Travelling to the United States in the Donald Trump era

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Every day, about 300,000 people cross the 8,891-kilometre-long border between Canada and the United States, according to Statistics Canada. Yet many Canadians of all political stripes – like many observers, well, everywhere – were not expecting Donald Trump’s triumph.

Maybe more of us should have known better. Year in, year out, Canadians are far and away America’s most frequent visitors. Even when the loonie is weak, as it is now, we have tended to make up at least 30 per cent of the U.S. tourist trade. In 2014, the U.S. Travel Association estimates that Canadians made 23 million visits to the States – six million more than the second biggest group, the Mexicans – and we dropped $26.3-billion (U.S.) while there. Last year, Statscan reported that nearly four million of us visited Florida (which Trump won), while about 3.5 million went to our second favourite state, New York (pro-Clinton).

Two Canadians I know called it, two of my partner’s brothers went on a motorcycle trip through the American heartland last summer and heard the rampant enthusiasm for Trump in the various roadhouses where they ate, drank and slept.

But so many more didn’t see it coming, like me – a dual citizen with deep roots on both sides of the border.

I would argue that the time has come for all Canadians to think seriously about travelling to the nation to the south, to think about the money and time spent stateside. Visiting the U.S. now becomes a matter of conscience. Canadians should carefully decide how to visit, and for what purposes.

This heady week made me think about my first visit to Washington, an endless seeming bus trip I took with my Grade 7 class.

One of my main memories from it is giggling wildly with my friends after putting coins in the slot next to the motel-room bed to make it vibrate.

But the trip wasn’t entirely wasted on us. I also remember the prickling of the hairs on the back of my neck, as I read the words that were carved on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial, words that the man depicted, sitting sternly on his tall white-marble chair, had delivered at Gettysburg, Pa., in the thick of the Civil War. “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that ‘all men are created equal.’”

What did equality mean exactly? Here, we were told, on these steps, looking down the long, rectangular reflecting pool at the centre of the Mall, a famous black opera singer named Marian Anderson sang My Country ‘Tis of Thee to a huge crowd in another fateful time, 1939.

So what? Well, our teacher continued, then first lady Eleanor Roosevelt had invited her to sing after finding out that the Daughters of the American Revolution had refused to let the renowned contralto give a concert in a hall they owned because she was black.

Toroweap point at sunrise, Grand Canyon National Park, AZ.

Toroweap point at sunrise, Grand Canyon National Park, AZ.

SumikoPhoto/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Canada and the United States are yoked together, of course, by history and geography; the countries that came out of New France and New England. Sleeping with the elephant was Trudeau père’s metaphor, and many of us, if we were lucky enough to travel as children, have memories like mine, of coming to grips with this superficially similar, but also quite different, quite complicated, superpower of a neighbour.

Many of us have marvelled at America’s natural beauty, maybe getting up early to bear witness to the purple majesty of Yosemite’s mountains or rafting all day down the mighty Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Some have used their stateside time to enjoy the cultural gifts America has offered the world, perhaps taking in the rhythms of a blues club in Chicago late late late at night or, in Los Angeles’ near-perpetual sunshine, touring studios that supply so much of the TV and film we consume. Maybe you have wandered, as I have, along Miami’s open-air Lincoln Road mall, rubbing shoulders with a stylish, multicultural crowd, with the parrots squawking in the palms above, the hot Latin electronica pulsing out of the storefronts.

But in this volatile moment, the prospect of travelling for pleasure feels so much fiddling while, well, Portland burns.

Yes, the Colorado River is still as mighty, the canyon it pushes through is still as grand. And while I may begin to think differently as time passes, at present, it seems – at least to this long-time Toronto resident now based in protest-filled Oakland, Calif. – another freighted time, the onset of a metaphorical civil war for this powerful nation’s soul.

These are my stakes. Some of my mother’s relatives fought in that Civil War, on the Union Side, and their sacrifice for this country is spoken of on the walls of that memorial. My New Jersey grandmother was a member, albeit an inactive one, of the Daughters of the American Revolution, since one strand of the family goes way back.

I was born, and grew up, in Canada, and it is from my grandmother’s daughter, my mother, that I inherited U.S. citizenship. I have lived in both countries, to date about three-quarters of my life in Canada and one-quarter in America. I have family buried on both sides of our long, shared border.

I am also gay, and, although Trump, a long-time New Yorker, claims to feel good about gays, his born-again Christian vice-president-elect doesn’t. Things look bleaker, to put it mildly, for the country’s undocumented immigrants and their families. The sexist animosity toward women in general, and Hillary Clinton in particular, that came out during this campaign – how, as a society, do you move forward from that? Will black lives matter in this brash, new world order? What about indigenous lives, Mexican-American and Muslim lives? Will Trump continue to single out his many media critics for abuse, ridiculing the chief remaining organs of the independent press?

People relaxing on a Malibu beach.

People relaxing on a Malibu beach.

So many questions. How can travellers feel comfortable entering this charged arena?

Seeking some short-term comfort, I pull up online footage of Marian Anderson’s 1939 performance on the steps of the Memorial. After the week just past, those same back-of-neck prickles come. “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty,” she sings, with a marble Lincoln looking on. She’s got her eyes closed, a tidy coat on. How could she sing thus of the nation that enslaved her ancestors, of the country of Jim Crow, of the (resurgent) Klan, of frequent lynchings? But when the camera pans out to the mall, there’s a vast crowd, thrilling to the sound of her voice.

I hope to attend the women’s march planned in January for that same Mall.

If you go

The Algonquin Hotel in New York, Oct. 14, 2011.

The Algonquin Hotel in New York, Oct. 14, 2011.

These are among my favourite places in America, and most are ones that speak to its complexity – as the Lincoln Memorial did to me when I was 12.

Hawaii’s Plantation Village: On Oahu, about a half-hour drive from Honolulu, I toured this recreation of one of the sugar plantations that brought immigrants from all over the world to work in its fields. The Chinese workers had a pagoda-topped social hall, the Japanese a bathhouse, the Puerto Ricans had coffee plants next to their digs. My guide, a Japanese-American whose father fought for the U.S. in the European theatre after Pearl Harbor, spoke to how the descendants of the plantation workers had formed what he called the world’s first multicultural society in Hawaii. As proof, he encouraged us to check out local hero Barack Obama’s favourite fast-food joint, Rainbow Drive-In, in downtown Honolulu, with its combo plates of food influenced by the island’s many newcomers. (hawaiiplantationvillage.org, rainbowdrivein.com)

Rosie the Riveter museum, Calif.: On the east side of the San Francisco Bay, in the port city of Richmond, there’s a newish museum celebrating the female contribution to the U.S. shipbuilding effort in the Second World War. On the day I visited, a few women who had worked there told their stories. One had bused across the continent from New Jersey, without her parents’ knowledge, to get the job; another spoke of how the women’s welds on the ships were always tidier than the men’s. Together the women, the exhibits and the old newsreels conveyed the strenuous efforts made to help the U.S. triumph over fascism – and the fun they had doing it. (nps.gov/rori)

The Orozco Murals, N.H.: I did my undergrad at Dartmouth College, with its neoclassical buildings scattered around a big, central common. There’s a vivid surprise in the long study hall in the basement of the cupola-topped Baker Library. Celebrated Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco was commissioned to cover the walls with a series of harrowing, bravura paintings, collectively titled, the Epic of American Civilization. Here is a tall blond schoolmarm educating her little blond, spooky-eyed children to take over the world; the military-industrial complex is represented in piles of weapons; Aztec Gods and a lurid Christ stare out at the viewer. The pretty college and the disturbing murals give visitors a nice double-take. Open to the public, visit these websites for details: dartmouth.edu/digitalorozco, hoodmuseum.dartmouth.edu

Telluride, Colo.

Kara Grubis/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Bluebird Cafe, Tenn.: One of my Dartmouth classmates, Connie Britton, starred in two Americana-fuelled shows, Friday Night Lights and, more recently, Nashville – which often features country artists singing to small crowds in one of Nashville’s legendary small clubs. It’s hard to get into, with the TV show’s success, but worth it for an evening of up-and-coming and established country artists. (bluebirdcafe.com)

The Algonquin Hotel, N.Y.: In the restaurant of this midtown New York hotel, the great wits of the Round Table once converged – and I recently interviewed a former hotel resident, the Tony-, Oscar- and Emmy-winning Christopher Plummer. The hotel cat patrolled the lobby, as a young woman in the café read from her beat-up The Collected Dorothy Parker. The book is full of Parker’s mordant wit, of course, but also the activist passion that had her occasionally using her sharp pen to fight for the release of people she believed had been wrongly convicted. (algonquinhotel.com)

Telluride, Colo.: There’s nowhere better to feel, in John Denver’s words, that rocky mountain high, than atop Telluride’s tall peaks – or in the congenial, historic mining town in the deep valley below. But some tailings from an old mine have recently threatened the river that runs through the town, and its colourful old red-light district houses testify to one of the main roles women got to play, servicing the many men involved in the U.S. Westward expansion. (visittelluride.com) – Alec Scott