awards ceremony: “presidential”.

Such a title should be sought after with hard work and an earnest heart.   The term shouldn’t be taken lightly.  It should never be taken for granted.   It may be powerful and honorable, but it isn’t limitless in its powers; to be “presidential” or president of whatever does not authorize mockery, it does not allow for hatred, bigotry, ignorance, or arrogance.  It certainly does not give you the divine jurisdiction to “totally destroy North Korea” or decide who in this world is going to Hell.

I know that Trump did not single-handedly approve Kanavaugh–I took AP Government and I was once a Government major (#tbt), so I know how the nominating and vetting processes work.  Nevertheless, President Trump attacked the women who was trying to stop Kavanaugh from being named the new Supreme Court Justice.  And then he made men out to be the victims.

While my friend and I failed to distract ourselves from the news of his appointment with a glass of Argentinian Malbec, she made a really good point that I think we all forgot amidst these weeks of tension: the Kavanaugh Issue shouldn’t have been about politics but instead principles. Such principles are not to be confused with ideologies that in turn shape our politics. She was referring to the most basic of principles–the golden rules if I may–like to treat others as we want to be treated, to stand up against bullies, to look out for others.  It seemed like the Kavanaugh hearings made us forget that we don’t have to decide with out politics but rather should have remembered our principles that bring us together.

Before I over-exhaust the singular issue, I want to dive into how I see Trump and Kavanaugh issue so closely related to my research here. Obviously, both are concerned with women and their right to be heard.  When Argentina moved to pass a new bill on abortion that did not succeed, the country was divided as the US is now.  Green scarves waved valiantly in defeat the morning after. Two months after the decision, I was in Argentina when my own country faced intense division over a vote that similarly crushed the voices of innumerable women.  Our governments failed to hear us.

The second connection I see is through my new, personal definition of “presidential”. When I watched the videos of Trump’s two speeches last week, my belief in what it means to be presidential switched. I realized no one has to vote for you to be president or presidential.  You can preside before a group of people with grace and elegant leadership by preparing an exhibition of female-centric works and sharing your art with your followers. Many of the artists I have met so far are admirable examples of presidents; their collections are visual and empirical examples of the feminist school’s vales and ideals. Their achievements in turn encourage and inspire other artists in the “gymnasium” to reach for that presidential recognition, too.

I asked artist Mikele Orroño why she makes art that is so focused on la mujer, or the woman.  With tea mug in hand and her artworks decorating the walls of her electic Santiago kitchen, she told me in her interview that, “[s]oy mama practicamente sola…hay muchos ejemplos así, entonces me di cuenta de, wow, nos hacemos todo. Y por otro lado, estamos en un mundo de hombres.”  Translated, she said “I am practically a single mom…there are many examples of [women] like me, so I realized that, wow, we do it all.  And on top of it, we’re in a man’s world.” She elaborated that she aims to show her admiration for women and reinvent the archaic female image to create one that emanates strength and resilience.

Later that evening, her six-year old son ran in the front door with his own artwork in hand that he drew in the car.  A President and one of her admirers.

My Final Word

When my peers from senior year of high school named me “Most likely to be President” for the yearbook superlatives, I assumed it meant they saw me as a politician, maybe even President of the United States.  I don’t know if this is my goal anymore.  Sometimes I hear incredible stories of female leaders like Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand who made UN history when she brought her baby to the assembly, and a spark in me to be a part of such history is reignited temporarily.  Maybe the superlative foreshadowed this opportunity as Wofford’s Presidential International Scholar.  Or maybe the anecdote serves as reinforcement that “presidential” doesn’t have to be what Trump has made it to be–or any former president for that matter.  I can be presidential in my own way, by leading with compassion and (hopefully) eloquence and encouraging those of similar thought to be their own presidents and their own manifestations of “presidential”.

Both of the speeches from the beginning of this soliloquy drove my Spanish class’ conversation last Wednesday.  At some point in that discussion, I brought up the meeting between President Piñiera and President Trump during which the former presented an image of the American flag with a Chilean flag at the center.  “Chile is at the center of the United States!” he playfully insisted.  Sounds like something Trump would do, I thought.  The class laughed at the resulting memes we found online.

I turned to my professor, raised my eyebrows, half-smiling and half-scoffing as I said, “Nuestras presidentes.

No es mío,” he said with a blank stare. “Not mine”. Not his kind of presidential.

Cheers to all of the presidents inside us all.  May we never forget our individual power to lead compassionately and resiliently, and with all the strength of a woman.

Chao,

Lydia

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