Viewing Trump's Mess from Abroad

by Neil H. Buchanan

The rest of the world has been looking on with a combination of bemusement and horror as Donald Trump has made the transition from cartoonish reality-TV star to even more cartoonish American president.  By all accounts, Trump has managed to fascinate people around the world, although not in a good way.

As it happens, this is the last day of my most recent visit to Australia.  I was invited to be a research fellow at the Business School of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, where I have been living for the last six weeks.  Plans for this visit began to take shape last summer, when nobody thought that Trump would be president.

The timing of this worked out such that I left the U.S. on January 9, eleven days before President Obama's term ended.  The insanity of the presidential transition had not yet given way to the utter chaos of the Trump presidency.  Although I have been following the news in the same ways that I would if I had stayed home, my physical absence from the U.S. as well as daily interactions with non-Americans have given me a unique perspective regarding what has been happening.

In my time here, I have thought often about an underappreciated 1959 movie called "On the Beach," which starred Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire.  Based on a Nevil Shute novel, the film is set five years in the future (1964), shortly after nuclear war has broken out between the U.S. and the USSR.  Peck is the commander of an American submarine that happens to have been stationed off the coast of Melbourne when the war broke out.

The movie thus shows people in Australia who know that they are doomed.  They know from reports (and the subsequent lack of response to attempts to communicate) that the nuclear holocaust has apparently killed everyone in the northern hemisphere.  Now, they are simply trying to live everyday life as normally as possible, knowing that they have at most several months to live before radiation poisoning makes its way into the air in the southern hemisphere.

The movie itself is quite interesting, but the reason I have been thinking so frequently about it during this trip to Australia is probably obvious.  Millions of people living on this island continent are waking up each day keenly aware that their fate is not in their hands, and they wonder whether the unhinged new American leader will mishandle relations with other powerful countries -- not just Russia but also China, which is even more important to Australia in terms of immediate political and social matters -- in a way that dooms Australians.

One way in which the Trump Effect could affect Australia is by warping domestic politics here.  There are Trump-esque nativist politicians who (like the leaders of right-wing populist movements across Europe) would love to create their own bigoted electoral wave to take over national politics.

At this point, however, indications are that this is unlikely.  Although Australia has certainly elected right-wing governments in recent years, and the country is dealing quite badly with a refugee crisis, the people here are mostly appalled by what Trump has been doing.

This was true even before the truly weird moment earlier this month when Trump decided to insult the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.  This had the odd effect of making a very unpopular conservative prime minister a momentary hero, but it was even more troubling because Trump was obviously ignorant of how close and loyal an ally Australia has been to the U.S.

I was thus in the unexpected position of being in a foreign country that I would have thought should be completely "safe" in the sense of being a place where Americans would not be viewed with animosity.  Yet Trump managed to make Australians wonder whether the U.S. is still a reliable ally.

On my most recent trip to this side of the globe, I spent three weeks last May traveling in Australia and New Zealand, giving talks at universities in which I analyzed the U.S. election.  Only a day or two after I arrived, Trump had nailed down the Republican nomination, so the conversation was turning toward the contest between Trump and Hillary Clinton.  Now, we are on the other side of that unexpected outcome.

I have a strong aversion to what might be called taxicab sociology, in which an American writes a column based on a conversation with his taxi driver during a trip from a foreign airport to a luxury hotel.  It is far too easy to use one conversation as a vehicle to make a point that the American wishes to make, and the "local knowledge" provided by the cab driver is often suspiciously convenient.  For New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, that style of writing has unintentionally become self-parody.

Not wanting to go down that path, I decided that it is essential to observe local responses here and only to take seriously any patterns that are unmistakable, not one-off conversations.  This is especially important in my situation, because of course the non-service workers whom I meet tend to be academics, whose political views might be unrepresentative of the country as a whole.

On the other hand, because Australia's population is highly urbanized (with something like half of the population living in just the three largest cities), it is less likely here than in the U.S. that staying in the cities would give one a misleading sense of people's attitudes overall.

Two things have jumped out at me during this trip and the one last May.  First, Aussies and Kiwis avidly keep up with U.S. politics in a way that I would never have expected.  And it is not just people who come to public lectures by American professors who are paying attention.  Local memes have emerged here based on Trump that are every bit as savvy as one would see in the U.S. (perhaps even more so).

For example, an All About Women festival in Sydney is being advertised with a poster of a cat pawing at two balls, with the catchphrase "I grab back."  Similarly, a restaurant owner wrote on his chalkboard: "Drinking beer on a hot day lowers your body temperature by up to 5 degrees!! #alternativefacts."

A nearby pub has a poster on a wall that looks like a shooting range target, with Trump's face drawn over it.  (As an aside, I confess that I felt the need to delete a photo that I took of that poster from my iPhone, because it is unclear what is going on at border checkpoints in the U.S. these days.  Ironic humor is probably a bad idea.)

The mockery of the new American president is visible everywhere, which brings me to the second pattern that I have noticed during my time here.  When I am interacting with anyone, the conversation goes something like this:

-- Aussie person: Sounds like you're from the States.  Where are you from?

-- Me: Yes, I'm visiting for a few weeks.  I'm from Washington, D.C.

-- Aussie person: Ah.  [Long, somewhat uncomfortable pause.]

-- Me: I have to say, I'm happy to be here these days.

-- Aussie person: Oh, thank god you said that!  It's insane, isn't it?

The conversation then involves the Australian excitedly telling me things about Trump that are especially egregious.  A few weeks ago, for example, one person said, "Did you hear that they shut down the Spanish-language version of the White House's website?  That's just petty."

Again, some of these conversations are with service workers.  Although workers here are not dependent on tips, there is a politeness that pushes against making a guest feel uncomfortable.  Therefore, I have asked some people what they would have said if I had indicated any pro-Trump sentiments.  To a person, they told me that they would have smiled and changed the subject.

Two women in a high-end store (who, if they lived in the U.S., would by age, race, and economic class be relatively likely to be Republicans) said that some Americans had been in the shop that morning talking about how excited they are that Trump is in office.  One of the Australian women said to me (while the other nodded), "What are they thinking?"

In fact, the only person I met here who is pro-Trump was a young American woman who is working in Australia for six months.  She told me that she had grown up in a red suburb of D.C., and she looked very uncomfortable when I said something suggesting that I was not a Trump fan.

I emphasize that this is not rigorous science, and I do not claim that it is.  What I find interesting, however, is the universality of the reactions to Trump.  Everyone with whom I have spoken seems to be fairly bursting to talk about what has gone wrong in America, and as soon as they discover that they are talking to someone who will not defend Trump, the floodgates open.  It is a friendly kind of conversation -- "Are things really as crazy as they look?" -- but it is unmistakably serious and sincere.

It is also completely understandable.  The future of Australia (and the world) continues to be profoundly dependent on what happens in the U.S.  If we go to war, they will probably again join us as an ally.  Either way, they know that they cannot control the things that could most affect them.

What seems most mysterious to them is that Americans did not prevent this from happening.  Many of us are just as mystified.