Thoughts on the American Election from Abroad; or, Blue on the Danube

When I woke up in Budapest at 4 am on 10 November, the early returns started coming in, and it didn’t look good. By 4:30, we were all awake, huddled around my laptop, eyes glued to the live CNN feed. Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania had all gone red.

It was over, and a new chapter of American life had begun.

I started to feel like the walls of our flat were moving in on me, so I laced up my running shoes and jogged up the Pest side of the Danube. It was a hazy, blue-gray morning. The sun was rising behind me, and I kept the Danube to my left as I ran west past the Chain Bridge and the Parliament Building before finally turning around and heading home.

Blue Danube alright.

It felt good to move, but my chest and my gut were hollow and I kept thinking of Yeats’ words, “All changed, changed utterly.”

Almost 80 years ago, Allied bombs destroyed all of the major bridges that connected Buda and Pest. As I ran up the river, admiring these rebuilt steel spans and watching the runners, cyclists and walkers moving across them, I couldn’t help but think of the political climate in Europe at that time–a period of rampant nationalism, forced marches of vulnerable people across international borders and truculent rhetoric aimed at outsiders. We say “never again,” but the words of Trump and his followers are not that dissimilar from the war cries heard across this part of the world in the middle of the last century. I worry that the threats of political violence that Trump and his supporters expressed during the vitriolic campaign season won’t be neatly put in a nice box with a bow on top.

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The Chain Bridge, below. It connects Buda to Pest

When I got back to the flat, Atticus greeted me with a long, sad hug. He knows what all this means and he feels it deeply. I, for better or worse, don’t hold much back with him–I think he should know how his parents deal with this sort of thing so I just grabbed him and said, “We lost our country today, son.” That’s not hyperbole and it’s not whining. It’s just a fact.

Sujata comes from a family of immigrants, we are a mixed family, and brown and black people will be marked in news ways in this new America. I fear for my kids, but I also know that we have a good deal of privilege and protection so I fear more for my undocumented friends, my LGBTQ friends, and my black and brown friends who are more vulnerable than we are. I will help, support and be an ally for them when I return.

So, we move on.

I’m in Budapest to give some lectures and visit some classes at Karoli Gaspar University, a beautiful campus just south of Budapest’s Inner City. We’ve been treated with kindness and we’ve witnessed random acts of graciousness just about everywhere we have traveled in this beautiful and welcoming city. The professors, administrators and students at Karoli Gaspar have accepted me, a guest, a stranger, with open arms and even on the busy Budapest metro we’ve seen people helping each other out. This all feels so contrasting to the images we are getting from the States.

On Monday I lectured to a master’s level class of theatre students. I talked about the theatricality of American political and public life from the nineteenth century to the present, and I concentrated on the historical trajectory from PT Barnum and a nineteenth-century culture of public exhibition to the branded politics of the the Trump campaign.

Today, I was scheduled to talk to a class that has been following the American election for the past six weeks. The professor asked me to begin with some personal reflections on what it’s been like following the election from aboard and then to talk about how the United States has arrived at this political and cultural juncture.  I prepared a set of notes long before the class and before I left the flat to go to class, I took the notes from my back pack, quickly read them over . . . and then crumpled them up and tossed them in the trashcan. Those notes were written, I realized, with the assumption that things would basically stay the same. What I assumed then, made no sense now.

I draw a great deal of energy from teaching, and I always look forward to being in a classroom with students. Today, though, I dreaded walking into the classroom. My legs felt heavy and my tongue felt thick. I felt ashamed of the racist, misogynist, xenophobic and hateful America that elected Trump, I felt angry at the Democrats for letting it get to this point, and I felt helpless that there was nothing I could do about it. I was also very worried that I’d break down and cry in front of these strangers and that I’d further tarnish their sense of who we are and what we have become.

I didn’t weep, but I felt heavy and somber for the first 20 minutes or so and then as we began interacting I started to feel some physical and emotional levity. The students asked good, thoughtful questions and I think they sensed my sadness and reached out to help. It felt good (cathartic) to speak a bit about how this election has affected me and I’m grateful to those students for listening and dialoguing with me about it. Afterward, I spent the last hour walking them though a short history of populism in the United States. From Shay’s Rebellion to the fear of secret European societies (the Free Masons), Catholics, Jews, Communists, blacks, Asians and now, just about everybody, populist (what Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style of American Politics”) sentiment has become a significant st(r)ain on our collective political and cultural life. Today, it reared up again.

There’s another more noble and honorable strain of American public life and, for me, it’s best represented in Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” so I closed the class with that, thanked the students and wished them good luck. They’ll need it. So will we.

This class felt important to me. Sometimes I feel that the academic life is too conceptual and abstract. What are we really doing, anyway? Are we making a difference? Are we helping to make a more just, thoughtful and civic-minded society? Most of the time I can’t answer those questions in the positive, but given what just happened in America, at least for myself, I feel a new obligation and a new energy to show students who we are as a people and to provide spaces for them to talk, disagree and shape their own lives and societies.

We are back on the train–heading home to Timisoara. It’s just 24 hours since we heard the news, but it feels like a lifetime.

I’m looking forward to getting back to Timisoara. I can’t wait to see my students tomorrow and to hear what they have to say about the election. More on that later.