Op-Ed

American abroad: Europeans mocked Bush, but they’re downright scared of Trump

During the George W. Bush administration, Americans abroad were advised to affix Canadian-flag patches to their backpacks or adopt a British accent to avoid the locals’ disgust with our elected leader. The warnings stuck with me, and as I packed my bags for a trip to Europe last month, I steeled myself for sneers about America’s incoming president. I went as far as to type, “I didn’t vote for him, and he didn’t even win the popular vote” into Google Translate.

The sneers never came. What's striking about being in Europe right now, as opposed to during the Bush years, is that everyone is taking Donald Trump’s impending presidency very seriously. There are no snarky comments about Americans voting for an idiot, no jokes about his tiny hands or poorly punctuated tweets. I've heard nothing but condolences and grave concern.

Bush, with his base of religious conservatives and Cabinet full of hawks, seemed typically American. Trump is hitting much closer to home for Europeans. His victory seems connected to events such as the United Kingdom’s vote to exit the European Union. And his rhetoric, which pits white citizens against nonwhite newcomers, is eerily close to the talking points of European nationalist leaders such as the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders and France’s Marine Le Pen. Both Wilders and Le Pen are polling strongly in advance of general elections next year.

The fake news articles that contaminated Facebook and aided Trump’s rise, moreover, aren’t just an American problem: German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently warned that public opinion is being “manipulated” online. “We must confront this phenomenon,” she told Agence France-Presse, “and if necessary, regulate it.” If she wants to stop the spread of bogus news sites in Germany, she’ll need to move fast. Her country is also having a federal election next year.

The worry among Europeans is not that Americans are stupid and voted for someone with no policy-making experience — it's that an outcome like Trump’s election could very well happen in their own countries. Or, worse, that the world is becoming less democratic altogether. New research forthcoming in the Journal of Democracy finds that popular support for liberal democracies around the world is on the decline — and support for autocratic alternatives is rising, even in many stable Western nations long thought to be beacons of freedom.

Europeans don’t see me as a visitor from a backward nation that’s trying to drag the world down with it (as some did during the Bush years). They see me as an ambassador from the future, someone who’s starting to cope with life a country in which the worst has happened.

“The events of the last months and days should be treated as a warning sign for all who believe in liberal democracy,” Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, wrote in a post-election statement.

In Europe and the United States alike, those of us who believe in the democratic experiment are struggling with how to protect minorities without alienating the white working class, and how to continue to reap the benefits of globalization while mitigating its negative effects. Despite some Americans’ halfhearted promises to move to Canada or Europe, it’s becoming clearer every day that the thorny problems assailing our country are not easy to escape. The political parties have different names, the stigmatized immigrants have different nationalities, and the tone of the debate may differ. But these challenges are everywhere. 

While it provides some immediate comfort to commiserate with like-minded people abroad, it’s actually quite frightening that every European I’ve met has instantly (and correctly) assumed that I did not vote for Trump. There is such a profound economic and cultural divide that a college-educated woman from California — one who has the means to spend time overseas — doesn’t need to declare her sympathies; demographics are enough to communicate that I’m likely not a supporter of this ascendant strain of white-nationalist populism. 

An “us versus them” attitude still prevails, but there has been a shift in who’s included in each category.

Ann Friedman is a contributing writer to Opinion. She lives in Los Angeles.

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