It happened; I knew it would. At some point during my trip I knew I would be asked, “Is Donald Trump going to be President?” I guess I didn’t think it would happen as often as it did.
The first time was after I had been in Europe for about 30 minutes. A young man in Schiphol Airport stopped me to ask if he could survey me and since I had a two-hour layover I needed something to do. He asked a few questions about whether I would use an automated system to get my boarding passes and then he asked, “What nation are you from?”
“I’m from the United States.” He looked at me like he wanted to ask something else and I could feel it. I waited, but he was polite and he probably wasn’t supposed to ask personal questions when he was on the clock so I filled in. “Yeah, I’m sorry.” (This might be the Obama apology tour I read about on Facebook, but since it was just me, and about 7 years later than the tour Obama took to say he was sorry for being an American and how he was going to take everyone’s guns and put freedom loving Americans in re-education camps so that he could destroy America and turn it over to ISIS, I could be mistaken.)
He smiled, “Do you think Trump will be President?”
“I don’t think so. I hope not, but…” I shrugged. “There are a lot of stupid Americans though.” (Yeah, I said it and I’m not sorry. Try me for treason, or whatever you think is appropriate, I have plenty of evidence to support my statement.)
“Well, good luck,” he said.
“We need it.”
On a boat tour in Amsterdam our guide eventually got around to asking. The rest of the people in the boat (two Brits, two South Africans) stopped their side conversations and leaned in to hear an explanation. There were four of us, Americans, who shook our heads and tried to explain how it couldn’t happen with the Electoral College and how Trump would implode, but who knows what will happen. I assumed the other couple in the boat were republicans: wealthy, older, retired; but they were as flummoxed as I was to explain our presidential election process and how Trump had survived. Our guide summarized his feelings, “Well, I hope he isn’t elected, that would be bad for everyone,” and he wasn’t talking about the United States, he was speaking for the world, which as captain of our little boat he was allowed to do.
In Munich, we were sitting in an Italian restaurant with Maike (an exchange student who lived with us in the US) and her university friend. The sun was going down, our pizza was still in the oven, and all of us were moving on to our second drink when it came up. Maike and her friend had both been exchange students so they understood Americans better than most Europeans and that is what worried them. They knew what makes America great and what makes it weak. The irony that we sat less than a kilometer from where the Beer Hall Putsch took place wasn’t lost on me as we discussed how someone like Trump could become the leader of the free world. (I’m not one of those liberals who believes everyone is Hitler, and I think that Hitler comparisons to politicians are offensive, but when the hairdo fits…–Yes, I know what I just did there, I said comparisons like that are offensive and then I made that very comparison. You got me. You win. Trump isn’t Hitler, he’s more like McCarthy, but McCarthy wasn’t a presidential candidate and eventually flamed out when everyone realized he was full of shit.)
Germans know the reality of how these things happen and they know the lasting scars left on a national identity. I remember Maike talking to me about how a few American students were teasing her about Hitler while she was a student in the US. “I don’t know what to say. We know he was a bad man and he did very bad things,” she said nearly in tears. I tried to explain that most high school kids in the US only knew Germany as the place where Hitler killed Jews. Most Americans would never travel to Germany to see how it is today. In many American minds Germany would be forever stuck in 1944, and yet, every year when we read Night students would ask, “How could this happen?”
I was asked about Trump in Vienna, Bratislava, Prague, and Stockholm, but it was Budapest where it was hardest to explain. We were on a bike tour with a couple from Texas, a couple from England, two young Danish university students, and our guide who was born as Hungary was escaping from the Soviet grip that had held it since World War II.
I think it started when I teased the British couple about the BrExit and how their country’s vote had crashed the Euro and saved us lots of money on our trip. “I’m glad it helped you. Our whole country is a mess and you saved some money…” his frustration bubbled out.
“Weren’t the polls saying it wasn’t going to pass going into the vote?” I asked.
“Yes, and now people who voted for it are saying, ‘I only voted for it because I didn’t think it would pass.’” He went on to say that he had seen numerous interviews with people regretting their votes, and then he turned to me and said, “The same thing could happen to you.”
We all knew what he meant, and he was right. It could happen. The Danish girls wanted to know if we thought it could happen. I started to explain the Electoral College, but everyone at the table already understood how it worked which should make every American understand how important our elections are to the rest of the world because they know how our presidents are elected and I doubt a majority of Americans could explain the process. “It will come down to the swing states: Ohio, Florida, Iowa… I live in a blue state so my vote will only count a little for the president.”
“We live in Texas, a red state, but no one we know is a Trump supporter,” the guy from Texas said. “It’s like they won’t say it out loud, but somebody is voting for him. People don’t trust Hilary,” he shook his head, “and I don’t like her, but I can’t vote for Trump.”
Then our tour guide asked the real question, “How could this happen?” This question came from the young lady who had just guided us around her city showing us monuments from 60 years of Soviet oppression and the scars of WW II. People in Hungary didn’t vote for these events. These events happened to people who had no say in the “elections” of strong men in other countries. What she was really asking was, “Have you all lost your minds? Why would you choose this?”
How could it happen? It isn’t supposed to happen, is it? (Please excuse me while I get a little patriotically sappy.) The rest of the world does look to the US as beacon of freedom. Our elections influence the world. Who we choose for the next four years will not just be a choice for us; it is a choice for the rest of the world. Is this who we have become? Frightened, xenophobic, misogynistic?
Six months ago, I laughed off the possibility that we would elect someone like Donald Trump. I’m not laughing any longer, and I can’t really explain it. It makes no sense to me.