I backpacked around Europe as a 19-year-old, in October 2008. The Obama-McCain election was at fever pitch, and for the first time I realized it was a world event, not simply a national one. Everywhere I went, when people found out my nationality, they would ask, “Is Obama going to win? I hope so…” “How did Americans keep Bush around? He was awful!” They would reference points of legislation and minor events that I, as a teenager, had never heard of. Such conversations do little to diminish the very American perception that America is the center of the world.
While traveling Europe in late 2015, my wife and I went on a walking tour of Prague. The guide told us about a mad king that had been in power centuries ago. He told us that this king was entirely unfit to rule – a playboy born into fortune. “It’d be like electing Paris Hilton president,” he quipped. “It’d be like electing Donald Trump president,” I shot back. The rest of the tour group, composed of people from all different parts of the world, chuckled. I saw many exchange telling glances and murmur to each other in their respective languages. At that time it was a joke, a fantastical storyline spun up in the dark corners of tabloid headlines. “He actually announced he’s running!” “Hundreds attended his rally!” I reassured all I talked to that it won’t happen. “When it comes down to it,” I said over and over, “Americans simply aren’t that stupid and hateful. They’ll wake up, find their decency, and turn to a real candidate.”
Next week we depart for six weeks exploring Northern Italy, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since my country has placed the incompetent heir into a position of unthinkable power, I am both interested and nervous to face the conversations about American politics that will inevitably come. I won’t have the answers of how and why. I’ll have grasping explanations on the lines of, “Frustrated people are eager to blame, and susceptible to blustering declarations of solidarity. They fell for it – hook, line, and sinker.”
The countries we are visiting all have historical precedent for falling for charisma and blame-based rhetoric, with disastrous consequences. Mussolini in Italy, Hoxha in Albania, Milosevic, Tito, and countless others in the former Yugoslavia – these nations know the appeal of the mold-breaking political movement that aims to bring back “greatness” or “prestige”, particularly by demonizing a minority group, be it Muslims, Albanians, Mexicans, Catholics, Jews, or Christians. “America First” and “Make America Great Again” are merely our new iterations of the propaganda slogans of the past.
That’s not to say that our nation’s current knee-deep plunge into reckless nationalism will end with anything to compare with the cataclysm that the former Yugoslavia suffered in the 90’s. I do think, however, their history will illuminate our present in interesting ways throughout our travels.
Parts of the Balkans famously love America and Americans. Our military intervention in the 90’s stopped the ethnic cleansing of Albanian Muslims by the Serbs, and similarly contributed to the liberation and safety of Kosovo. Albania even boasts a 9-foot-tall statue of George W. Bush, in a plaza named in his honor. Kosovo has a statue of Bill Clinton. While during Bush administration, many Americans hid their nationality when traveling abroad, in Albania and Kosovo it’s a basis for genuine hospitality and warmth.
Today, Trump announced he will pull our country out of the historic Paris climate change agreement, placing us in the company of Syria and Nicaragua as the only countries on the planet who are not signed on to make changes and contribute to protecting our planet. As the world unites, our country, which has historically contributed far more than any other to this problem, is petulantly marching in the opposite direction. What will we hear about that from people we meet? Will coastal dwellers in Dalmatia have a different view than citizens of pro-American, mountainous Albania?
Traveling is not simply a pleasurable pastime but an important activity, an indispensable part of one’s education. Traveling as an American lends an interesting dynamic to the experience, especially in these times. It helps me define what it means to me to be an American as well as a citizen of the world, and it always reminds me to be the latter first, the former second.