Much of the US has greeted the rise of Donald Trump with horror, unease, and a great deal of confusion. How could the country that elected Barack Obama swing to support a sexist, racist idiot?
As a Brit living in the states, I certainly share this disgust. But although I can’t explain the reasons for Trump’s ascendancy, I’m not particularly perplexed by it. Like many foreigners, I’m used to raising my eyebrows at the unfathomable habits and extremes of Americans. In many ways, Trump seems in keeping with the typically American infatuation with grandiose displays of wealth and misogyny enshrined in laws against abortion. Though it’s far from justified, the US has a pretty horrific international reputation. To the rest of the world, Trump just seems like the country’s inevitable next step towards implosion.
After five years in the US, I consider myself an Americanophile. The US is a powerhouse for academia, contemporary literature, comedy, jazz, technology, film, and rap (I could go on). But, as any American who’s taken a trip abroad can attest, many foreigners—particularly the snooty European kind—look down their noses at yanks for being loud and uncouth. They aren’t being complimentary when they say, “That’s so American.”
With our excessive drinking habits and sense of entitlement, Brits aren’t exactly beloved either. But the first time I traveled with Americans around continental Europe and was mistaken for a yank, I remember being surprised at just how rude the locals were to me. I was routinely glared at, and museum officials shouted instructions at me, seeming to presume I was eager to disrespect their culture. Even spellcheck finds it hard to imagine an outsider with an appreciation of American culture; it refuses to recognize the word “Americanophile” (though it is most definitely a word), but happily accepts both “Anglophile” and “Francophile.”
Philip Seib, professor of journalism and public diplomacy at University of Southern California, agrees that much of American politics and culture can seem baffling from the outside. “We tend to lurch here and there on issues, we tend not to correct problems such as the gun problem, when we know how devastating it is. We seem to not really have a moral compass that guides foreign policy,” he says.
Although the US certainly can evoke admiration as the land of Walt Disney, Mark Zuckerberg, and democratic ideals, Seib notes that incidents such as the recent spate of police shootings cause major damage to its international reputation.
In truth, the US is likely no less confusing and disturbed than many other countries. But because it’s so powerful, the rest of the world is acutely aware of its downsides. Ask foreigners what they associate with the US and, along with the American Dream and appreciation for MTV, there will be references to fast food, obesity, superficial optimism, and geographical ignorance. When Vice asked its international staff for their take on the US, they also came up with homophobia, evolution denial, lack of medical care, the death penalty, and Las Vegas. When a country’s international reputation is at least partly shaped by Vegas, you can see why Donald Trump seems like a somewhat suitable fit.
“If you asked me to paint one enduring image of America, it would be a dude in a muscle vest smoking a cigar while driving a Mustang full of babes over a row of motorcycles and into a canyon,” said the Vice UK writer. Tell me you can’t see Trump’s face on just such a dude.
Seib points out that George W. Bush set a significant precedent getting foreigners accustomed to strange US presidents. “People overseas saw him as a wild cowboy.” But, he adds, “Trump takes that to an entirely different level.”
Of course, as a Brit, I’m one to talk. Brexit, in my view, is just as stupid and destructive a decision as electing Trump would be. When my home country voted to leave the European Union, it revealed the previously overlooked levels of xenophobia within the UK. Should the US opt for Clinton, the rest of the world will undoubtedly breathe a sigh of relief, acknowledging that, really, Americans aren’t so bad after all. But if President Trump does become reality, it would only reinforce the stereotype of the US as the boisterous, overgrown buffoon of the international stage.