"Freedom is dialog," a political sticker in Sofia that I found relevant after experiencing the 2016 US election while traveling there. ©KettiWilhelm2016

“Apocalypto:” The 2016 US Election as Seen from Europe

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As an expat in Milan, I saw European reactions to Trump’s election first-hand. People were angry and shocked, but not always for the reasons I expected. (I also happened to be traveling in Bulgaria at the time, which gave me a strange double-perspective.) These are my notes from the field, after experiencing this shocking, historic moment in US politics from abroad.

It’s been a week since I woke up in Sofia, Bulgaria, to the news of a new president-elect back home.

During this week back in Milan, I’ve had lots of dinners with Italians (not because of the election but because in Italy, there are always lots of dinners to be had). So I’ve heard a lot of Italian opinions about Donald Trump’s election.

The homepage of the Italian Huffington Post last Wednesday morning just said, “Apocalypto.” That’s pretty dramatic, but I really do understand the sentiment.

Despite the headline, I haven’t talked to many Italians who think this is the apocalypse. Although most of them do think it’s a really stupid choice we’ve made. And a lot of them joke about it, but the most common sentiment I’ve heard is this: We didn’t expect this from America.

Trump, Berlusconi & Italian Reactions to the Election

People here in Italy are used to putting up with their own joker politicians, but they know that Italy’s international power pales in comparison to the United States’. People tell me this openly. The sentiment is that we are way too powerful to make a decision this brash.

Here, Trump looks like another Berlusconi – the conservative, super-wealthy business man who owns lots of media outlets. He spoke to the common people and got elected prime minister despite being notoriously corrupt and known for hiring underage prostitutes who should be in high school. Yeah. That guy.

Everyone here has been pointing out the similarities to me, not only since the election, but ever since I arrived in Italy in September. There is even a trumpusconi.com.* (From the About page: “This website started as kind of a joke. It is less funny every week.”)

*2019 Note:

The site was live for months after the election, but upon re-checking it in October 2019, had been taken down. Still, if you search “trumpusconi” you’ll find lots of articles written before the election, from Politico to the New York Times, that detail the similarities. After the election, I guess journalists had bigger fish to fry.

Another comment I’ve heard often is, “Don’t worry, it’s only four years. Or eight.” But not 20.

Because Italians dealt with Berlusconi for almost 20 years before he was finally brought down a notch for not paying his taxes (just like Al Capone). But he’s still around, 80 years old and leading a major political party after doing his assigned community service time.

The Morning After: Bulgarian Reactions

My boyfriend and I were in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia for no particular reason when we woke up to the news last Wednesday. We were just there to travel for a couple of days, see the sites. I hadn’t imagined that this election would make me feel so personally violated and depressed and want nothing to do with exploring a drab, unknown city.

We read the news, cried, looked out the window to see if the world had ended, and drug ourselves out of our crappy hostel and onto the gray, rainy, even-more-graffitti-covered-than-Milan streets of Sofia. It wasn’t a very fair introduction to this country neither of us had visited before. 

We found a corner cafe that smelled of fresh bread. The waitress asked us where we were from. “Oh, Italy?” she said with a smile to my boyfriend, “That’s nice.”

“And I’m from America,” I added sheepishly. (Why did I say that? I always say “the United States,” because, as everyone in Latin America knows, “America” is actually two continents, not one country. I think I just wanted the moment to be over faster.)

She looked surprised (maybe just surprised that I would admit that today) but also sort of blank and expressionless. She stared at me, said absolutely nothing, finished setting our table, and walked away.

To Bulgarians, Trump probably looks like their own anti-immigration, pro-Russia president-elect. Based on her evil-eye, I doubt our waitress voted for the Bulgarian Trump.

Traveling Under the Weight of US Politics

And so it begins. I fear I will soon understand what lots of travelers have told me about traveling during the Bush years: They felt embarrassed to be Americans abroad. Constantly explaining that they didn’t support the ignorant buffoon in office. Because people in other countries often asked, and not often because they liked him.

In Guatemala in 2010, a common response when I told people I was from the US was, “America? OBAMA!” Accompanied by a thumbs up or a big grin. The same thing has happened in at least a dozen countries I’ve visited since then. I’ve concluded two things:

  1. Everyone loves when we elect intelligent, thoughtful, inoffensive leaders. And,                                                                          
  2. Electing a leader for the United States and saying, “This only affects us,” is like farting in a crowded elevator and saying, “The only thing that’s changed is that I’m more comfortable now.” And then following it with indignation: “Hey, why do these people hate me? Oh, it must be because they’re Muslim, or communist, or don’t like freedom, or it’s part of their culture to be hateful.”

We don’t have the luxury of electing bad leaders and being left alone about it. I know this because I live in one of those places that is not in the US, and people here care about what we do.

Found in a park in Sofia. ©KettiWilhelm2016

Constant Questions  

People I meet abroad have been asking me about the upcoming election since last summer – meaning the summer of 2015.

Can you vote from here?

Who will you vote for?

You don’t think Trump will win, do you?

Questions come from travelers in hostels, my boyfriend’s aunts and uncles and friends, the bartender at the café where I go for an espresso every morning.

Even from the security screener at the airport in Milan when we were flying to Bulgaria on Election Day. I walked through the metal detector with my passport in hand. The security guy took it from me, looked at it only long enough to be reasonably sure it wasn’t a bomb. Then he looked straight into my eyes and asked very slowly and with great concern, “You don’t vote today?”

Everyone asks.

On the World Stage

And I don’t tell people to mind their own business when they ask whether I voted. Because US policy is everyone’s business, whether we like it or not. It’s a fact I used to deny, because I don’t like the imperialist history that caused it to be true. But the US is a superpower, for better or worse:

  • We invade countries.
  • We export movies, books, music, ideas, products and other pop-culture that’s voraciously consumed all around the world.
  • And we create global policies on trade and migration that affect everyone.

And when a superpower elects a leader who shows no respect for human rights (black/women’s/gay/immigrant etc.), we give politicians in Syria, China, Brazil and beyond permission to not care about human rights either.

When we elect a leader who doesn’t pay his taxes, we tell countries like Italy, with its notoriously mafia-inbred, tax-evading politicians, yeah, we don’t think integrity is important either.

When we elect a leader who doesn’t want to fight climate change, we tell countries like China, yeah, we don’t really care about pollution either.

And to top it all off, we’ve elected someone who blatantly says that my right to not be touched if I don’t want to be is less important than his sexual desire. I don’t think I know a lot of men in the States who agree with that attitude, but I have encountered a few of them. (As a fellow Montana blogger friend of mine describes so well.)

Whether that slimy, self-entitled view of masculinity represents the majority of US men simply doesn’t matter anymore. What now matters abroad is we just told Saudi Arabia, yeah, we don’t think women have rights either.

Sure, not every country is going to follow the worst of our examples. But we’re no longer giving them any reason not to.

Just some street in Sofia. ©KettiWilhelm2016

Explaining the Electoral College in Europe

So I don’t tell people to mind their own business when they comment on US politics. What I do tell people is that more people voted for Clinton than for Trump. I’d rather people think we’re ridiculous for having an antiquated system for electing the president than think my people are all a bunch of neo-Nazis, like some of Trump’s loudest supporters. I live in Europe. Actual Nazism was only a generation away here.

(Trump acts like disavowing endorsements from these people puts him in the clear. But his endorsements are a reflection of his philosophy, whether he disavows them or not. Doing things neo-Nazis like, then saying you don’t want neo-Nazis to like you is meaningless.)

And I understand some of the non-Nazi reasons why some people wanted change this election. But here’s the thing: The rest of the world doesn’t care.

The rain finally let up in Sofia, if only briefly.

Advice from People Who’ve Been Here Before

Still, it constantly surprises me how many people in Italy tell me they would love to go to America – to live, to work, or just to see it. And how many people tell me, don’t worry, it’ll all be okay. From what I hear, people here have this calm perspective that says, we will all get through this, whatever this is. Even when people at home seem to be losing their minds, for one reason or another.

So I’m going to try to stay calm over here as well. I’m going to pay attention to politics and read news written by real journalists, editors and fact-checkers. And I’ll continue to be like the majority of Americans: Not a Nazi, a sexist, an extremist, a xenophobe, or a bigot of any sort.

And, as the often-brilliant Saturday Night Live reminded me, I won’t give up:

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  1. Hi Ketti,
    Just read your blog for the first time and you are an amazing writer and photographer. As I prepare to set off on my around the world trip I look forward to reading and following your blog. I too find myself embarrassed by our country at this time and wonder how that will affect my reactions as I meet new people in other parts of the world. It still does not seem real to me. I keep hoping I will wake up and it will have been a bad dream. May we continue ways to promote love, justice and peace in our lives and our world. Keep up the good work! We need it. I look forward to following your blog. I’ll send you mine in an email.