Like a lot of liberals in the closing days of last year’s presidential election, in thinking the unthinkable, I would frequently announce my intention “to leave the country” if Donald Trump were elected President. (And I’m not even that liberal – having supported Republicans in half of the presidential elections I’ve voted in.) The quip usually came as an emphatic coda to an unsatisfactory conversation with a Trump supporter. So, if it was meant as a threat, it wasn’t a very effective one: “Good riddance,” no doubt thought my interlocutor, to me and my kind; America would be better off without us.
Was the threat an idle one as well? For I didn’t immediately pack my bags on January 20th, when Trump was inaugurated. Instead, I would wait and see: surely a Trump presidency couldn’t be as bad as his flawed character and nativist campaign rhetoric portended.
It’s worse. Each day has brought a new assault on the America I had loved and thought I knew. Increasingly, America feels like a foreign country, which has now gotten the leader it deserves; his supporters’ behavior, less like that of a political party than of occupying invaders. To relieve my profound sense of dislocation, is it finally time for me to leave the good ole U.S.A.? To borrow a term from the illegal immigration debate, to “self-deport?”
So, for the last two months I’ve been testing the expat life. With a travel itinerary guided by more whim than politics, so far I’ve spent a couple weeks in Paris, a week in Berlin, and, in between the two, several days in a tiny village along the Rhine. Ten days I devoted to Greece, mixing Athens with some pastoral Ionian isles. Most recently, I spent several days in the Czech Republic exploring Prague and environs. Next stop…Slovenia, Melania Trump’s country of origin. I’ve stayed at both hotels and Airbnb, less often with old friends. It may sound like a summer vacation, but the intent is much more lasting: to find the ideal place that I might like to live, the place that feels most like home, the America I once loved.
At the moment, I’m writing on my laptop in one of Vienna’s famed, century-old coffee houses (Café Pruckel). UNESCO, in its inventory of “intangible cultural heritage,” says of these coffeehouses: “Time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill.” With its original Art Nouveau interior now “updated” in 1950s décors reminiscent of my boyhood, I feel right at home – certainly more at home than I would at a gaudily ostentatious Trump hotel.
I am reading Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, two interwar exiles from their homeland in what had been the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Joining them were Czarist emigres, of whom Roth quipped: “The Russian count as Parisian cabbie takes his fate straight into a storybook. His fate may be ghastly. But it is at least literary.” Truly ghastly, but also literary: Zweig’s 1942 suicide in Brazil and Roth’s 1939 death in Paris from alcoholism.
But for more uplifting expat stories during roughly this same period, Americans like Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Josephine Baker, and F. Scott Fitzgerald immediately come to mind. Drawn to Paris by the favorable exchange rate and France’s hospitable (non-racist, non-homophobe) attitudes, they would thrive in these creative years abroad.
In fact, sending fugitives across its borders is arguably as much an American tradition – dating back to the country’s inception – as its better-known history of assimilating immigrants. An estimated 65,000 Loyalists who found themselves on the losing side in the Revolution fled to Canada and the Caribbean. After the Civil War, as many as 20,000 unrepentant Confederates established colonies in Mexico and Brazil; descendants of “Confederados” can be found there today. A century later, Black Panthers were given political asylum in Cuba, while Vietnam War resisters found sanctuary in Canada.
Political asylum for Trump resisters should never be a problem, if it ever comes to that, given the rest of the world’s appalled reaction to the newest U.S. President, the archetypical Ugly American. When I explain I’m “escaping Trump,” Europeans smile and nod in appreciative solidarity. Among fellow Americans I’ve encountered during my weeks of travel abroad, embarrassment and shame have been the common bond. Guilt is what we feel, too:
We’re the planet’s biggest carbon polluter on a per capita basis, yet Trump withdraws from the Paris Climate Accord. The millions of refugees pouring out of the Mideast are an indirect result of our destabilizing invasion of Iraq, yet Trump introduces a Moslem travel ban. In contrast, most European leaders are doing the morally right thing in regard to refugees and the environment. That difference between right and wrong, between altruism and selfishness, is the kind of thing I was taught as a child growing up in postwar, optimistic America. For me, the present is a foreign country.
Any notion of “home” or “homeland” finds its origins, of course, in a child’s sense of time and place – in my case, growing up among the rolling Blue Ridge foothills of rural Virginia. When I’m homesick, that remembered landscape is what I miss. But visiting that same place today, now developed and populated beyond recognition, only accentuates the homesickness. The best cure may lie in what the Germans call “fernweh” – literally, “farsickness,” an aching desire for distant places, as opposed to “heimweh,” or “homesickness.” Though directed in seemingly opposite directions, the intense, melancholic longing is the same. Does that explain why I’m now finding the Austrian Alps’ Ice Age valleys so resonant, so evocative of my childhood home?
Like me, most of the nomadic Americans I’ve encountered are of Trump’s generational cohort, yet the America that we remember is not Trump’s America. To us, his nostalgic appeal (“Make America great again!”) has a fraudulent ring, forgetting the old-fashioned values of honesty, integrity, civility, and respect for others that formed the formative landscapes of our character. The mirror that is Europe – to view ourselves as others see us – is to be reminded of the way we were. To read the foreign press, to hear world leaders’ take on Trump: that’s somehow more credible than partisan attacks at home. And I must admit: what I read and hear abroad gives me genuine pleasure – the dopamine rush from confirmation bias.
As many as 9 million American citizens are estimated to be currently living abroad – a population bigger than many states in the Electoral College. Given the “Trump effect,” will that number grow into an exodus, a diaspora? Preliminary 2017 numbers already show such an impact on inbound tourism (U.S. down, Europe up). Though he hosted Trump on Bastille Day, France’s Emmanuel Macron’s “Make the Planet Great Again” website and video continues its witty but serious appeal to despairing Americans. Extending a heartfelt invitation to Americans who remain optimistic, idealistic, and still believe in the power of science and reason, Macron plays on the beckoning symbol of the Statue of Liberty – “Give me your tired, your poor….”
But by checking out of Trump’s America, do expats thereby enable its continuance? That’s the question. A related question is whether the so-called “Resistance” is, in fact, counterproductive. Many of my fellow nomadic Americans participated, as I did, in the Women’s and Climate Marches, as well as various anti-Pruitt and tax protests. To what end, we wonder? No policy or personnel changes resulted, no spirit of compromise ensued; nor did Trump release his tax returns. The only practical consequence was to fire up Trump’s vaunted “base.”
So, in deciding whether to extend my exile or go back home, must my moral calculus simply be reduced to Trump-like selfishness, our boomer generational creed: If it feels good, do it? Personally, it just feels a lot better to be as physically far away from Trump as possible. Sure, I can’t wall him off; his irrational tweets, erosion of the English language, and rude behavior don’t respect the Atlantic Ocean, much less national borders. They still invade one’s consciousness wherever one goes, but that assault seems more easily thwarted when hiking in the Wienerwald with tickets to tonight’s Mozart performance in my pocket.
Concert tickets – not to mention the travel to get here – cost money, of course. But I’m retired, with my children now adults themselves. As long as there’s free movement of capital (and I’m not yet locked away in a Trump “re-education camp”), I’m free to spend whatever savings I have wherever I want. In the U.S., I’d only be helping Trump brag about upticks in consumer spending.
In Prague, where I spent a few days before taking the clean, luxurious, high-speed (non-Amtrak-like) train to Vienna, I spoke at length with an American expat who had lived and worked in the Czech Republic since the collapse of the Iron Curtain almost three decades ago. For then-young Americans like him, interested in hi-tech business, Prague had the appeal of San Francisco but without the high cost of living. Many of them, now confessing to a latent homesickness, had made plans to return finally to the U.S. – until Trump was elected. Now they’re staying in Prague for “the duration.”
And, yes, I must confess, too, that I’m already a bit homesick. But I know I can’t go home again, even if I hop on the very next transatlantic flight to Dulles. As much as the small-town, rural Virginia of my youth has been forever lost to suburban sprawl, so too has my youthful belief in the Jeffersonian notion of “the infinite perfectibility of man” been lost to Trump.
But in Europe’s still rural villages, separated by nothing but cultivated farmland in-between, I catch glimpses of my youth. I see it, too, in the animated but friendly conversations among political opponents at any local cafe or Gasthaus. Nobody’s watching cable TV. Since my Trump-supporter friends and I no longer speak, they’ll likely call me a defector behind my back, or worse, that I “look French,” like John Kerry. When they say they don’t recognize America anymore, I can only say: I don’t either. On this, we agree.
What I miss most back in America is my dog, a beagle mix rescue named “Angel.” She’s staying with friends now as I scout places to settle in Europe. She would like it here. Not discriminated against, unlike in the U.S., she’d be welcomed in any restaurant. I can see her now curled under my table at the Café Pruckel. If I start calling her “Angela,” will she come when called?