When you move to another country, you make certain concessions in an attempt to reduce the friction of day-to-day life in a new land. Refusing to conform to certain cultural norms would be too exhausting, so you adapt piece by piece. In England, where I live, these things include changing my pronunciation of certain words to avoid ridicule, dialing down my expectations of customer service, and accepting that wearing workout clothing when I’m not actually exercising will be always met with confusion.
But there's a far more profound concession that comes around once every four years, one that’s harder to brush off: unwittingly becoming a spokesman for the election cycle of a country you no longer live in.
America is awash with the 24-month media circus that is the U.S. presidential campaign. But few Americans realize the extent to which their election cycle captivates the media in the rest of the world, too. And this year, thanks to a number of factors including a red-haired frontrunner whose disposition is reminiscent of Veruca Salt mid-tantrum, a 74-year-old white man whose hairstyle has become the liberal hipster tattoo du jour, a “sure bet” named Hillary who’s anything but certain, and someone with the surname Bush in the running yet again, it’s a particularly exhausting time to be an American abroad.
Regardless of your political affiliation, one of the things you quickly learn when you move overseas is that that the notion of America being “the best” county in the world is kind of, well, laughable to absolutely everyone else. Most nationalities, even immensely proud ones, stop short of attaching a superlative stamp to their sense of nationalist pride. But then again, citizens of most countries aren’t virtually guaranteed to see signifiers of their own culture—McDonalds, Coca Cola, Starbucks, dubbed episodes of Baywatch or Keeping Up With The Kardashians—within 30 minutes of disembarking a plane almost anywhere on earth.
Thanks to this merciless cultural exportation, everyone from a goat herder in Tanzania to a banker in Singapore is likely to hold an opinion of American culture. And yet, most Americans are blithely unaware of or simply don't care about what that opinion is. A Trump supporter who loudly insists at a campaign rally that Europeans are socialist sissies probably has no idea what impact her internationally televised comments are having on her American compatriots actually living in Europe. British newspapers regularly publish articles endorsing and weighing in on American candidates for an election that’s 10 months away, while some Americans might not even be sure who Britain’s head of state has been since he was re-elected 10 months ago.
In December, when Trump remarked that there were places in London "so radicalized the police are afraid for their own lives,” everyone from the conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to the uber-leftist Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn lambasted Trump’s lunacy. Furthermore, the UK parliament was obliged in January to actually debate the prospect of banning Trump, after more than half a million Britons signed a petition requesting he be banned for disseminating hate speech. It’s hard to fathom how U.S. candidates got on the UK Parliament’s docket, but it does give you an idea of how outlandish things look to those sitting across the pond.
This may be a particularly crazy election, but this isn’t the first time U.S. politics has provoked perplexed wonderment abroad. As many who lived abroad in the mid-aughts will tell you, watching America re-elect Bush from overseas was nothing short of mortifying. Most expats I know would agree that like him or not, Obama and his tenure have significantly improved the damage done during eight years of Bush, especially in Europe and Africa. But in 2016, with a slew of candidates who seem more suited to a reality show than the highest office in the land, the amount of non-Americans seeking my personal counsel to make sense of what on earth is going on in American politics seems to be at an all-time high.
It doesn’t matter if you’re at the corner store, the pub, or the office. In my experience of three election cycles abroad, the only requirement for someone wanting to engage in a conversation about U.S. politics is hearing my accent. And regardless of my own political opinions or level of patriotism, as an outsider I know that it’s best to deliver my views in a more diplomatic way than I would at home. I may have that little blue book but I still lack home court advantage.
While these conversations very often lack nuance or even a cursory understanding of the American electoral process, they do carry some common themes. In February, when the headlines from the primaries are in full swing, non-Americans are regularly shocked to learn that the American election isn’t actually happening until November. In Britain, election spending is bracketed within strictly enforced time limits, and the fact that two years out of every four year term is dominated by campaigning instead of governing is baffling to most.
In addition, Europeans in particular are very often perplexed by the fact that the campaign issues which are the most divisive throughout the U.S. election—gun control, healthcare, climate change, reproductive rights—elicit far less controversy on their continent. And when it comes to foreign policy, the issue most relevant to non-Americans, flawed generalizations underscore the fact that the complex nuances between the various countries, religions, and caliphates we’re ostensibly at war with matter little. It’s us versus them.
It’s true that the decision to move away from America was my own, and thus serving as a hesitant spokesperson is one of the tradeoffs of that choice. And whether or not I’m in the mood to talk about this election season, people’s consistent interest in my opinion makes me hyperaware of the tremendous responsibility Americans have on the global stage. The prospect of having a character like Trump as president is terrifying for many Americans, but imagine how you’d feel as a citizen of a country he can scarcely pronounce properly but is more than ready to “bomb the shit out of.”
Most people don’t have an opportunity to pick the country they’re born in or the passport they hold. For every foreigner I’ve heard express confusion, hatred, or dismay towards my country of birth, there’s another who has said they’d do anything to move there.
This is a paradox that myself and many expats I know are aware of, and it’s also why I will cast a ballot come November despite my distant relationship with the United States. In truth, it’s not really about me—I feel like I owe it to the rest of the world.