The emails all begin with “Friend–”.
About a month ago, I was curious to know how the US presidential election cycle would play out in my inbox. So I signed up for campaign emails from both the Democratic and Republican nominees for president of the United States. I received 68 emails in all between August 31 and September 30, 2016, from Team Hillary and a grand total of one from Team Trump. Of the 68, only a handful were from ‘Her’; the rest were from President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice-president Joe Biden, wannabe-Vice-president Tim Kaine, Chelsea Clinton and various members of Hillary’s diverse campaign team asking me to feel outraged, get involved, keep Donald Trump away from the White House and maybe “chip in $1?”
It’s not a bad month when you receive a personal note from President Obama titled “Me and You” where he says: “I know that my name isn’t on the ballot this time around. But all the values that you and I hold most dear – all the principles we’ve fought for and all the progress we’ve made over the past eight years: They are on the ballot.” He told me, a day after the first presidential debate on September 26, that he saw – no, “we saw” – exactly what’s at stake: “Either we elect the most qualified candidate in our nation’s history – or we’re stuck with four years of a man who wears his ignorance as a badge of honor.” That difference is why he said he is doing everything he can for Hillary. “And I’m asking you to do this with me,” he told me. I can’t vote in this country but I admit that’s a damned good line.
The personal touch to each of these emails reminded me of a call from my mother a few weeks ago. She had been house-hunting in New York and had signed up on a real estate agent’s website, one I had recommended to her, and had received a “lovely note” from a woman named Tiffany. I had received the same note just minutes before and had to spend some time to convince my mother that Tiffany probably sends that exact same note to everyone who signs up. She was outraged. “But she addressed me by my name and it sounded so sweet and personal,” she protested. Transactions in India are sometimes so curt and impersonal that my Indian mother was flummoxed with American small talk. Even the automatically generated version.
I am still not entirely used to it myself and I have lived in New York for a little over a year. On July 4, the most American a day can get, I read a piece in the New Yorker titled ‘My Struggle with American Small Talk’. It was by an Indian immigrant who had taken a decade to master chit chat with strangers in the United States. “In the East, I’ve heard it said, there’s intimacy without friendship; in the West, there’s friendship without intimacy,” he wrote. I extended this to politics. Having reported on the Bharatiya Janata Party for more than three years in New Delhi, these campaign emails from Hillary Clinton sounded strange and insincere. Politicians are not meant to be this nice, are they? They all addressed me as “Friend”!
Not the Trump guys though, not knowing that I was a “non-resident alien” – I think that’s what my immigration status is – they wanted me to help restore the American Dream. Sample this: “It’s a long and challenging road to the White House and we need the help of our supporters. We need to make our country great again, bring back the American Dream, and create reforms to fix Washington.” And later: “Contribute $100, $75, $50, or even $35 to Make America Great Again!”
Or perhaps they did know my immigration status, because the emails stopped there. So I worked with what I had and took a few hours to go through all those friendly emails from Hillary. It surprised me how vulnerable some of these were while noting the rise of The Donald. The “stakes are high,” “rolling up my sleeves,” “Hillary needs you to step up,” “I’m actually a little nervous”, “cockamamie” and the subject line expanded and contracted as the month wore on. In an email titled “Can’t wait to see you out there!” I was even told a true story by the director of States and Political Engagement of Hillary For America that he met his wife when he started organising: knocking on doors, making calls, getting supporters out to vote – more than a decade ago! This was getting more appealing for me: a wholesome package of politics and love.
But in all seriousness, I took notes on what I was being asked to pay attention to: reform immigration system, act on raising wages, change gun laws, make education more affordable for children. The emails were diligent in dissecting Trump’s behaviour, – quite similar to Indian politics – his popularity in polls, how journalists will judge his performance. “If Trump’s team has its way, journalists will judge his performance a success if he manages to stand still, listens to the moderator, and refrains from initiating a physical altercation. Then we’ll hear about his big win for days. Momentum will swing his way, along with money, volunteers, and support,” one of the emails said.
Even though I read reports that Hillary’s campaign had raised more than double what Trump had managed to raise, the emails in my inbox suggested quite the opposite. They were panic-induced requests for donations and informed me that canvassing had to be discontinued in crucial battleground states like Nevada due to lack of funds. Chip in if you are with her, I was repeatedly told. Chip in if you want a free ticket to the debate. Chip in if you want a Hillary Debate sticker. Oh for god’s sakes, just chip in!
Read in the context of the great American circus that is 2016, these campaign emails play a small and perhaps not so significant role in wooing voters but it’s still worth noting a personal message that lands in your inbox each morning. The sixty-plus emails over thirty days convinced me that Trump was not an ideal candidate for president but I already knew that. What it didn’t do is convince me that Hillary was.
Sowmiya Ashok is an independent journalist based in New York. She tweets at @sowmiyashok.