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Torn in the USA: Why I'm so terrified for the Divided States of America


Have political divisions turned the United States into an American horror story, asks Rebecca Levingston

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Crikey. That was my name when I lived in America. Mikey, a guy in my office gave me the nickname because he loved Steve Irwin. You could find The Crocodile Hunter on cable TV at any time of the day and Steve Irwin was wildly popular.

“Hey Crikey – hey Mikey,” was our daily greeting.

It was the year 2000 and I’d moved to Phoenix, Arizona to intern at an international travel company. To suddenly have an Australian in the office was kind of … exotic?

Moving to America was a much greater culture shock than I’d anticipated.

I arrived on the Fourth of July. I remember chatting with the taxi driver on the way to my motel. When she pulled up, she smiled and told me that I spoke English “real good”. She was from Kentucky, missing several teeth and she was pleased I’d arrived on Independence Day.

The next day I went for a walk around my new neighbourhood. A police patrol car crawled up alongside me and the officer called out the window “Ma’am, where is your car?” I tried to explain that I didn’t have one because I’d just arrived. He was slightly suspicious, then amused and encouraged me to head home.

My boss, the president (of the company) lent me a convertible car and he had Christina Aguilera stuck in the CD player so ‘Genie in a Bottle’ remains the song-trigger that can transport me back to the midwest no matter where I am.

I drank Bud beer – not with my buddy Mikey, he preferred soda pop and carried around a comically oversized container full of diet cola. It was so big the first time I saw it I thought it was a prop.

I drank filter coffee and worked as the international liaison officer and loved communicating with the teams in the UK, Austria, Mexico, Malaysia and Australia. I learnt basic Spanish and drank margaritas in misty bars – literally bars that sprayed mist on you because it was so hot and so dry.

I learnt a huge amount the year I lived in the US. It was the catalyst for me to study journalism.

Twenty years later, I find myself thinking back on the time I called America home and when I look forward I feel a sense of dread. I’m worried about America. That sounds absurd, but so is America right now.

Politics and people are violently polarised. I despair about what is now the frighteningly divided states of America on everything from masks to guns to whose lives matter. Joe Biden says the 2020 presidential election is a battle for the soul of the nation that Donald Trump says is transitioning to greatness.

Watching the two political party conventions launch their presidential candidates was unnerving. Like a hastily directed montage from Tarantino, Spielberg and Scorsese, the lead character performances were designed for maximum drama. I wonder who might be convinced or converted by the platitudes and promises amongst the flags and fake applause.

Each candidate begged Americans to cast a vote on November 3. In the 2016 election, Donald Trump triumphed with 62 million votes. Hillary Clinton clinched 65 million votes. About 100 million Americans didn’t vote. To Australians, the numbers don’t add up. Warped like this pie chart – but you get the sentiment – no matter which party you support.


Regardless of who wins in 2020, the task of addressing the rage within the “greatest country in the world” is mammoth. I’m embarrassed to admit that twenty years ago as a twenty-something, so much of what I thought I knew about America was based on movies.

Now I’m anxiously watching the 2020 America plot unfold and what I thought two decades ago was a rom-com might now actually be a horror story. And the budget will be obscene.

According to The Washington Post, the price tag of the 2016 campaign was $6.5 billion. What will 2020 cost?

When I left Phoenix in 2001, I flew home via New York. I saw Powderfinger play at the Bowery Ballroom, which is a few miles from the World Trade Centre. A few months later, 9/11 happened. Chillingly, someone from immigration left a message on my parents’ answering machine checking on my whereabouts.

I was home, safe. But is America?

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