When I began this blog, I made a promise to myself that I would keep it positive. I don’t mean to be pollyanna; I just want to focus on the good stuff. Believe me, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the negative when you move to a new country and leave behind your family, friends, language, home, most of your worldly possessions, and a 25-year career. Keeping my posts humorous and informative helps me appreciate the opportunities and weather the rough times. But I’m going to take a break from my “regular programming” for a moment, because I feel that as a responsible citizen, I must address the overseas impact of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Like most Europeans and half of Americans back home, Matthew and I went to bed Tuesday night hoping for the best. But of course, Wednesday morning we awoke to the unthinkable: a president who, to paraphrase various news articles on this side of the pond, is considered to be “a profound embarrassment; an ignorant, racist blowhard with zero political experience or qualifications.” No one believed it could happen, but it did. And just like in the U.S., the backlash here in Oslo was intense and uncomfortable, although non-violent.
That first day, my neighborhood felt like the stage set for The Walking Dead. People wandered around in a daze, looking as if they’d had the crap kicked out of them. As soon as I’d open my mouth anywhere in public (revealing by my accent that I’m American), I’d become the center of a confused, anxious mob. Norwegians would cluster ’round, questioning: “How could this happen?,” “How could you elect such an idiot as president?,” “What is wrong with Americans that they could approve of such a racist misogynist to lead the nation?”
Sometimes it became downright scary. While on the train, we had groups of young men yell at us, “Fascist Americans go home!” and “World War III — America will bring about World War III!” It reminded me of the 2000 election, when Matthew and I were traveling in England. Everywhere we went, Brits besieged us, questioning American intelligence in electing Bush over Gore. On one memorable occasion, we even had food thrown at us in a tearoom. Not one of our most enjoyable travel moments.
Now, as back then (when given the chance), we tried to explain the American voting system and that both Bush and Trump had won by virtue of electoral votes, not popular votes. Still, the narrow margins speak for themselves: almost half the country apparently feels comfortable with a president who is backed by the KKK, white supremacists, and misogynist Twitter groups using the hashtags #NextFakeTrumpVictim and #RepealThe19th” (the right to vote for women.)
Such blatant backwards thinking is shocking for liberal-minded Scandinavians. Many Norwegians said things like, “We looked to America for reason, for fairness, for a model of how things should be. No longer.” And many noted that, “We have our own problems with populism as a reaction to immigration here in Europe. But how can America be so hardline about immigration? It’s a nation made up almost entirely of immigrants! That’s why people go there. Because as an immigrant, they have the chance for the American Dream.”
Beyond America’s rampant xenophobia, Europeans find it laughable and more than a little sad that almost half the country apparently believes that Trump — a businessman whose standard operating procedures include not paying contractors at the end of his projects, declaring bankruptcy to avoid financial obligations, and suing his partners — will somehow be able to put the country back on track financially and is a trustworthy advocate “for the little guy.”
In short, Europeans are befuddled by Americans of low socio-economic status. They ask, “How can the poor and underprivileged object to current governmental policies that benefit them, such as nationalized healthcare? How can they collect food stamps, disability, and social security while voting against the taxes that make those programs possible?” Which simply then reinforces the need for government-supported higher education in the U.S. Clearly, folks are not being taught vital critical thinking skills that help them understand how government works. They’re still convinced that they’ll be part of the top 1% of the nation who benefits by a tax break.
It’s all a bit mystifying for everyone on this side of the Atlantic. But then again, the Continent has been through this before. Europeans know what can happen when financial recovery is slow, cultural boundaries are in flux, demographics shift, and the disenfranchised look for both a scapegoat and a savior. That’s how Hitler came to power in Germany, and even Germans note his rhetoric was eerily similar to Trump’s. He promised to make the nation great again by getting rid of immigrants (Jews and other undesirables) that were stealing jobs and endangering good citizens. And like Hitler, Trump is known for uncouth behavior and bombastic rants that ramp up fear in the uneducated masses.
It’s Trump’s irrational, childishly vindictive and explosive personality, combined with his accessibility to the “launch” button on warfare, that scares Europe most. In Norway, as in many other countries within spitting distance of Russia, folks are worried about Trump’s love affair with Putin, especially given Russia’s recent expansionist tactics in the Ukraine. The day after the election, the newspapers here were filled with anxiety and speculation about Trump’s potential actions regarding NATO and wondered how he would respond if Russia were to advance on any of its Scandinavian or Eastern European neighbors.
In conversations with Norwegians, most hope that governmental checks and balances will keep Trump in line and his policies at least marginally constitutional. Although with Republicans ruling both the House and Senate, many have their doubts. And several folks expressed the belief (fond wish?) that Trump “is just a nasty frat boy who wanted to win the popularity contest. Now that actual hard work is involved, he’ll get bored and bow out within a year, then cooler more intelligent heads will prevail.”
But my fear is that in whipping up the fearful masses to gain power, neither Trump nor his party will be able to harness the dragon they’ve unleashed. As we’ve seen, the inappropriate racist and sexist behavior is escalating out of control. When performers at Second City in Chicago (the training ground for irreverent Saturday Night Live performers) quit the institution because they were uncomfortable with the racist, sexist slurs that audience members now feel comfortable shouting out at the stage, you know it’s bad.
One of my colleagues at work supported Trump because she felt “He’s just sayin’ what we’re all thinking. He’s just speakin’ the truth.” Well if that’s how 47% of Americans think, maybe there’s no place for me in America anymore. I have to take solace in statistics, which say that only 58% of the voting-age population actually voted, so maybe there’s some hope for decency among the politically inactive. Otherwise, living the immigrant experience here in Oslo might become a permanent situation for me. Like many Europeans, I worry that the U.S. is headed for a race war and a class war, which I hope doesn’t evolve into a civil war and a world war.
But I’d say America is basically is getting what we deserve. After all, we’ve made big business out of reality-TV shows, Twitter feeds, and other social media platforms that encourage people to bully others, say outrageous things, and spread hateful lies without an ounce of fact behind them. All for the sake of entertainment, as an acceptable means for becoming popular, increasing viewer ratings, getting “liked,” and “trending.” The scary part is that now we’ve elected the poster child for bad behavior, not only because he spews the ignorance and hate that we all seem to find so entertaining — but also apparently because such dark matter is actually at the heart of half the nation.
Just a few words of caution for those who voted this president, and thereby supported his message of hate. Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it. Are you sure you want to live in a country full of spite, where people slander and label others so that only those in the “in crowd” have access to certain resources? History shows us those lies and labels eventually get turned on the haters. That “in crowd” gets smaller and smaller, until one day, the haters discover that they themselves are no longer eligible for certain rights and opportunities afforded to others. And they may even find themselves in the line of fire. Just ask the French Revolutionaries, or the Russian Proletariat, or the Nazi Party Members.
And for those of us who don’t agree with messages of hate. Let others know that such language is unacceptable and inappropriate. That in the U.S., freedom and the right to live your life in peace is unconditional, not based on color, creed, religion, gender, or sexual persuasion. To reframe the national safety message: if you see something, say something. If you see someone harassing others, or hear someone saying racist or sexist things, tell them #ItsNotOkay. Do this peacefully, not violently, or you risk becoming like them. Refresh their memories regarding the language that our country is built on:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that ALL MEN [and women, as of the 19th Amendment] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”