Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP
The woman, a retired schoolteacher from San Diego, was sitting with a friend in an almost empty restaurant in Civitavecchia, a seaside town not far from Rome. She had recently left a Mediterranean cruise, a ship full of Australians and Europeans, and was happy to discover that the only other couple in the dining room that evening was American.
“At least,” she said, “I don’t have to defend Donald Trump to you.”
You’re looking forward to your trip to Europe this summer. Thanks to an improving American economy, foreign travel by Americans is projected to increase almost 6 percent in 2016, in the face of fears about overbooked flights, terrorist attacks and exotic viruses. But those are familiar worries. The new and worrisome risk with traveling abroad in 2016 is being asked about Donald Trump. His suspicion of foreigners is matched by their fascination with him. Whatever your own feelings about him, you will likely find yourself on the defensive.
At least since Charles Dickens visited the U.S. in 1842, Europeans have been amused, baffled and even frightened by American politics — a realm, Dickens wrote, of “despicable trickery at elections, under-handed tamperings with public officers, cowardly attacks upon opponents” and other deplorable behaviors that fill an entire chapter of “American Notes.” It’s a shame the author lived in a different century than Donald Trump, who was recently called “a great Dickensian character” by no less a literary and political critic than Sylvester Stallone. Dickens could have paid off all his debts by filling the insatiable European demand for Trumpiana.
“On the whole, the Trump phenomenon is getting equal attention in the U.K. as in the U.S., if not more,” says Matthew Reading-Smith, 29, a native of Michigan who has been living and working in London for five years and was back home last over Thanksgiving. “Wherever I am, whenever someone notices my American accent, they ask me about Donald. I’m being asked to justify the country I come from.” Trump, he says, “strikes fear into the liberal values of Europe” and threatens, in the minds of Europeans, the special trans-Atlantic relationship that has been a cornerstone of the international order for decades.
“Even Republicans,” says Cathal Gilbert, 35, an Irish citizen who works in international human rights in London. “And I do know a few who work in human rights, even they are appalled. They bury their faces in the salad bowl if I dare bring him up.” To understand the Trump phenomenon, Gilbert says, he went on YouTube for a few hours to watch his speeches. “When you listen to him, he makes a certain amount of sense to the audience he’s talking to. It’s not cogent, but it’s compelling.”
“For a long time, I had it easy,” says Tor Hodenfield, a 28-year-old Brooklyn native who has lived in Africa and in Switzerland and is now a graduate student at University College London. “I was an American, I was representing Barack Obama, everything was cool. Since Trump came on the scene, all that’s changed.” In fact, Obama himself has this problem, telling reporters last week, “I am getting questions constantly from foreign leaders about some of the wackier suggestions that are being made” by Trump, and also his rival Sen. Ted Cruz, whom Obama described as “just as Draconian when it comes to immigration.” (Hillary Clinton said last month that she has been asked by the leaders of other countries whether they can endorse her to stop Trump. She hasn’t identified the countries.)
There are no easy answers here. You might have to change tables once or twice during your cruise, or affect a British or Australian accent (best not to try this around Brits or Australians, obviously), or simply throw up your hands, as the San Diego woman did, and say, “Don’t look at me; I don’t get it either.” But as a public service, Yahoo News has a few suggestions for how to deflect questions — earnest, puzzled, well-intentioned or hostile — from citizens of other countries where candidates don’t seek office by boasting about their sexual endowments.
“So’s your old man.” This won’t actually win any arguments, but it can at least change the subject, and there’s some satisfaction in pointing out that Trump’s eccentricities are not without precedent in Europe. Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media mogul who was off-and-on prime minister of Italy between 1994 and 2011, was also given to extravagant displays of bad taste and sexual braggadocio. England wrote the book on this kind of ruler, admittedly in the 16th century, with King Henry VIII — if you think Trump is hard on women, at least he hasn’t beheaded any of his wives. More seriously, the last few years have seen an upsurge in support for various nativist, nationalist, anti-immigrant parties in Western Europe, notably Marine Le Pen’s National Front, in France, and the United Kingdom Independence Party, which is pushing for Britain to leave the European Union, attracting “the same kind of Anglo-Saxon ethnic pride” that Trump is tapping into, says Reading-Smith.
“Ever hear of Bernie Sanders?” Hodenfield likes to use this when he’s cornered on the subject of Trump, invoking the democratic socialist senator whose platform of universal health care and free college should win accolades from Western Europeans. The problem is, most of them have not heard of Sanders, whereas Trump is an all-pervasive presence in most European media. “My landlady’s Polish housekeeper barely speaks English,” Hodenfield says. “I doubt she knows who Hillary Clinton is — but she knows all about Trump.”
“It’s all a put-up job.” Reading-Smith says he has tried to plant the idea that the Trump candidacy is actually a stealth operation to elect a Democrat by sabotaging the Republican Party with an unelectable candidate. Early on, a few Republicans said the same thing, semiseriously. Reading-Smith means it as a joke, of course. But no one is laughing now.