On July 3rd, as Americans were in the middle of their Independence Day weekend celebrations*, there was a shooting at a mall in Copenhagen, Denmark. Three people were killed, many more injured, and the 22-year-old shooter was taken into custody. Of course, it’s likely you didn’t hear much about this shooting because of the even deadlier mass shooting that occurred on July 4th in Illinois.
For most Americans, if they heard about the Copenhagen mall shooting at all, it was possibly because they read about Harry Styles canceling his concert, which was supposed to take place that night near the mall.
It is possible, though, if you lurk in certain parts of the internet, that you’ve seen this shooting (and a similar shooting in Oslo, Norway a couple weeks ago) upheld as proof that gun control doesn’t work. The refrain (almost celebratory) is, “See, even in Denmark, the country with some of the strictest gun laws in the world, mass shootings still happen.”
So, I have to say something.
In the wake of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas in May, the US government managed to pass some gun control(-related) laws. Most of us who want stricter gun control in the US, even those who celebrated their passage, will admit these regulations are insufficient. They’re a step in the right direction, but unlikely to do much to staunch the bleeding. Something is better than nothing, so I’m glad the law was signed by President Biden. But more is needed.
Let’s look at Denmark.
Two shootings in Copenhagen, Denmark
I’ve only been to Copenhagen once, on a long layover in 2016. I had 6 hours to walk the city, which is basically all I did. I did have lunch in a college/hipster-y part of town. As I ate at a high top table in the bar area, the bartender and I talked gun control.
The year before, Copenhagen had had one of the worst shootings in its modern history. A man killed 2 people and wounded 5 cops. The bartender (who spoke flawless English, naturally) explained that pretty much everyone in the country agreed on their gun laws. He said that people in Denmark didn’t understand the US’s obsession with guns (a sentiment I’ve heard often since then from people in other countries). For the Danes, a shooting happened and they were thankful they had strong gun control. They’d have accepted even stricter laws.
No, the laws didn’t stop the 2015 Copenhagen shooting, nor Sunday’s shooting (3 dead, more wounded). But it was 7+ years between 2015 and this shooting. This recent mall shooting is the worst Denmark has had since 2015. It’s absolutely a tragedy; one America has every few days (often not even making national news).
Gun control is not an impenetrable wall, but it is a wall. It works to lessen a flood. Many on the Right (and dishearteningly on the Left these days too) will point to this Copenhagen shooting as proof that gun control doesn’t work. But two shootings in seven years proves it does.
These skeptics will say America’s much larger population explains the disparity, but the stats show differently: 12 in every 100,000 Americans are killed by guns, compared to 1 in every 100,000 Danes. Looking at the European Union broadly, it’s not even close. (You can check for yourself.) Guns don’t kill people. People with easy access to and a bizarre fetishization of guns kill people.
The Law of the Land
So much of the opposition to any kind of gun control is predicated on this utterly ridiculous standard that if a single law can’t stop every shooting, it’s pointless. This is the base argument of every gun nut who opposes gun control, and it is, plainly, stupid. Seatbelt laws don’t stop every crash or every car death, but statistics clearly show they have saved lives. That’s the whole point.
The purpose of gun laws – the purpose of any law – is not to make the world perfect but to broadly improve the outcomes of the citizens of the world. This tragedy in Copenhagen isn’t lessened because Denmark has gun control laws (though perhaps it was less severe than it otherwise would have been; we can’t know). But there are certainly less tragedies in Denmark like it because of them.
When is America going to figure that out? How many children need to die – or live in constant fear – in their classrooms before the US takes substantive action? How many regular people going about their lives have to be slaughtered before we stop giving credence to the death cult known as the NRA? I’m not a policy expert. I don’t know what mix of gun laws, mental health policies, and social programs will have the biggest impact. But almost any laws would be better than the status quo. Again, the most recent law, while welcome, isn’t enough.
(Maybe we could start by banning the AR-15? And, yes, I know that the AR stands for ArmaLite rife. I’ve even fired one.)
Sadly, as with so many other issues lately, I’m afraid there is no number of deaths and tragedies that can get America to act like a sane nation. It feels, increasingly, like a nation on the brink.
There is no quick fix for those who have been directly affected by a mass shooting, whether in Copenhagen or the US. But, perhaps, with time, there will be a general sense of peace for Danes knowing such a tragedy is blessedly uncommon. Will America ever know that peace?
*I wrote most of this post on the morning of the 4th before the mass shooting at an Independence Day parade in Highland Park, a Chicago suburb. With at least 6 dead, it was a grim reminder that even when other countries have the rare mass shooting, there will always be one in America soon after to overshadow it. America’s gun culture is unsustainable.
For over a year, I’ve been a regular contributor at The Millennial Source, an up-and-coming news source that pulls back from the breaking news headlines to provide context and background. With the constant stream of news stories and IMPORTANT ISSUES shooting at us from the firehose that is social media, TMS’s mission is to help you feel less overwhelmed by, well, everything. It can be quite noisy out there.
As a TMS writer, I have had the opportunity to write about an array of topics that mean a great deal to me (long-term readers of 10×10 will know I have a lot of varied interests). I’m particularly proud of two recent series, one on the racial inequality of the US justice system in terms of both arrests and recidivism rates, and another on the Dasgupta Review and its solutions for climate change.
If there is one topic I’ve covered more than any other, though, it’s conspiracy theories, and, more specifically, QAnon. By this point, you’ve probably read or heard quite a bit about QAnon, so much so that you may have come to the view, shared by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, that the media talks about the movement in far greater proportion than its actual influence. After all, nobody really believes in that silly stuff. Well, unfortunately, they do, and at far greater numbers than you might realize.
Last October, a Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that only 7% of the 1,583 respondents believed the QAnon conspiracy theory was true. So, there you go, no big deal, right? Well, except that another 11% said, “It goes too far but I believe some of what I’ve heard”, and 23% said they were unsure of what to think about it. A worryingly small majority of 59% said it was an extremist theory that was not true at all. Importantly, these were the people who had heard of QAnon, so none of the unsure 23% were people who were simply unaware of the phenomenon.
Remember: QAnon is a conspiracy theory that claims Democrats and most of Hollywood are cannibalistic pedophiles that worship Satan and are actively trying to control the world. And, at the same time, Donald Trump (former buddy of Jeffrey Epstein, Donald Trump) was the one who was going to take down this “deep state” cabal (not so much, it seems). So, when 11% said QAnon was a little true but went too far, maybe they just though the cannibal stuff was over the line. We don’t know.
What we do know, though, is when asked directly about one of the core beliefs of QAnon, “Do you believe that top Democrats are involved in elite child sex-trafficking rings?”, 25% of respondents said yes and another 24% said they weren’t sure. Worse yet, 50% of Republicans said they believed it (and weirdly, 5% of Democrats, which is confusing). Furthermore, 49% of Republicans believed “President Trump is working to dismantle an elite child sex-trafficking ring involving top Democrats” (as well as 7%(?) of Democrats).
Which is to say, even though 37% of the respondents said they had never heard of QAnon, including 45% of Republicans, many people still held the basic premise of the conspiracy theory to be true.
I’ve personally seen this dichotomy in action: many people from my Christian youth with whom I’ve maintained Facebook connections have fully gone down the Republican conspiracy theory mind hole. They’ve bought into the nonsense that the election was stolen from Trump and that Biden is an illegitimate president. They also believe that Democrats are pedophiles; they’ve told me so. At the same time, they tell me that QAnon is stupid and they obviously aren’t believers in that made-up conspiracy theory.
The “Democrats are pedophiles” belief predates QAnon (and even QAnon’s immediate predecessor, Pizzagate), but there’s no question that it wasn’t a belief held by 50% of the Republican Party until the presidency of Donald Trump and the spread of these pro-Trump conspiracy theories online. And if 50% of a major political party believes something, can we really call it a fringe belief?
The issue, though, and the reason that people like heir-to-the-Swanson-fortune (and white supremacist) Tucker Carlson can claim QAnon is overblown is because the hucksters behind the whole movement (including pig farmer and child pornography-enabler Jim Watkins) are fairly savvy: they realized that their movement was getting a lot of bad press even as it was growing, so they explicitly told their followers to start obscuring the origins of the movement.
Instead of sharing Q drops (the anonymous, mindless drivel that “Q” posted on 8kun) and using Q-related hashtags like #wwg1wga, followers were urged to focus on spreading the message through something everyone could agree on: Saving the children. By using the preexisting #SaveTheChildren hashtag (and other related ones), QAnon’s pseudo-Biblical nonsense could spread through well-meaning social media users and mommy influencers. After all, only a monster would have a problem with people just trying to save children.
(Never mind that people who actual devote their lives to fighting sex trafficking have repeatedly said this type of online activism and “awareness raising” actually does more harm than good for the cause.)
So, QAnon lives on: in conspiracy theories about COVID-19, in weirdly pro-police cosplay, and in the persistent belief that Democrats, as well as Hollywood celebrities like Tom Hanks and Oprah Winfrey, are pedophiles. And it will continue to live on because, even though social media platforms have been shutting down QAnon accounts, it’s all but impossible to kill off a belief once it spreads and has been allowed to grow. That’s why cults often live on even after the leader has died or disappeared.
For anyone who would still insist QAnon is meaningless internet roleplaying, keep in mind that QAnon adherents were fundamental to organizing and executing the coup attempt at the US Capitol on January 6. Furthermore, QAnon believers have also been arrested and charged for burglary, terrorism, attempted kidnapping, murder, attempted murder (of Biden), and attempted vehicular manslaughter, all in the name of QAnon beliefs.
As those beliefs continue to spread and morph – even if they do so independently of the QAnon banner – they will represent a growing danger to not just the US, or to other countries where it’s taken root (including Germany and Canada), but to our basic ability as a species to live in the same reality. And without that, it’s impossible to tackle global problems, including world hunger, climate change, and pandemics.
So, while I’m just one voice on a small website trying to keep track of these spreading conspiracy theories, I’m happy to be a resource for anyone who wonders about this subject. There are plenty of fantastic journalist at larger outlets (Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins at NBC News in particular) who are doing the Herculean task of tracking so much of these conspiracy theories to their origins, and I would recommend anyone interested in the topic to search out their numerous deep dives.
But, if you’re like so many other people out there (myself included) who finds it hard to read everything about everything, but wishes you could, check in at TMS and we’ll be happy to provide you a brief explainer on everything from Armenia/Azerbaijan geopolitics to what exactly a Boogaloo Boy is. And, maybe, together, we can push back on the noise.
For years, you have told us that we – the atheists, the agnostics, the homosexuals, the Muslims, the liberals – are the reason bad things happen in America. You have argued that mass shootings are due to our immorality, that we removed God from our schools and homes, that our acceptance of sinful behavior has led God to abandon us.
And we are to believe that at some point between 2005 (or 2006) he became a Born Again Christian, seeing the error of his ways and abandoning his sinful life for a path of high-minded civic service. No matter how many times you say it, no one will believe it. We don’t believe it. You don’t believe it. Billy Graham, Jr. doesn’t believe it.
I might respect you a little if you’d at least acknowledge that, but all criticism of Trump’s morality is immediately deflected. “Other people are bad, so why judge Trump?” you ask.
Which puts you in the position of defending Trump’s policies. Policies that have literally left 4,645 American citizens to die (about the same number as died in Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, combined). Policies that rip thousands of children away from their parents for committing a misdemeanor.
It doesn’t matter how much he lies, though, because his predominantly Christian base is more than happy to run with that lie and push it. If only the Bible had anything to say about bearing false witness. (You were okay when Trump lied about Obama being born in Kenya, so this is really no surprise. You’re consistent hypocrites.)
It’s very telling when the most common defense of Trump is, “But Obama” (or, confusingly, “But Hillary”). In defending the indefensible, you point at flaws in others and say, “See, everyone is bad.” It’s a weird day when Christians admit they don’t care about being holy or moral, they just don’t want to be called worse than “sinners” and “heathens.”
If you rate your morality by how it stacks up against the worst of humanity rather than comparing it to the best, you have no claim to moral authority.
In the Bible, God reserved his harshest punishment for His people. If, as you have claimed for years, God is punishing America, the Bible says it is because of you.
In supporting Trump, you stand with White Supremacists, Holocaust-deniers, and flat out criminals. Every time you defend an abhorrent policy because you see it as more important to fight liberals than to fight for justice, every time you defend Trump because he’s on your “team,” you reveal yourself for what you are: Fake Christians.
America has done good things in the world. But it has also done vile things, often in the name of God. You can be sure, in the eyes of history, this will be considered the most vile American period since slavery was legal.
If your mentality is that you are at war against liberals because they stand against Biblical teaching, isn’t it ironic that you have abandoned the most fundamental Biblical lesson – love your neighbor as yourself – in order to pursue this political vendetta?
You claim it is Biblical to defend your borders, and yet Jesus’ message was for you to open your doors to strangers. Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek when attacked. Give your cloak to those in need. These are direct teachings from the Bible. To defend Trump’s policies (and the way you practice your faith) requires distorting Biblical teachings beyond recognition.
I don’t care how often you go to church. I don’t care about your snarky memes saying liberals who support legal abortion are hypocrites for caring about living children. I don’t care that you don’t care that I’m calling you out. You are Fake Christians. You are why America is in decline. #FakeChristians
I know I have been harsh in this post, so I want to leave you with a comforting thought. I actually have good news for you. You might even call it The Good News: there is no God, no Christ. There is no one watching over us.
Your actions reveal that you know it to be true. Your workless faith is dead.
So, take heart, God won’t punish you for the evil that you support and do in His name. There is no hell waiting for you. There is no eternal damnation to come.
No, any punishment that awaits you will come from your children and grandchildren who will refuse to acknowledge you and abandon you in your old age, unable to stomach the sight of you and your hypocrisy. That is your legacy. That will be your reward.
It’s one of those intentionally simplistic terms – like “The Big Bang Theory” – that exists because the general public can’t deal with complex concepts without them being stripped to their basest form. Still, it’s the term du jour, so for the purposes of this article, I’ll use it.
As it relates to the US presidential election, “Fake News” is more accurately known as propaganda: distorted news stories and statistics used to push lies about immigrants, urban crime, Muslims, and other boogeyman designed to scare you. This form of propaganda isn’t unique to the US, of course; Brexit was fueled by it, and fear of the “other” has been the politicking weapon of choice since the first politician gave a speech.
But in the broader context of our lives, “Fake News” has always existed, and it has never been a liberal or conservative issue, just a matter of laziness and opportunistic cynicism.
A Long and Tortured History of Fake News
I’ve been calling out my friends’ tendency to spread fake news for years – and lost some for doing it – only to see the same people lambaste Trumpers for spreading fake news. The irony physically hurts.
The uncomfortable truth about the current form of fake news – the Facebook-viral, Russian bot-pushed, grammatically-indifferent breed – is that it didn’t just appear out of nowhere with perfected tactics for reaching the most susceptible (gullible) targets. These tactics have been deployed and honed for years by all kinds of sources pushing their dubious claims, most of them not inherently political. Some you probably trust.
I didn’t call them “fake news” back then, I called them bullshit.
To help explain this, I’m focusing on one website (though there are many) and how it fits into both the current political moment and the road that got us here: Naturalnews.com
Natural News is one of the most unapologetic sources of bullshit I’ve ever seen. There was a time a few years back when it would pop up in my Facebook feed almost every day.
In its heyday, NaturalNews.com existed as a poorly-designed, green-hued nightmare of circular reasoning and supplement peddling. It ostensibly existed to provide information about “alternatives” to Western Medicine (a.k.a. “medicine”). There have always been snake oil salesman, and there always will be. Natural News just did it digitally.
Natural News became a phenomenon largely because it pushed the roundly debunked and thoroughly bullshit idea that vaccines cause autism. Even now, as I type this, the top link on the site declares “Highest AUTISM rates found in countries with highest VACCINE compliance” (playing the hits). It also went all-in on the “evils” of GMOs, another bullshit scare tactic that you – yes, I know you’re reading this – probably still believe is a big concern.
What made this site so effective and so useful for people spreading its lies is that when you clicked on an article, it appeared to be a legitimate news article, with quotes from relevant experts and links to supporting articles. For a reader ready to buy what Natural News was selling, that’s all it took to be convinced that the article was properly researched and well-sourced. Click, share.
But those articles were garbage.
The quotes were almost never actually quotes. They often referenced “a person there” or “an expert”, but never gave a name, as if they had to maintain the person’s anonymity lest Big Brother snuffed them out.
Worse, if you clicked on a link embedded in the article, it inevitably took you to a different article on naturalnews.com, generally written by the same guy (or avatar, at least). Keep clicking and you’d go further and further down the rabbit hole of that website, perhaps even coming right back around to the original article. It was an ouroboros of bullshit, and goddamn was it effective. The creators of the site knew, if you’re predisposed to believe them, you wouldn’t check their work.
The site’s most dedicated readers were usually those who called themselves skeptics, those people who never trust the “official story” and pat themselves on the back because they voted for a third party candidate once. Self-proclaimed skeptics are always the easiest to fool.
If you go to naturalnews.com now (I wouldn’t recommend it; except to check my claims, so I guess you should do it), the website has transformed, unsurprisingly, into a pro-Trump, “Deep State” conspiracy-pushing, manure factory. Still poorly designed, but at least it’s keeping up with the latest bullshit.
I say “unsurprisingly” because, as someone who has been tracking bullshit for my entire adult life, as soon as I saw the political “fake news” websites during the election popping up in my feed, I recognized all the same tactics being used, both in terms of self-referential links and the way they preyed on “skeptics” and “free thinkers.”
Nowadays, Natural News has gotten a little more sophisticated: Its links go to other websites, sites with names like “Deep State News.” Regardless, it’s the same tactic as always, linking back to different like-minded (almost certainly interconnected) sources to give the sheen of authenticity to its claims. The snake is still eating its tail, one source of bullshit feeding another. (Who would have thought that “The Human Centipede” would turn out to be the most culturally astute film of our times?)
It’s possible that Natural News’ turn to Trumpism is just a natural development of its anti-establishment roots. If you don’t trust doctors and the medical establishment, it stands to reason you probably look askew at the political establishment, too.
On the other hand, if you’re a bit more cynical – as I am – you might note that Natural News always had a political slant at its core. I don’t mean Republican or Democrat, or even conservative or liberal. Rather, its politics were about persuading its readers that all “official” sources were lying, so you could only trust them. (And while we’ve got you here, why don’t you buy some vitamin supplements?)
“Everyone else is lying but me.” Sound familiar? When Trump praises Fox News and calls all other news sources “fake” he’s relying on the same tactic that Natural News used to secure a loyal and defensive audience. As soon as you’ve earned someone’s trust and, more importantly, built their distrust of others, they’re yours for life.
Let me be clear, I’m not saying Natural News was a Russian-backed front for spreading fake news (unless it turns out it really was, in which case, I’m also not not saying that).
What I am saying, though, is that all “fake news” sources use this same tactic to create loyalty. It’s not a new tactic. It originated with the original – and still best – purveyor of lies the world ever knew: Religion.
In the beginning…
Once you’ve convinced your followers that only your book, your prophets, your preachers, your celebrity spokesperson have access to the truth, it becomes impossible to dispute your claims.
I said above that I have been tracking bullshit my entire adult life. What I meant was that, as soon as I de-converted from Christianity at the age of 20, I began to look for all the ways that religion convinced its followers – convinced me – to stay in its grasp, even when so little of it made sense.
As a young, firebrand atheist, I was obsessed with debunking Christian myths and disproving its claims. I followed a pretty standard trajectory for an atheist, from excitable (and mean) reactionary to stately but acerbic provocateur, to where I am now: an old man tired of the fight. I mostly don’t write about it anymore, because the debate has gotten tiring, and the results non-existent.
But I bring up my young atheism because that’s where I first noticed the tactics of modern “fake news”: utilize self-referential sources, engender distrust, muddy the waters around what can be known (i.e. facts).
In one specific topic, I saw those tactics being used to prolong a debate that had long been settled: Evolution vs. Creationism (Intelligent Design).
Creationists like Ken Ham have no chance of winning the debate on the merits of facts or reason, so they turn to other methods for winning adherents to their political views: repeating assertions ad nauseam, no matter how baseless (repetition creates the illusion of veracity); arguing that one can’t trust what is seen with one’s own eyes; and proclaiming that biologists (all scientists, really) are part of a conspiracy to trick the world.
These same tactics are used by Climate Change deniers, Natural News quacks, and Donald Trump, among others.
When writing article after article about religion in my early 20s, I felt a bit like Chicken Little screaming that the sky was falling. Some people humored me, some even agreed. Turns out, the sky really was falling, and everyone thought they were safe under their particular awnings.
The future is bleak
Things are going to keep getting worse because of technology. Don’t get me wrong, technology is amazing, but its most amazing feature is also its greatest danger: it makes what isn’t real look like it is. Whether it’s getting us emotionally invested in the arc of a talking raccoon in a space epic or creating a video in which Obama appears to be calling Trump a dipshit, our world is increasingly virtual; in other words, fake. Eventually, our tech will overwhelm our ability to tell the difference.
For those looking forward to 2018 or 2020 in hopes of the truth winning out and Trumpism being eradicated, well, don’t hold your breath.
It’s not enough to know that “fake news” exists; we need to be humble enough to acknowledge that we are susceptible to it, and to blame for it.
You are to blame. I am, too.
I’ll admit, I reposted that fake Trump quote about Republicans. I’m at least partially responsible for that “quote” having more legs than it deserved.
This is the simplest form of fake news, and it’s one that was pretty easy to debunk because it gives the supposed source. Trump never said those words, and obviously he wouldn’t have. The fact that I reposted it speaks to my own willingness to put aside common sense when something feels true enough.
(There is a similar damning “quote” going around, with George Soros supposedly admitting to using Black Lives Matter to stir up violence in America. It’s just as bullshit as the Trump quote and proof that tactics know no political allegiance.)
When I read that the quote was fake, I double checked and was dismayed to find I’d been suckered. I deleted my post and now tell other people when they post it. People often smugly respond, “Well, even if he didn’t say it, the quote is true,” not getting the irony that they’re making fun of other people for believing lies. We have to be better than this.
Calling out these blatant lies is a small thing, but it’s some effort towards stopping the deluge. Sadly, I fear it’s a bit like cleaning up an oil spill with a teaspoon.
You’re to blame for Fake News.
You have spread fake news. I don’t care who you voted for, I don’t care how much of a “skeptic” or a “free thinker” you are. You have helped spread false information. Maybe you found out and corrected yourself, maybe you quietly buried the evidence, or maybe you are still convinced of its veracity. Whatever the case, you’re guilty.
And to prove it, I will list some lies that you believe or did believe. I won’t provide my sources, but I assure you, these are all facts. If you doubt me – good, that’s the first step – I encourage you to do the research yourself and learn why these lies became so massive that most of society accepts them as truth.
Here are lies you have undoubtedly believed at some point in your life:
Carrots improve your night vision
Diamonds are rare
It’s dangerous/too difficult for women to get pregnant after 35
Vitamin C will cure a cold
Milk strengthens your bones
Mary Magdalene was a prostitute
You need to drink 8 glasses of water a day
A woman frivolously sued McDonald’s for spilling hot coffee on herself and that’s why we live in a nanny state
We not only live with our lies, we love them. We define our world by them. Like it or not, there is a good chance your idea of the world has largely been shaped by at least one of those lies above (I used to drink a big glass of OJ every time I felt a tickle in my throat).
The spreading of lies isn’t going to stop. Liars aren’t going to stop. The only way to make a better world is to be better consumers of information.
It’s not enough to just be a “skeptic.” We need to be curious. We need to be invested in the truth. We need to be interested in the wider world.
But, before all that, we need to admit, we’re part of the problem.
“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.
Over the weekend, protesters and activists gathered in Madrid’s Plaza de Isabel II for a Women’s Rally in solidarity with the Women’s March that took place in cities all over the world.
The original Women’s March, which took place on January 21st, 2017, was centered in Washington D.C., where nearly 500,000 people showed up a day after Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. In New York City,where I was fortunate enough to be among the crowd last year,hundreds of thousands of people marched, in part to demonstrate against the new administration, but mostly, and more profoundly, to proclaim solidarity with one another. It was a remarkable moment.
Images from 2017
Images from 2017
Images from 2017
I’ll admit, this year, as I saw the images from the anniversary marches on Saturday popping up all over social media, I was a little jealous and wistful for my time back in New York. There is much in the United States to be dismayed about these days, but the gathering and amplification of marginalized voices is a wonderful salve.
Here in Spain, the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement are not as prominent, for reasons both obvious (the March was organized, in large part, as a response to Donald Trump) and cultural (in a culture where physical touch is the norm, even among strangers, certain notions of sexual misconduct aren’t shared).
Madrid is fairly “liberal” by American standards. While unquestionably a Catholic city (with all the conflicting implications that would suggest), gay couples walk hand-in-hand most everywhere without a second thought and the younger population, at least, tends to express sympathy for refugees. There is also a large expat population here.
On Sunday, a day after the marches in the US, a Women’s March was held in the heart of Madrid. Billed as a “march,” it was, in fact, a rally, contained to the one plaza, with various speakers addressing the crowd of, perhaps, a couple thousand (my estimate is based purely on my view and no scientific analysis).
Speakers came up in pairs, with one person speaking in English and the other interpreting to Spanish (or vice versa). The speakers addressed various topics from many backgrounds, including poets and comedians, both women young and old, and even one man, a representative of the United States’ Democratic Party who was there to encourage Americans to register to vote and vote from abroad.
At times, chants would break out in the middle of the speeches, in pauses between interpretations. Usually those chants were in Spanish, sometimes in English. Mostly, though, the crowd expressed themselves with their signs, again, in a mix of both languages.
Even from a distance of 3,800 miles (or 6.100 kilometers for my Spaniards), there was one man who featured heavily on the signage and in the chants. Can you guess who?
In Spain, where U.S. President Trump is more a curiosity (“por que?”) than a direct or existential (or nuclear) threat, his outsized reputation in both the media and on social networks keeps him at the forefront of the conversation about equality, racism, and sexual misconduct. An abundance of signs with expressions like “Impeach Trump” suggest that most in the crowd were Americans making their voices heard from abroad (it’s yet to be seen if those same voices will vote this year).
Despite the tendency of America (and Americans) to take center stage, there were other issues on the minds of those gathered, as represented by some of the signs.
There were two or three different signs (in Spanish) regarding abortion laws in Ireland. I’ll admit my ignorance on the specifics (I didn’t ask her), but I am, of course, aware that Ireland is staunchly Catholic, and abortion rights are always a hotly contested issue.
The crowd was definitely heavily weighted towards Americans and English speakers, but plenty of Spanish women (and men) were in the mix. Like the marches in the United States, people came for different reasons and with individual purposes, but they were unified under a cause of furthering equality, challenging unjust systems, and holding those who abuse their power accountable.
Most broadly, they were there to show unity, as women, as feminists, as LGBT, as Spaniards and Americans, and as global citizens. And as the march in 2017 had been, being among the many impassioned and dedicated women at the rally in Madrid was invigorating and affirming. I was happy to be there, and grateful to be there with many of my friends.
For those who would question the purpose or efficacy of the marches, I have to ask, “Have you been paying attention?” The #MeToo movement was represented by Time’s Person of the Year selection of “The Silence Breakers” while 2017 was awash in conversation about sexual misconduct and assault. Now, in 2018, a record number of women are running for political office in the United States. It’s not a coincidence that last year began with a massive unification of women.
What lies ahead for this political movement and moment is uncertain, but it’s hard to imagine these voices suddenly going silent. If 2017 was the year women finally said, “Enough,” it seems pretty much inevitable 2018 is the year they say, “Now it’s my turn.”
From my vantage point, it’s clear they mean business.