The Trump Administration is many things: polarizing, impressively incompetent, and in my own experience, downright exhausting. I spent my summer in a newsroom in a caffeine–fueled daze, my entire existence consumed by our President’s seemingly daily scandals. I was sure that escaping to Milan was going to be a much–needed reprieve from the endless madness of American politics.
I was wrong. Negative stereotypes of loud, clueless American tourists are nothing new. As a quiet American named “Alessandro” who speaks some Italian, I’ve been able to avoid some disdain. However, Trump presents a new barrier—a wall, if you will—to the hearts of even the warmest Italians.
In conversation, my ability to blend in eventually erodes and I am revealed in all my Mets–cap donning, barbecue–loving American–ness. Afterwards, no one has ever been unpleasant to me, but there’s some apprehension until they hesitantly and delicately pop “the question.” After I emphatically reject the President, people open up. They raise a glass and express their profound relief and joy that I’m not “one of those Americans.”
While we in our “Penn bubble,” fear for the future, Italians are not afraid; they’re disappointed. In the nation that birthed fascism and in the city where Mussolini’s dead body was hung following an anti–fascist liberation, people remember the cost of far–right populism. Many people, my family included, fled Italy and other fascist states in search of a better life. Many came to the U.S. What happens in America matters, not just economically or geopolitically, but emotionally to real people across the world.
“So, what do you think of Trump?” I lost count of how many times I was asked this question in Sydney, Australia—at the dinner table, on the sidewalk, in my classes, you name it. Mostly it came in the three minutes after shaking hands with people I had just met, perhaps after the more conventional “How long are you studying in Sydney for?” or other less exciting, less scandalous questions they felt socially obligated to ask first.
Studying abroad made me acutely aware of the dominating presence that America has on the entire world. Even 11,000 miles away, something about my home country came up just about every single day. I became aware of the unexpected feeling of needing to be cautious about coming across as a typical “American.” It’s hard to know what that means and understand that it isn’t usually a compliment until you get some distance from the great U.S.A. But nothing came up as much as Donald Trump. Donald Trump is the current Cady Heron of the world, the hot topic discussed at the lockers or during PE. Every non–American person I met knew as much or more about American politics than I did, but I do not believe this was the case before the 2016 election. If it was, then it definitely revolved around more than just this one man.
I will never forget one dinner conversation I had on my third day in Sydney. A 19–year–old Australian guy sat down across from me at the dining hall table and introduced himself. Knowing I was American, he asked the classic question, “So, what do you think of Trump?” After expressing that I did not vote for him, my interrogator responded, “Okay, that’s all I had to know.” He then proceeded to conduct a normal–ish conversation as if I had just passed some type of conversation litmus test.
During my study abroad experience, it was impossible not to notice that the entire world was watching President Trump’s first few months in office, and that even all the way in the land down under, you can’t go down far enough to escape the gossip.
In the U.S., political views are a private thing: rude to talk about at work, and not what you first bring up at dinner. My first day in Israel, I was warned: Israelis don’t have boundaries. At workplaces, be prepared to be asked about family, money, religion, politics, or even why you would ever want to come to Israel—anything that seems intrusive and too personal is fair game. Everyone wants to know your experience and is definitely not afraid to share theirs.
Especially after his visit this past May, Trump was a common topic of conversation. I was unsure what to expect, because even though there is a right–winged government coalition, certain aspects of the culture align more closely with European values. Upon coming into Jerusalem, I was faced with signs reading “Trump Make Israel Great Again” when I had thought I had escaped them. Trump supporters prioritize strong Israeli–American relations and are extremely protective of Israel’s security, especially in the more conservative city of Jerusalem. On the other side, during a taxi ride in Tel Aviv, the driver went off on Trump’s comments and expressed his concerns, paying attention to Trump’s ego and body language. In Israel, political opinions vary, but one thing is for certain. No one is shy of them and they are eager to hear the American side of the story.
If I had a Danish kroner for every time a person mentioned Trump—well, I wouldn’t be rich given that a kroner doesn’t convert to a whole lot of USD, but I’d still have a substantial amount of money.
Bernie Sanders once called Copenhagen, Denmark a “socialist utopia.” And though that’s not true, it felt like a liberal millennial’s wet dream of a city. It was the perfect place to fulfill my promise of leaving the country when Trump won the election.
But did that mean I escaped the Trumpian era? As they say, “hell nej.”(Note: they don't say that. I suck at Danish.) Every professor, classmate, friend I had would make a jab whenever I said I was American. Hell, my leadership professor mentioned him at least twice a class, labelling him as the antithesis of years and years of leadership theory.
I was acutely aware of my position as an American. People of all different countries—Denmark, Australia, Spain, the list goes on—talked about how they watched the election from overseas. A Dane divulged, “America is kind of the pinnacle of Western society: once Trump won, it felt like the world was taking a step backwards.”
Going abroad at this particular point in history made me consider being an American past just being “loud, fat, gun–supporting.” If I was embarrassed by the negative American stereotype before, now I felt like I had to apologize every time I admitted my nationality. “We don’t subsist solely on hamburgers” turned into “We’re not just racist, xenophobic, sexist sheeple.” Sorry to be a self–important American, but going abroad made me realize that America is a torch–bearer of modern civilization. I love my country and I'm proud to be an American, really. But we need to do better: jarring as it may be, history has its eyes on us.