During the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968, the chant of anti-war protesters outside of the Hilton Hotel was “The whole world is watching.” And while in the United States at the time that sentiment may have felt true, it really wasn’t. I was an adolescent then, living in Nicaragua, and U.S. political affairs seemed to take place in another universe. When news reached us about the Chicago protests, it was through sound bites on the radio or brief articles in newspapers. As a result, few of us living in Latin America were actually “watching.”
Today, however, things are vastly different. Thanks to the internet and cable television, Latin Americans see developments in the United States in real time. We watch the same live coverage, in English and in Spanish, as people in the States. And, currently, we are witnessing the Republican Party’s dysfunctional presidential primaries — in particular Donald Trump’s role. Reality television has never been played for such high stakes.
I’m originally from California, but I’ve been living and teaching in Central America for the past 17 years, the last 14 in Panamá. During this time, I’ve been privileged to teach international students who attend excellent schools. At present, I’m taking a couple of years off from the classroom to write a new novel. But I still, as an educator, care about what young people think. Recently, I’ve read a few articles about the psychological effect of Trump’s campaign on adolescents in the United States. After reading these, I wondered what my former students think about the volatile proceedings.
The schools where I’ve taught are among the best in the region. Every student speaks English, and many speak three or more languages. Graduates attend the best universities in the world, most in the United States. These international youths are bright, articulate individuals whose circumstances have given them a broader view of the world than their U.S. counterparts. The students I interviewed are from México, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, Venezuela, Panamá, and Taiwan. They are all closely watching the U.S. presidential campaigns
I selected the students at random and assured them that if they supported Donald Trump, not only would I respect their opinion, but I’d be grateful for the opportunity to understand their viewpoint. Interestingly, my sampling did not yield a single Trump supporter.
A student from Venezuela believes that Trump’s campaign avoids serious discussions of issues:
It seems that politics in the United States has come to rely more on inappropriate remarks and sensationalism, rather than debating ideas. The problem I see is that many voters seem to enjoy the spectacle Trump has become.
The thought of Trump winning the presidency distresses a student from Honduras:
Donald Trump is a man who has too much power. What’s worse, he doesn’t know how to handle it. He thinks that being a billionaire makes him smarter than everyone else and that it gives him the right to say and do whatever he pleases. His followers are the part that worries me most about his campaign. That such bigotry and hatred still exists in the United States bewilders me, and it terrifies me to think that there is a chance he may win.
A Salvadoran student has unsuccessfully tried to understand Trump and his supporters:
What some people seem to like about Trump is that he speaks his mind without sugar-coating things. At the same time, this is precisely what scares others. With the temper he has exhibited throughout the campaign so far, I don’t really see him becoming an effective president or, even scarier, a wise commander of the U.S. armed forces. Personally, I do not like Trump or support him. But I believe in the democratic process. Still, if the people of the United States choose him as their next president, it will be a struggle for me to respect their decision.
And a young person from Colombia is completely failing to comprehend what is taking place in the States:
No one makes my jaw drop the way Donald Trump does. When he speaks, my brain struggles between being angry, offended, frustrated, confused, and amazed (in a bad way). He’s so full of himself, yet he has no clue what he’s doing. It stresses me out to watch debates in which he’s asked a question and all he does is repeat it, throw in Mexico a couple of times, and people cheer him as if he’s Julius Caesar or Stephen Hawking. His presidential campaign has tapped into fears and hatreds that are beyond my understanding. I think we’ve passed the point where he can be seen as a joke. He is clearly a power-hungry guy. He’s the high school bully who never had any friends, and now he’s trying to bully the entire world. His head is empty of solid ideas, his heart is black, he’s impulsive, and he’s aggressive. And he’s only a couple of steps away from leading the ‘Free World.’ It’s mind-boggling, if you ask me.
And a student from México sees that Trump’s candidacy has summoned forth the darker nature of many people:
Donald Trump is taking America down the wrong path, a path of fear and hatred. His comments have already had terrible side-effects. More and more voters are feeling free to embrace xenophobia. As a Mexican, his remarks offend me. And his attacks on Muslims and people with disabilities offend me as well. Don’t get me wrong, I have great admiration for the United States, but today, in my mind, Trump has come to represent the gloomier side of the country.
Another young person from Venezuela sees the United States going down a path from which it will be difficult to return:
Why Donald Trump is more than a joke is beyond me. I honestly think he has become dangerous. He has used the ugliness buried deep inside certain people to make hatred acceptable. Even if he doesn’t win, he has validated bigotry and racism. Now that a presidential candidate has openly expressed the prejudices of his followers, it doesn’t look as if intolerance in the United States is going to disappear any time soon.
The student from Taiwan sees Trump as an impediment to world peace:
As an international student, l’ve lived in several countries — most of them Spanish-speaking. As an outsider, then, I’ve learned to be accepting of differences in political ideologies, cultural beliefs, and individual perceptions. This seems to be something Trump has not learned. In fact, he exploits national, cultural and racial differences in order to fuel his followers’ anger. I find this frightening. At this point in history, politicians need to bring the world closer together; they need to utilize our increasingly interconnected globe to reconcile our differences. If Trump were elected, I believe he would endanger this goal.
In the estimation of a Panamanian student, Trump’s words are addressed to the sentiments of a particular segment of the American public:
Trump’s immigration policy is full of hate — hate that is mostly directed toward Latinos and Muslims. In my view, it’s obvious that he wants a monochromatic America.
And another Colombian student is having a difficult time accepting the possibility of Trump as president of the United States:
You learn a lot about a person’s character by the way he or she treats others, and from what I’ve seen and read, Trump is racist, sexist, and extremely rude. As a Latina, I feel especially offended by the way he treats people from other cultures and religions. And the support his campaign is getting honestly terrifies me. It’s unthinkable to me that Americans may actually choose someone like him to run their country.
These answers make it evident that the direction of the presidential campaign is upsetting the young people who live beyond the United States’ borders. The students I interviewed have all been educated in American schools. As a result, they feel a strong kinship with the cultural values of the United States. This includes the importance of being tolerant and respectful in the way differences are settled. Yet, in this election, those traits have gone by the wayside. In this part of the world, it is bewildering for adolescents to see how, thanks to Donald Trump and his supporters, intolerance and rudeness are becoming the norm.
In these primaries, voters in the United States need to keep in mind that the youth of the world is watching. And they’re watching very closely.
Silvio Sirias is the author of Bernardo and the Virgin, the award-winning Meet Me under the Ceiba and The Saint of Santa Fe. You can follow him @silviosirias.