In the period of fifteen minutes this summer, while walking around the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, I witnessed two things which perfectly showed just how much who is president can impact how it feels to travel as an American. The first was a tour guide who pointed to a nearby hotel and said, “Obama stayed there last month when he was here.” Instantly 20 people in his group started taking pictures of the building that, up until that moment, they had had no interest in.
Fifteen minutes later, while walking by a curry bratwurst stand (a must try if you go), a man was handing a woman her food and realized she was American. He asked her what she thought of Trump. “Fuck him, and I mean that!” she said. The man laughed and several people around her lightly clapped or nodded their heads. Trump is the 4th US president I’ve traveled under, and I can attest that each one generated a different reaction to how people felt about America and sometimes even how they reacted to me as an American.
Bill Clinton was president and two US embassies in Sub-Saharan Africa had just been bombed the first time I left America in the summer of ’98. As it turned out, I was headed to that part of the world. The bombings, our retaliatory strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan, along with the Monika Lewinski soap opera, the US-led NATO bombings in Serbia, and Clinton ordering an attack on Iraq (…the US bombs a lot of countries, btw) all impacted how America was seen.
There was sympathy after the bombings, accusations we’d killed innocent people in the Sudan, confusion about why our entire country was so fixated on a sex scandal, suspicion that Clinton attacked Iraq to distract from it, and appreciation that the US put a quick end to the ethnic cleansing going on in Kosovo. In short, there was a mixed bag of feelings towards the US, but no one doubted that the US was the most powerful country in the world and that it was the clear and undisputed leader of the world, free or otherwise. The US was especially popular in Southern Africa while I was there thanks to Clinton recently becoming the first sitting president to visit the region. I guess it says a lot about how a country is viewed if a simple visit from our president can engender positive feelings towards it.
Bush was a whole other ball of wax. I traveled several times while he was president and even moved to Korea toward the end of his presidency. Bush started out simply being an embarrassment as many people around the world saw what I did: a person who was not particularly bright or well-versed in world affairs. The embarrassment only grew as a he squandered the good will the world showed us after 9/11 by insisting on fighting an unnecessary war in a country that had nothing to do with the attacks and for reasons that turned out to be untrue – if not made up. The US went from just having someone not well-respected as a leader by many people I met abroad, to being viewed as a threat to peace and stability. Traveling under Bush left me and many other Americans feeling like we were on an apology tour and that the best thing we could do for America’s reputation was to make it clear not all Americans supported Bush’s actions. The increased threat from terrorists and the low standing America had in many Europeans’ eyes caused more than a few Americans I met to say they would not dare put a US flag on their backpack, like every single Canadian does with theirs. For the record, I’ve never been the type to put flags on my pack, so this was never an issue for me.
Ironically enough, given my political leanings, the only time I’ve ever considered lying about my nationality while traveling happened under Obama. I was in Kashmir, a volatile and disputed region of India, when Israel was bombing Gaza back in 2013. The portion of Kashmir I was in was predominantly Muslim and many high school boys took to the streets to protest Israel and its biggest supporter, America. A couple of friends and I got caught in the middle of the protest, and I immediately decided if anyone in that crowed asked where I was from, I most definitely would not have said America out of fear for my safety, if not my life. Turned out to be a prudent decision since the protests did in fact turn deadly the day after we left town.
I was overseas for nearly all of Obama’s presidency and can say the overall attitude towards his election was excitement and he was regarded with much admiration and respect for all the ways he contrasted Bush. In the expat community in Seoul, South Korea, the night he was elected was an international celebration with young Koreans and people from Western Countries congratulating any American they encountered. People would say things like, “I wish we had a president like Obama.” Something I never heard said while Bush was president. Older Koreans seemed fairly ambivalent, if not worried about him, but children in Korea embraced him wholeheartedly. Dozens of students in my friends’ English classes were changing their English names to Obama. His name and image was instantly on all kinds of merchandise ranging from T-shirts to whiskey in many countries in SE Asia and people from all over were buying them up. The excitement of him being president did fade over the years, but the respect people had for his style of leadership, and the dignity that he and his family always exuded never did.
While in Europe this summer, America’s new president was a popular topic of conversation, like it had been with Obama and Bush. Still, the overall reaction I received from everyone I spoke with was a kind of sympathy. Perhaps because of my age, skin color and the fact that the Americans who tend to travel the most are often on the liberal side of the spectrum, most Europeans correctly guessed I wasn’t a fan of his. They were confused and concerned about how he was able to win and many seemed to be hoping I’d be able to explain it to them. I couldn’t. I’m still as bewildered as anyone about this man’s election.
However, and just like when Bush was president, being abroad proved reassuring in the face of the political insanity going on back home. While here in America I have to constantly deal with the Trump apologists who insist racism, bigotry, xenophobia and sexism had no role in his election. In Europe, however that’s not how any of the people I met saw it. One of the reasons I’m so fond of travel is because for people outside the US, its racism – which is culturally embedded – is easily seen. Meanwhile, many Americans struggle to acknowledge its existence, even in the wake of Trump. I think that’s why I didn’t encounter anger about Trump, just sympathy as he has exposed just how deep our issues go and what many people have to put up with while living here. For the Trump supporters out there who keep looking for someone to blame for what’s wrong with America, be it the poor, minorities, immigrants, Muslims, gays, whatever, I promise you that in large segments of the world, they see what’s keeping America from being great, and it’s not the “others.”
When people asked me how bad things are at home, I explained it like this: We are a divided nation. We are so divided that I don’t have confidence we can unite in the face of disaster or a terrorist attack. On 9/11, I wanted to see President Bush. I wanted to hear from him. I wanted to have him reassure me, and in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, he did just that. If something like that happened today, Trump is the last person I’d want to hear from, and I don’t think I’m alone.
None of this is to say Trump is universally despised. According to my Serbian friend, who I first met several years ago when I was traveling through there, he’s quite popular there. However, the country did just elect a far-right government whose base of support is older people living in rural areas. Sound familiar? And the first time I went there, they threw the largest military parade in 60 years for Vladimir Putin, who was visiting, so maybe that makes sense.