One study-abroad student’s attempt to explain Trump to Europeans…and to himself

One study-abroad students attempt to explain Trump to Europeans...and to himself

Alexander Slawson

“He’s one of these crazy guys” my European Politics professor said, in his thick Danish accent.  “Like Donald Trump,” he finished, with a wave of the hand and the sly smirk of someone very pleased with himself.  “These” sounded more like “this,” and the “azy” in crazy sounded more like someone saying “Stacy” after a few drinks.  He’d made this half-joke already—he made the comparison whenever discussing an eccentric European politician—yet the class always rewarded him with a forced laugh, as if to prove our embarrassment at the whole Trump situation, or in order to stave off any suspicion, no matter how minuscule or unwarranted, that a one of us might be one of those mystical unicorn-like (but in a negative way) Trump supporters, God forbid.  To be accused of such a thing, especially amongst study-abroad types, would be social suicide. 

I’ve spent the last four months in Europe and, to my chagrin, discovered that Europeans love to talk about Trump, especially to Americans.  Granted, it’s been well-proven by our own domestic media (and, I suppose, by my writing of this article) that Americans love talking about the Donald as well.  But Europeans converse on the topic more than I, before crossing the Atlantic, had expected them too.  This might be due to the resentment, justified, that much of the world has towards the U.S, and it might be as a kind of rebuttal in the tacit argument between the old world and the most powerful member of the new.  “Yes, we’ve got big problems,” they exclaim, “and we’ve had, without a doubt, some horrendous leaders, but look this Trump character!  Ban all Muslims? Is he daft?  Has your whole country gone bloody raving mad?”¹

I was probably asked about Trump two or three dozen times, directly, by Europeans, and I suppose there’s good reason for this: I am, after all, American, and they probably relished the chance to get an insider’s perspective.  These questions often followed the dull but obligatory question of “what are you studying.”  When I answered “politics,” I took a front row seat to watch the Momentary Panic and Doubt Show on the face of my new acquaintance, a face that inquired, “you’re not one of those are you?”  “No, I’m not.” I’d quickly answer the unspoken question before the insidious idea started laying eggs.  Europeans can be forgiven for this assumption: they are, of course, not as familiar with our primary system, and don’t realize that, despite the coverage, Trump is very unpopular with most Americans.  I’d quickly dispel their misconceptions, frequently with the help of my roommate, he being a pious monk at the altar of Bernie Sanders and a walking encyclopedia of political factoids. 

But Europeans also talk Trump with each other, sans American input.  At a dinner party, I overheard two students, one Dutch and one German, discussing with quietly intense voices whether a man such as Donald Trump is “fit to be president.”² This episode had, to me, a bit of the I-know-I-talk-crap-about-my-family-but-that-doesn’t-mean-you-can feeling, which I know is unreasonable.  Who the United States elects as president has implications for the whole world, and right now those implications seem grim.

This whole Trump Thing³ has made me depressed.  I know I shouldn’t be so sensitive about this, but I take the TT as a personal affront, and I’m sure many other students of political science do as well.  I grew up believing in Democracy like others believe in God or Gravity.  If you asked me to choose between the Constitution and the Bible, I would have given my answer before you had the chance to say “ible.” (hyperbole; don’t worry, mom)  Us poli-sciencers may not always like the outcome, but we had respect for the system.  In class, we were taught Principles and Theories and Historical Trends, most which have recently been filleted like Trump Steaks.  If we had one iota of sense or common decency, all political science majors would promptly change their majors to, like, sociology or something. 

I think what’s worst of all about the TT is the slogan “Make America Great Again.”  Here we have what might be the most embarrassing political phenomenon of my generation’s lifetime, and he’s inviting us to examine our past, inviting the question “when, exactly, was America truly great?”  Ask this question to my study abroad friends, especially those from post-colonial countries, or to many non-white Americans, and you’ll receive, I imagine, a resounding “never!”  Follow this question down the rabbit hole and you’ll find yourself doubting the idea of patriotism, questioning why so many people, seemingly without any cause other than random location of birth, hold so steadfastly to their national pride.  At the very least, it’s enough to cause you to lip-sync the next time a rowdy frat boy starts doltishly chanting “USA!” at a tailgate.   

So, then, maybe the Trump Thing does have some meaning in today’s senseless political environment.  Maybe it’ll shake some liberals out of our complacency.  Maybe it’s the death throws of, let’s face it, bigoted Caucasians who feel that, after an eternity of unmerited social domination, the chickens are finally coming home to roost or are, at least, getting quite cozy.  Progress isn’t constant: it comes in fits and starts—that much of my social-science education has proven true.  Things sometimes get worse before they get better.  Let’s make America great—not a place that wipes its nose with the very international laws it wrote, not a place where “he speaks his mind” is considered a compliment regardless of that speech’s content, and not a place that’s keen on recreating much from our past.  And, for the love of God, let’s dispense with the whole American Exceptionalism thing.  For one, the French hate it, and I’m craving a crêpe right now. 

¹ This hypothetical person is English, clearly, and a bit of a twat, if you’ll excuse my, um, French. 

² Trump cannot count on these two internationals for an endorsement, I assure you. 

³ “Trump Thing,” TT, is what I’ve taken to calling this American condition spearheaded by, of course, the man himself, but which is loosely related to the American obsession with reality TV and general obsession with characterless characters, fame, etc. etc.  To avoid sounding like an indignant old snoot, I’ll stop here.