I’ve been in Scotland for a few weeks, which is long enough for it to come as little surprise anymore when some variant of the question arises in conversation: “Does the election process look as strange to Americans as it does to us here?”
Or this: “So you’ve come to get away from Donald Trump, have you?”
You can leave the States, but you can’t really leave primary season behind you, it turns out. You may be having a perfectly pleasant dinner conversation with friends, only to find it hijacked by Trump, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and Co. Perhaps a casual exchange with a stranger who detected your American accent takes a quick turn toward U.S. politics. And then there is the media coverage — some of the hyperventilating and hand-wringing variety; some rather snarky.
Many people across Europe are quite conversant in U.S. politics and public policy, even if they often are not quite sure how it all fits together (as if most Americans are). But what really attracts attention is a presidential campaign. The theatrics alone are captivating, never mind what’s at stake. Given the raw political, economic and military power of the United States, and the ability it retains to inspire by — say — electing a black president, the vote often feels nearly as important outside the U.S. as it does to Americans.
So, just as it has back home, the prospect of Trump gaining the Republican nomination, and even the White House, gets a huge amount of attention. It’s too early for most people to dwell on what a Rubio or Sanders presidency might be like. But Trump is a different story.
That doesn’t mean Europe hasn’t seen anything equivalent. There is in fact a whole journalistic cottage industry comparing Trump to another crude billionaire businessman-turned-politician. Americans may have occasionally chuckled at the antics of Silvio Berlusconi. But it’s worth remembering that he was Italy’s prime minister for nine years.
And as economies languish and politicians fumble for a solution to Europe’s immigration crisis, far-right, nationalist and populist movements are gaining strength — in Germany, France, England and elsewhere. There are populist leftist movements, too (in Spain and Greece, for example), but nothing quite like of the Bernie Sanders phenomenon. Much of the continent has already been there and done that.
All of which brings us back to Trump, the would-be U.S. president who was the subject of a debate in the British parliament recently. The question, you might recall, was whether Trump should be barred from entering Britain, as more than half a million petitioners demanded.
There never was any real prospect he would be banned in Britain — the worst he suffered was being called a wazzock — and that by a Conservative MP.
What’s interesting is that Trump’s mother was a Scottish immigrant, and that he professes special feelings for the country — enough so that he pressed hard to build a luxury golf course near the North Sea port of Aberdeen. A number of Scots — more than many Brits — apparently would be happy if he never came back.
As this article shows, among the districts with the highest proportion of signatures on the petition to ban Trump were those where I’m staying, in central Glasgow.
Even the BBC, while maintaining its reputation for intelligent, clear-eyed reporting, has been having some fun with Trump and the rest of the Republican field. This is the opening of North America correspondent Anthony Zurcher’s report on the last GOP debate before the New Hampshire primary:
Some of the candidates seemed like they were ready to fight.
Some of them looked like they wanted to hide or run.
And Ben Carson acted like he didn’t care whether the monster got him or not.
Authoritative publications in France and Germany have been a bit more serious. In Germany, Der Spiegel’s recent headline was blunt: “Donald Trump is the World’s Most Dangerous Man.” A lengthy recent report argues that Trump “embodies a new harshness and brutality, and both a physical and emotional crudeness.” It frets that “America is running the risk of falling for a self-proclaimed leader with a low opinion of fundamental democratic values.”
The combination of the extreme positions Trump has taken, and the possibility that he could win the White House “make him the most dangerous man in the world at the moment.”
Le Monde in France sees evidence of a broader crisis in the rise of Trump and others like him:
Modern capitalism’s vision of peace and prosperity had evaporated before the financial debacle of 2008. Now its culture, spirit, and unctuous and deceptively polite leaders are on the way out. Globalization was hailed as a fluid, rational, peaceful, connected process. Its demise has opened the way for angry men, and warlords.
There is one world leader, both publications point out, who has said some nice things about Trump — which Trump has answered in kind. That would be Vladimir Putin.