When I was interviewing for the fellowship that originally brought me to Germany nearly four years ago, one of my interviewers asked why I wanted to leave my job as a political reporter in Washington, DC, to spend a year abroad. “I hope it’s not because you want to get away from Trump,” she said. “Because that won’t happen in Germany.”
It was late February 2017, barely a month after President Trump took up residence at the White House. Working then as an online reporter for CBS News, my job was to document every minute development: Every poll, every mini-scandal and especially every tweet became its own separate story on our website. From lies about inauguration crowd sizes to the ban on travel from a handful of Muslim-majority countries to early-morning tweets of baseless claims about Obama administration wiretapping, every day brought a seemingly endless stream of scandal, outrage and chaos.
Answering that question about my motivations, I demurred, saying that no, I wasn’t trying to escape Trump. In fact, I wanted to write about the rise of Europe’s right-wing populist parties, which felt like a continuation of my beat in Washington rather than a break from it. Still, I remember thinking my interviewer must have been mistaken, that surely moving to Germany would provide at least a modicum of distance between me and the political hurricane that had descended upon Washington: How bad could it be compared with the way things are here?
Looking back on the last three and a half years, I can see what she meant. They have indeed been different because I no longer have to write about every tweet (and, with the time difference, the tweets start closer to lunchtime)—but moving to Germany definitely doesn’t allow one to escape or tune out Trump, not even close. The day-to-day details of the president’s antics in Washington appear in German media almost constantly, to the point that one barely needs to follow the US press to keep up; waking up to the barrage of news from the previous evening in the United States can be jarring and disorienting, and to a certain extent unavoidable.
For an American, of course, there’s an added layer to this debate in Germany. Being a US citizen abroad in the Trump era—and in particular, an ex-US political reporter—often means being someone’s primary or even sole connection to American politics. As a result, you’re therefore a perpetual explainer of why things are the way they are—even if you yourself don’t always have a good answer—as well as a real, live person on which people can project their confusion over and feelings about America.
This year’s presidential election is the first in my adult life I haven’t covered. I didn’t drive countless miles through Iowa during the primaries or sit hunched over my laptop in a debate filing room, and I won’t spend a frenzied, adrenaline- and caffeine-filled election night working in a newsroom.
But living outside the US for nearly all of the Trump presidency after covering the election that put him there has given me a different political education entirely. My interactions with Germans and other Europeans over the last three and a half years have told the story of the world’s fascination with and bewilderment by Trump, and the extent to which trust in America and its image—because of and also beyond the president—have been badly damaged.
In summer 2017, when I first arrived in Germany, people seemed fairly united in their dislike of Trump, as did the media here. There was a sense this was some kind of aberration, and as a result people wanted to ask me and my American colleagues how such a thing could happen. At the time, though, German officials seemed to be effectively in denial of the effect Trump would have on the transatlantic relationship and America’s role in the world: Several hopefully told us the tweets and campaign rhetoric hadn’t yet turned into tangible policy, and that there was no way Washington would actually abandon its global responsibilities.
As time went on, however, the previously deep well of goodwill for the US began to run perilously low. Starting in mid-2018—probably around the time Trump’s ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, stormed onto the scene in Berlin—German officials’ hopeful denial of the new transatlantic reality was over. Many were aghast at a string of decisions they saw as incomprehensible: To leave the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accords; install the firebrand John Bolton as national security adviser; announce and reverse last-minute troop withdrawals in the Middle East. As a result, politicians and foreign policy officials told me they needed to adjust for the fact they could no longer count on the US—a dynamic that even if Joe Biden were to win next week won’t simply go away.
Although perhaps not so stark, these shifts have also played out in my conversations on a personal level. Throughout many discussions about the ins and outs of American politics, and the questions about how a man like Trump could be elected president, I’ve felt there was an implicit understanding that I wasn’t responsible for what was happening in my home country. Unlike in the Bush years, when Americans abroad were often the target of ire from Europeans angered by the Iraq War, what I took away from my interactions with politicians and friends alike was closer to a sense of commiseration: More of a “we’re sorry this is happening to your country” than recrimination for the man elected to lead it.
This year has intensified those shifts even further. Between the American handling of the pandemic and mass protests for racial justice across the country, 2020 has brought a new tone to the way people talk to me about my home. As one writer for The Atlantic described it this summer, the events evoked a novel sensation among America-watchers around the world: pity.
Fittingly, my experiences with far-right voters and politicians have been an exception to these trends. In the early days of my time in Germany, I heard even from some supporting the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party that Trump was too bombastic, too unpredictable and simply too much. Today, they talk about him with increasing fondness, and being American—and therefore somewhat associated with Trump in their minds—has occasionally even helped me get access to some who might have otherwise been reticent to talk.
Last summer at a rally of the grassroots, anti-immigration Pegida movement in Dresden, a woman and her husband sized me up warily until I told them I was a journalist from the US. The woman’s face immediately brightened and she said she’d talk to me because, coming from a country with Trump as its president, I was probably more “neutral” toward their movement than German journalists. (I didn’t really know how to answer.) And an AfD volunteer in the eastern city of Görlitz last summer, there to help with an upcoming election campaign, said Trump’s critics can go after him all they want: It wouldn’t change the fact that he’s presided over a period of strong economic growth and hasn’t started any wars. Those two points are the ones I hear most when far-right voters and politicians bring up the US president to me—those, and the parallels to what most see as a biased “fake news” media out to get politicians like them.
Apart from the language in which discussions about US politics take place, the level of detail wouldn’t be out of place at a Washington happy hour or in a DC-based news outlet.
Such broader shifts in views toward the United States have been enhanced by the fact that coverage of Trump’s actions is ubiquitous in Germany. Americans often underestimate the extent to which people around the world pay attention to US politics. That’s probably partly because many don’t give the world outside our own borders much thought at all, let alone recognize that what happens in American politics can often have a real, tangible impact on people living around the globe. It’s always been true that the world at large pays more attention to US politics than Americans do to politics in other parts of the world, but under Trump that tendency has gone into overdrive.
At first, I was surprised by not only the attention itself, but how detail-oriented and comprehensive it can be—from granular coverage of the 2018 midterms to the frequent curiosity about certain US policies or politicians to the time in 2018 when, eating lunch in a sushi restaurant in Berlin’s upscale Mitte neighborhood one day, I overheard two suited men discussing Stormy Daniels and the explosive revelations in Michael Wolff’s controversial book Fire and Fury. Apart from the language in which these discussions take place, the level of detail often wouldn’t be out of place at a Washington happy hour or in a DC-based news outlet.
That means people frequently want to talk when they meet an American. To a certain extent, explaining things about your home country is inherent to living abroad. But over the course of my time here, these conversations have picked up considerably: About Trump and why he was elected, yes, but also increasingly about deeper structural problems in the US that are sometimes incomprehensible to Europeans. From getting my laptop fixed at the Apple Store to an interview with a Syrian refugee in Gelsenkirchen to casual meetups with friends, I’ve been asked about everything from why the United States has a health insurance system that doesn’t adequately cover its citizens to why students have to go into crippling debt in order to get a good education to why we have a problem with mass gun violence that seems unique to America.
And throughout this year, I’ve received questions with increasing urgency about whether Trump can win again, whether Joe Biden is a good enough candidate to defeat him, what will happen with voting by mail in the midst of a pandemic. To be sure, part of this intense interest stems from the fact that the election is a fascinating story from which it’s difficult to look away. But it also comes from an underlying sense of anxiety because people recognize that what happens in this election will have an impact far beyond America’s borders.
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It’s a strange role reversal going from someone whose job it was to figure out why things are the way they are in the United States to being expected to have the answers already and elucidate them for those around me (auf Deutsch, no less). I’m not always sure how to respond: The more urgent people’s wish for an explanation or a clear answer about what’s happening and why, the further I—three and a half years removed from covering politics in Washington—feel from being someone with the firsthand knowledge to answer.
Escape Trump in Germany? It’s not possible. One night last week, I woke up shortly after 3 a.m. I’d been avoiding the presidential debates this fall, sticking to reading the coverage when I woke up a few hours later. But that night, calculating the time difference in my head, I knew the final presidential debate had just begun—and that I couldn’t go back to sleep without tuning in. So I pulled up the livestream on my phone in pitch-black Berlin and, still lying in bed, watched until it was over.
It goes without saying, but the results of this election could be a turning point in the way the US is viewed around the world. The difference between four and eight years of Trump will be huge, both for protecting American democratic institutions at home and preserving our relationships abroad. I’ll spend election night with a few friends, staying up as late as we can to watch the returns come in. But the nonstop coverage and frequent questions about what it all means are unlikely to stop anytime soon.
A translated version of this dispatch also appeared in Tagesspiegel: Read here
Top photo: President Trump departs on Air Force One for Brussels, November 2018 (Shealah Craighead, official White House photo)