I moved to Eastern Europe two months before Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, and I relocated to the Twin Cities in September 2020. Plenty of jokes have been made about how I managed to “escape” nearly all of Trump’s presidency, and I’ve grown accustomed to chuckling uncomfortably while knowing that this isn’t really true. The Trump presidency impacted countless aspects of my four years living abroad and taught me several valuable lessons about how people overseas view America.
Plenty of people assumed that I supported Donald Trump simply because I was American, or immediately wanted to know “why so many people voted for him.” I was quick to dispel the notion that Trump represented all Americans, but as this assumption followed me around Europe I quickly learned how disheartening it is to be painted with such a broad brush. This made me reflect on the ways that we often still jump to conclusions about the beliefs or views that people hold just because they come from a certain culture or background - yes, even those who consider ourselves “woke” or justice-oriented. Though it soon became clear that Trump represented enough of us to send a strong message about the United States’ assumed values and priorities.
I met many people in Europe who were deeply troubled by Trump’s victory, fearful of its implications for people of color and also alarmed by Russia’s election interference. Others found the idea of Donald Trump as president of the United States downright absurd and questioned why we continue to use the electoral college system at all. Plenty of others clearly found him laughably inept. Countless variations of these sentiments accompanied me wherever I went for the next four years, and it was clear that the United States is no longer revered as a bastion of democracy and liberty the way many would have us believe.
Fast-forward to 2020 and people overseas have been even more baffled by the United States’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The overwhelming message seems to be awe at how a country like America, with abundant wealth and resources, could do such a poor job at keeping people from getting sick. No one is looking to the United States for guidance during this crisis, and the image of America as “the greatest country on earth” doesn’t really hold up when over 250,000 of our citizens have died from a disease that can be prevented by wearing a face mask.
Naturally, I also met people overseas who support Trump. It’s worth noting that few did so because of his economic policies, trade agreements, or rollbacks of climate protections. Instead, plenty drew comparisons between Trump’s barely-concealed racialized commentary on people of color and their views towards their own country’s ethnic minorities, which Americans on both sides of the aisle would deem undeniably racist. It’s clear which elements of Trump’s rhetoric are making an impact abroad and which are being totally disregarded.
Plenty of us have been told, by everyone from our history teachers to our presidents, that the United States is the greatest country in the world. But my time abroad has shown me that global opinions on America have drastically shifted in recent years, and not in a positive direction. A powerful country like the United States, with immense wealth and resources, unquestionably has enormous global influence.
Our policies have the ability to shape the international economy and greatly impact the climate crisis, but the rhetoric of our elected officials sends an immediate and palpable message about what qualities America values in her leaders. Take it from someone who spent four years being confronted with that message: if we want to continue exalting ourselves as a great country, it’s time we worked harder to earn that title.
Caroline Murphy | @tameorchids