I generally mind my own business on flights. But on a recent trip within Vietnam, I couldn’t help myself when the two Australian businessmen seated next to me began chatting about Donald Trump.
“Would they really elect him?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t used to think so, but who knows?”
“IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN!” I interjected. I didn’t shout, but I did say it in urgent all-caps as I shook my head. “IT CAN’T. NO WAY.”
They looked over at me.
“Ah, so you’re American? What is going on over there?”
I briefly toyed, as I so often do these days, with saying that I was Canadian.
I’ve been traveling through Southeast Asia for about five months now. When I left the US in early December, Trump was still just a novelty candidate. Now he’s the presumptive Republican nominee for president. There are plenty of reasons to be worried about Trump’s potential rise to power: he’s xenophobic, misogynistic, and ignorant about foreign policy and economics alike. But on a personal level, he’s also ruining my life as an American expat—and giving me a firsthand glimpse into just how badly Trump could damage the international reputation of the US.
Wherever I go—Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, a beach in Sri Lanka—the conversation inevitably goes straight to Trump the moment people find out where I’m from. Other US expats have also shared their own tales of how Trump has become the first order of business in any encounter abroad.
“The question about Trump I get consistently is whether he represents what Americans are thinking these days,” says one friend who lives in Tokyo. “I have to say, ‘Yes, some,’ to which the typical response is, “Should we be worried?” Or, “To what extent should we be worried?””
The problem here is bigger than American expats’ personal sense of embarrassment. When you travel abroad, you realize that people in other parts of the world pay far more attention to international news and politics than most Americans do. During one 2008 conversation with some Danes in a warming hut at the edge of a glacier in Patagonia, they explained the US housing market collapse more clearly than most of my fellow journalists were doing back home.
The international community shows a level of understanding and interest in global affairs that is both impressive and dismaying when compared to interest back home. And when they see Trump winning primaries and lording over passionate, packed crowds, they’re understandably alarmed about the damage that a single egomaniac with a bad comb-over could do to their lives and to the world at large.
Civilians and expats are far from the only people wondering what the hell is going on with a presidential contender whose foreign-policy platform is lighter on details than an Arby’s menu. The German magazine Der Spiegel called Trump the world’s most dangerous man. The British parliament spent three hours in January debating whether to ban Trump from the UK.
Current US president Barack Obama was recently asked about Trump’s plan to use a tax on remittances to build his (beautiful, best-ever) border wall with Mexico. Obama responded that he was “getting questions constantly from foreign leaders about some of the wackier suggestions that are being made. […] They don’t expect half-baked notions coming out of the White House.”
Secretary of State John Kerry made similar comments on Face the Nation back in March: ““Everywhere I go, every leader I meet they ask about what is happening in America. They cannot believe it. I think it is fair to say that they’re shocked. […] And to some degree, I must say to you, some of the questions, the way they are posed to me, it’s clear to me that what’s happening is an embarrassment to our country.”
Yes, it’s humiliating. It’s also a reminder of how quickly US international relations could go downhill. During the reign of former US president George W. Bush, America’s reputation suffered immensely over the war in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, foreign policies in Israel, Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and numerous other decisions. World opinion of the US has recovered under Obama’s tenure. Now Trump risks throwing away international goodwill—with potentially dire consequences for Americans as well as people around the world.
I’m tired of trying to explain the electorate that has made president Trump possible when I can hardly understand that electorate myself. I’d much rather talk about anything else. But I’ve found no relief.
“Do you think he could win?”
“What’s his appeal? Do people read the stuff he says?”
“I heard Putin doesn’t even like him anymore.”
“What is wrong with people over there?”
The most disturbing remark came just the other night, at a cowboy-Western-themed bar in Bangkok:
“What we’re watching with you guys over there is how you can’t hide your inherent racism and xenophobia anymore–Trump brought it right out into the open!”
I know there are many Americans, myself included, who strongly oppose the bigotry touted by Trump. But I have to admit that his campaign has exposed the worst strains of hatred in the US. That’s made it increasingly difficult to publicly claim the nation as my own.
I understand why the people I meet abroad have so many questions about what the hell is going on in the US. But I don’t have the answers. So more and more, I’ve found myself resorting to a different tactic—one I’m less than proud of.
For the foreseeable future, despite what my passport says, I’m going to tell the people I meet that I have no place speaking on behalf of the US. “My people’s chosen leader is a hot, publicly-declared feminist who welcomes refugees,” I’ll say. And if they doubt me, I’ve memorized the lyrics to “Oh, Canada.”