The View from Abroad

March 13th, 2016

My wife, Susy, and I just returned from a three-week, 26,000-mile, Eastport-to-Eastport, jaunt around the world. We flew to Sydney, Australia, sailed to Bali, Indonesia, and flew home from Bali, via Doha, Qatar, to Dulles.
Here is what we learned:
* The non-stop carnival that is the 2016 U.S. Presidential race has seized the attention of the rest of the world just as it has here.
* Donald Trump makes almost as many headlines abroad as he does here. His picture was on the front pages when we arrived in Sydney.
* The rest of the world thinks we are nuts. (But, just like a train wreck, can’t stop watching.)
* Annapolis has a lot of admirers. (Every time we said we were from Annapolis, people smiled and said “beautiful,” or remembered visiting the Statehouse or the Naval Academy or sailing the Chesapeake.)
The excuse for the trip was my assignment as a speaker, ahem, “World Affairs lecturer,” on the lovely Crystal Serenity, a gleaming, white, 1,000-passenger cruise ship that is currently on a world cruise. The Sydney-to-Bali run was one segment of that four-month, San Francisco-to-San Francisco cruise that is still underway.
Crystal features all kinds of speakers on history, geography and current affairs. I gave four talks on topics ranging from the current state of the news business to the fractious relations between the U.S. and Russia, but the one that grabbed people, or at least provoked the most reaction, was entitled “Part Carnival, Part Circus: The 2016 U.S. Presidential Race.”
Roughly half the audience were Americans, plus Brits, Canadians, lots of Australians and guests from perhaps a dozen Asian countries. The Americans on board doubtless included a majority of Republicans, but a fair number identified themselves as independents or Hillary Clinton supporters and a few – not many — seemed to back Bernie Sanders.
One passenger declared his sentiments by pasting a bold “Trump for President” sticker on his stateroom door.
Everybody had their opinions about the different candidates and the race, but it was the non-Americans who kept asking, in effect, “have you Yanks taken complete leave of your senses?” Or, more politely, what explains the Trump phenomenon? Or, why the enthusiasm for political outsiders this year?
I said I had no simple explanations, but that the United States seems to be in a era of discontent, in which people on both sides of the political spectrum are dissatisfied with their leaders, especially Congress, and feel let down.
Republicans have heard their standard bearers promise smaller government, reduced regulation, lower taxes and entitlement reform for generations – and have been disappointed when none of it has come to pass. They are frustrated and angry and inclined to turn to someone outside the political mainstream.
Democrats are equally frustrated by endless wars, wage stagnation, income inequality, big-money politics and a Congress that seems to respond more to special interests than the concerns of the average citizen. That’s why Bernie Sanders has enjoyed such resonance, even if he isn’t going to be the nominee.
The international passengers on the ship said they understood all that, but still found it strange – some said, appalling – that so many voters seem to think Donald Trump is the answer to any of it. Some found the spectacle of this primary season amusing, others openly doubted that Donald Trump would ever emerge as the GOP nominee, while still others were frankly apprehensive about the whole primary spectacle.
One Canadian woman who said she was worried about the political trends south of the border used a metaphor: “You know,” she said, “when you sleep next to a bear, you don’t want him to get upset and roll over.”
The wall-to-wall coverage of the campaign and the fractious, noisy GOP debates were broadcast live on the ship’s television, which carried CNN International, Fox, MSNBC, the BBC and Sky News. Not everyone watched them, of course, but those who did came away shaking their heads.
“Three hundred million people and this is the best the U.S. can come up with?” asked one Australian.


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