“Donald Trump does not reflect America… I mean, to be completely honest, he does reflect it a bit.” ~ John Oliver
I’ve been thinking about writing this piece for a while now, and every time I sit down to start it, I feel overwhelmed by the scope of it. This week, though, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, HBO’s weekly news show, returned and covered a big portion of the subject.
This is helpful for two reasons. One, it provides a nice intro to the topic I wanted to cover today – how U.S. President Donald Trump is viewed by the world outside of America – and secondly, it covers the bigger political topics quicker, funnier, and more knowledgeably than I could hope to do in a blog post. I fully recommend watching the full 20 minute piece.
What I want to discuss is less political and more personal. I remember Barack Obama’s eight years in office, so I vividly recall all the conservative politicians and pundits talking about how our first black president was diminishing America’s standings in the world. Whether that was true or not (it wasn’t; Bush Jr. had already done that) it’s rather telling that Trump has absolutely torpedoed the US’s reputation around the world and those same politicians and pundits don’t seem to care.
As an American living abroad, there is almost no sustained conversation with a citizen of a foreign country that doesn’t, at some point turn to America’s follicularly-avant-garde leader. Usually, the subject is broached gingerly, my conversational partner testing the waters with almost a stutter or a cautious smile.
Depending on the setting, I may simply acknowledge that the president is a divisive figure, even (or, especially) in my home country and suggest that he doesn’t speak for all Americans. Or, I might state that the United States’ first Persimmon-American president is basically an idiot.
Here’s the thing: President Trump is objectively a bad president. He is objectively a bad person. And he is objectively making the United States a worse place, both as a home for the diverse constituency we generally refer to as “Americans” and as a country viewed by outsiders.
I am not using “objectively” like some people use “literally.” I know what the word means, and I mean it. If you disagree with those facts, it’s because a) you haven’t experienced real life outside the US in many years (or ever) or b) you work for the Trump administration (in which case, you know I’m right, but you just can’t admit it; blink twice if you need rescuing).
In my time traveling abroad, I’ve only had two interactions with foreigners who thought Trump would be a good president. One, before the election, was former Spanish military who felt that Trump’s rhetoric on ISIS – specifically, that he would eradicate them – was exactly the attitude the American president needed to have. Tough talk, whether it’s backed by actual strategy or not, will always have an audience.
More recently, I was at J&J Books and Coffee in the heart of Malasaña, the University district of Madrid. This particular bookshop is a popular hangout for Spaniards and Anglos alike, and that night, after my roommate and I had stumbled into an English-language trivia night (we got fourth place, not bad), I ended up conversing with a couple of native Spaniards, and the British boyfriend of one of the Spaniards. At some point, the conversation turned to Trump (because if there is one thing the man is undeniably good at, its being the center of attention). The four of us were discussing how terrible of a president Trump is when un hombre borracho interjected to tell us that, in fact, Trump was a good president and, at the very least, better than Hillary Clinton.
Anyone whose spent any amount of time interacting with fans of Donald Trump know that the go-to defense of his presidency is to bring up The Woman Who Would Be President and say, “She would have been worse.” (Because nothing screams confidence like “It could be worse.”)
The point is, I’ve met two people in all of my travels who, if not supported, at least were okay with Trump, and one was basing that on campaign rhetoric and the other was basing it on Russian-pushed anti-Clinton propaganda.
Which is not to say that Trump doesn’t have fans abroad. As Jon Oliver points out, the president and his leadership have a global approval of 30%, which is, again, objectively bad, but is still (somehow) more than 0%.
His approval ratings aren’t of that much interest to me, though. Trump represents – unfortunately or fortunately depending on your bent – an undeniable aspect of America. And so, as an American traveling abroad, I feel the burden of those expectations.
I’ve yet to meet an American abroad who likes Trump (though I have my suspicions about some conspicuously politics-averse travelers) and that’s almost certainly because so much of Trump’s appeal is predicated on vilifying foreigners and the world beyond the U.S. borders. Once you pass through those imaginary barriers, it becomes damn near impossible to maintain a worldview based on the wholly inaccurate belief that the world is made up of shitholes or Communist nations where people die waiting to see a doctor.
The U.S. would absolutely benefit from more European influence in their social systems (particularly healthcare). Let me also be clear, there are things that the U.S. does better than other countries. This isn’t a case of a guy living abroad for a few months and suddenly deciding that berets are, in fact, very fashionable. Reality is nuanced.
Every country does have its charms and social successes, and to deny that is to deliberately live with your head in the sand. America’s greatness, if we are to speak in those terms, has always been in its diversity, in its openness to immigrants and its ability to blend cultures.
In addition to the people I meet in Spain, I teach English online and speak with people from all over the world. Many are learning English so they can study abroad, and I’ve had more than a few tell me they had considered studying in America, but it’s become so restrictive that they opted for Australia or Canada, instead. If you don’t think that will hurt the U.S. in the long term, you haven’t been paying attention to global economics.
But, again, I don’t want to focus on politics (or economics), just the personal realities of being a citizen of this planet. Everybody around the world has stereotypes of Americans, just as Americans have stereotypes about people from other nations (assuming they think about people from other nations). Generally speaking, national stereotypes are rarely flattering, but with Trump as the largest, most inescapable avatar of my home nation, it feels like even more of an uphill battle to counteract the worst caricatures of an American.
This is why it’s so important that Americans step out of their comfort zones and travel. Now. Whether Trump is in office for three or seven more years, the image that he has projected globally will linger for a generation, at the very least. Some damage will only be repaired by future administrations, and some damage may be permanent. But ensuring that the stereotype of Americans is not shaped by a short-fingered vulgarian is up to each and every one of us.
A well-traveled, globally-educated electorate is the cure for Trumpism in whatever form it may arise next. It’s important to remain active in America and it’s vital to vote (especially in closely-contested elections), but for those who can spare the time, now more than ever, the U.S. needs global ambassadors.
Go for a week, go for a month; get TEFL-certified and go for a year or longer. Despite everything, people all around the world still dream of moving to America. As a nation, our greatest export has always been our self-worshiping pop culture and overly aggrandized sense of opportunity. Much of that is a lie, but it’s striving for that lie that can spur us to greatness.
The U.S. is a nation built on ideals it has never lived up to, but it should keep trying.
One of those ideals is that America is a melting pot, and for all its faults and historic failings on the issue of race, America is undeniably the most diverse nation on earth. That’s a feature, not a bug. The promise of America, the promise of the 21st century, cannot be achieved through isolation.
If you are one of the 65% of the United States who is embarrassed and ashamed of the leadership of our country (seriously, how is that number not higher?), remember that your options aren’t limited to the ballot box. Resist Dotard Trump by crossing borders.
Or just travel because it makes you a better human being. That alone is its own form of resistance.