America: An Inside/Outside Perspective (Part I, The Presidency)

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As an insider living on the outside, I have experienced recent events in America differently. It feels strange to observe history-shaking moments in my country from the outside rather than live them from the inside. It was the same with 9/11, which occurred while we were living in Honduras. We returned nine months later to a country that was dramatically changed, but we were not present for the shocking event or its aftermath.

On the other hand, living on the outside gives a point of view that is not possible from the inside, just as the view from the mountaintop is different from the view in the valley.

I have lived in Belgium since 2017. When we lived in Honduras, we had no phone and no internet. I am much more connected with global and US news these days. Social media shows me how individuals I know are responding to recent events in real time. Since I know a lot of liberals and a lot of conservatives, the opinions I hear are very different.

At the same time, most of my contacts here are non-American. They are from Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Brazil, Venezuela, etc. What do they think about what’s happening in the United States? How has living here shaped my own views?

I will break this into several parts and share over several days. Here are the topics I will cover:

  1. The Presidency
  2. The Pandemic
  3. The Protests
  4. The Post-Election

First, the Trump presidency. We were still in the US when Trump was elected, but have been absent for the majority of his time in office. I remember both the sense of shock from those who felt it couldn’t possibly happen, and jubilation of those who liked what Trump stood for. I did not support Trump, nor did I support Hilary Clinton. I have never invested much in election outcomes, and even less so that time, as I was soon facing life-and-death issues. As I cared for my family, the nation slid deeper into division.

People here have asked about Trump fairly often. Members of the church, ultimate frisbee teammates, repairmen who come to our house. A man I haven’t seen in a year called recently and said, “Your president…” The questions always come with a sense of bewilderment. They just don’t get why the people of the United States elected Donald Trump as president. Many Europeans have traveled to America and always express how much they enjoy the country. Many from Africa and other parts of the world would like to travel to America, if not move there permanently. Their admiration of America has led to their current confusion.

I think it is safe to say that most non-Americans evaluate the president more on image than on specific policies. I do the same; I have an impression of French president Emmanuel Macron, but I couldn’t tell you about any of his policies. I also have a vague image of two-time presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, who represents the “far-right.”

From the image I have of Le Pen, it would be surprising and significant if the French elected her as president. But not as surprising as electing Trump, because Le Pen has been in politics for many years. Americans and non-Americans knew the Trump name before through real-estate, golf courses, or reality TV.

Whatever his policies, Trump’s image does not represent America as the rest of the world had perceived it. In the past one critic described Republican and Democratic candidates for president as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, meaning there is basically no difference. That was not true in 2016. Trump is very different.

Trump has said and done many things over the last four years to cement his image in the mind of the world. It’s not the spin the media puts on things, it is Trump’s own tweets, speeches, and decisions. US politics makes the news worldwide. People have heard his statements about women, seen his squabbling with reporters, and heard his blatant lies. The fact that so many Americans continue to support him continues to confuse people.

What is America? is the big question for non-Americans. Because it’s not what they thought it was. The pandemic, protests, and post-election events confirmed that confusion. We’ll get to those in the coming days. And unfortunately, I will need to say something about the support for Trump that has come from Christians, because that has also been a source of confusion. As a Christian, that is an issue I have an interest in.

Before posting, I ran this by a friend here who works in politics. (He has tried his best to explain European politics to me, but it’s way too confusing. Little Belgium has a federal government, regional governments for three language groups, and provincial government. Add in the governments of neighboring countries and the EU and it’s overwhelming).

Did he think my observations were accurate? Yes, he said, but is that all I was going to say about Trump? The problem is that there is so much one could say, and I was aiming to keep this short.

Let me end by saying I know people personally whose views I disagree with and do not understand—on both the right and the left. On a personal level, I find them kind and generous people. When they talk about politics and sometimes about moral issues, I simply don’t follow the reasoning. This is one of the reasons I have hesitated to speak—there are people I know and love who see things very differently. I finally decided to share a little bit of my own perspective because I feel that those who also know me personally will respect my opinions even if they don’t agree.

Below is a response from my Dutch Christian friend who works in politics:

The point that people still support Trump (and especially Christians!) is something we here do not really understand (although I think our media is biased too). At the same time, Trump is not the only one. We see the same happening in for example The Philippines and Brazil. And less clear or explicit, but even here in Europe we see it with Orbán (Hungary) and Kaczynski (Poland).

So, it's definitely not only an only US problem. But at the same time, the USA is a big country and front runner in so many things. It's a rich country the country of cars, technology, New York, Hollywood, and more. But also the country which (together with the UK and others) liberated Western Europe in WWII. It is the country we look up to and are interested in, the country of what they say, endless possibilities.

Personally, as a little boy, I grew up with the idea of the US as our biggest friends. Going to the US meant you made it (I remember the father of a classmate went once to the US and when he returned he had a dollar note. It was displayed as a treasure and we were all very impressed). The (at that time) Soviet Union was the enemy, a real enemy, and they where close by, East Germany wasn't that far away. The cold war (although the end) was very real.

As a small boy, my parents took me to Margraten, a small village in the deep south of The Netherlands (Limburg), where originally more than 18,000 Allied soldiers where buried (most of them US soldiers). That was impressive, and did make me realize what offer the US has made for our liberty. And every year, at liberation Day, the veterans came (The military takes only a very small part of our culture compared to the US culture, so for us it was something extraordinary).

For us (at least here in Western Europe), the US was something to admire and to look up to. 9/11 was a shock for us as well. The war in Afghanistan we understood. But the war in Iraq (Bush Jr.) was something we already weren't so sure about.

And this country is electing a president who is, in our opinion, a very "interesting" figure to say it diplomatic. And even more interesting, this country is calling itself the country of the free, and at the same time it is so polarized. And even more, there is a big group in that country that apparently doesn't trust democracy anymore unless their own candidate wins (and the same for the juridical system). 

What happened to a country if a huge minority doesn't believe anymore in it's basic institutions?

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