Watching a “Balkanized America” from the Balkans: Wednesday Morning in Bucharest

“Your country is going to hell, David”.

Few Romanians were this straightforward on Wednesday morning. But all expressed it in other ways. I don’t speak much Romanian, but the name “Trump” and encompaning vocal sounds of shock, anxiety, and contempt echoed in the subways of Bucharest. A clear, palpable sadness hung over my two classes yesterday.

Since Tuesday, a Budapest taxi driver and many students have asked me: “What will happen to NATO? Will Trump support Putin?”. They have every right to fear. In the zero-sum game Jacksonian foreign policy of Trump, what does this distant Eastern European country “buy” the United States? A short-listed candidate for Secretary of State, Newt Gingrich, described NATO ally Estonia as a “suburb of St. Petersburg” unworthy of American solidarity in the event of Russian aggression. Will Romania likewise become an afterthought if only the “big league” great powers matter in a post-liberal world order of ruthless transactions?

But the despair extended beyond potential policy shifts. There was the Romanian employee from the US Embassy who suggested her potential resignation as Trump’s victory loomed. After years of working for men like Clinton, Bush, and Obama, there is no way she could walk into an Embassy each day with a large portrait of Donald Trump hanging above. Trump, for her, was the exact foil to everything she loved about America and what it offered as a model for the Romanian people. “The things Trump has said would destroy any politician’s chances in Romania”. A post-communist, infant, and much poorer democracy better polices its extremist fringes than we do. Well done, USA.

One student said that he will probably look for work in Canada rather than the United States; the future status of his father who works in Arizona looks much more unclear, too. Many expected the new immigration regime for legal applicants to change dramatically, and with it their own hopes for study and work in a country that deeply fascinates them.

In class, I offered possible assurances that a true abyss was still distant. “Congress and the courts will have the power to check his excesses”. But, will timid Republicans afraid of their own right flank, besides the brave few so far (Flake, Sasse, Kasich, Graham), suddenly discover a backbone manifestly absent for months? “Maybe he’ll surround himself with good people and advisers”. A near worthless “Maybe” when the editor of Brietbart is now under consideration for White House Chief of Staff.  “The reasons for Trump’s victory are very complex; not all of his voters are bigots or accept wholeheartedly with his character and ideas”. An important point I stand by (and one my progressive friends should bear in mind). But the fact that Trump’s behavior was not ultimately disqualifying for voters is profoundly troubling. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s quip that society is “defining deviancy down” cannot fully capture this collapse of basic political norms. “The American system will limit him”. The system? What is the system but a sum of people who must willingly to choose to embrace established precedent? Gradually, I realized in my desperate assurances a single assumption: that there perhaps is another side of Trump we have almost no evidence for. A true leap of faith.

A striking point about this election is how the political intuitions of Europeans I spoke to surpassed my own and those of America’s journalistic and political class. I was shocked how my students, other Romanians, and Greeks I spoke to really expected a Trump win. Outside of the tribalistic warfare of American politics, the progressives among them were far more aware of Hillary Clinton and the current Democratic Party’s profound weaknesses. Given Europe’s history of rightist populist parties, Trump’s Buchananite ideological cocktail was recognized as a far more potent power than progressive and conservative American observers could ever imagine. They grasped darker realities within the American mind  we cannot yet examine honestly – the degredation of culture, the cult of celebrity, a political correctness poised to stimulate backlash, the Balkanization of a country into isolated, enclosed segments grasping to find a basic common life. Fascinating how people who never spent a second on FiveThirtyEight, RealClear Politics, or the New York Times Opinion Section could more accurately grasp the state of our republic.

It was a painful week. The US Embassy’s “Election Night” Party at the Hard Rock Cafe concluded around 8 am for those few who stayed to the very end. By that point, a Trump victory was certain enough. Flanking the entrance to the restaurant doors were large blown up photographs of eight American presidents, including JFK, Wilson, Eisenhower, Lincoln, and Washington. As I glimpsed their faces for a final time, a profound sense of shame hung over me. We had failed these men. We had dishonored their labor and sacrifices. And that night we disappointed the millions outside our borders who so admire the American experiment, not so much just as a democracy but rather one that uniquely also maintains extraordinary global power and an unprecedented mixing of peoples, ways of life, and interests. If America as a single nation cannot somehow hold together this trio of freedom, power, and diversity, can our fractured world of nations ever do so?

I nearly cancelled class on Thursday given my lack of sleep and limited class preparation. Fortunately, the week’s topic could not be better timed: it was the first of two lessons on the Civil Rights Movement. Thanks to a fantastic college course (by Professor Rael, to any Bowdoin kids reading), I had enough powerful stories, events, and anecedotes in my memory to put together a lecture with limited time. For an activity, I asked each student to read through interviews from a PBS documentary on Jim Crow. While all students already grasped America’s history with race, the first-person, viseral narratives were particularly sickening. But we finished the class on a brighter note; I described the victory of Brown and the fortitude of participants in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. As this sad week ended, I wanted students to think about Thurgood Marshall and Rosa Parks. This is the only American Greatness we can and should recover again – a passionate commitment to ever widening the promise of our original Founding.  Let’s hope and pray, in ways yet unknown, that President-elect Trump will grasp this very soon. And may his spirited critics – left, center, and right – embody it with grace and courage for the next four years.

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