Lifestyle & Culture

Trump is spreading the plague of ‘us-versus-them’ American tribalism to Europe (updated)

(Editor’s note: This post was updated with details about former Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s new effort to link Far Right extremists across Europe.)

With President Donald Trump threatening and bullying the world, this is – to indulge in wild understatement – an interesting time to be an American expat in Europe. It’s scary, yet mesmerizing, to observe the unraveling of America from the safety of our refuge in the Netherlands.

Watching Trump’s administration and his approach to “governing” – foreign policy and domestic policy – is like watching a sick man spread a plague of American intolerance and inchoate anger. This isn’t an abstraction or an “Apprentice”-style scripted reality show. This is real life, and now even European expats in the United States are starting to feel the wrath of the Trump base.

This is America in 2018.


Dr. Cedric Francois, a Belgium-born entrepreneur in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, posted the following on LinkedIn earlier this month:

Last night I went for a slice of pizza in one of my favorite restaurants in Louisville. I like to eat pizza with a fork and a knife. You are probably wondering why this matters. As it turns out, while I was eating, someone approached and told me that Americans eat pizza with their hands. He then asked me if I was a citizen, to which I replied that I was not. The next 30 minutes I was on the receiving end of a tirade related to my immigrant status. Surprisingly I did not feel angry. I felt sad. This man was a veteran with a good heart and clearly struggling. Someone who we should all try to make life better for. Instead, in the recent past, this man has been indoctrinated to believe that immigrants are the cause of his struggles. Coming from Europe, I have a special appreciation for the danger of using fear of minorities to fuel hatred and tribalism. 

You can see the full post here on his LinkedIn feed.

A medical doctor, Francois is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Louisville, the CEO and co-founder of Apellis Pharmaceutical, a publicly traded company. He earned his medical degree at the University of Leuven in Belgium and his Ph.D. in physiology at the University of Louisville. He’s a surgeon who was on the research team that performed the first successful hand transplantation, part of the team whose work supported hand transplantation in Lyon, France in 2005.

Francois is the sort of highly skilled international America for whom Americans should be thanking their lucky stars … the kind of people who have made America great from Lafayette to Andy Grove. But that tolerant, open and progressive country has been subsumed into the psychosis of Trump’s America.

This is troubling because I’m not just familiar with the restaurant where this happened, it was one of my favorites in a hipster district called “NuLu” where we founded our first media company. Louisville is probably the most liberal city in the South. Yet it’s now infected with the nativist virus that’s sweeping America. And a top entrepreneur is a victim of the contagion. Not hopeful.

A plague of misogyny, xenophobia and racism

Isolated outbreaks of latent racism, tribalism and anti-immigrant sentiment turned into a pandemic after Trump won the 2016 presidential election by playing to the xenophobia of a base of supporters I honestly thought of as a lunatic fringe. Once he was elected, an “us-versus-them” fever swept America, with white Americans increasingly emboldened to challenge their fellow citizens or anyone they suspect of not being sufficiently “American.” We’ve seen a never-ending series of viral videos showing angry whites monitoring people who fall into the category of “The Other.”

There’s the white man in Illinois who verbally attacked and physically intimidated an Hispanic woman wearing a shirt displaying the flag of Puerto Rico, demanding to know if she’s an American citizen. She is. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and Puerto Ricans are indeed citizens. So this was the equivalent of attacking someone for wearing a shirt with a California flag on it.

There’s BBQ Becky, who called police on two black men for using a charcoal grill in a park in Oakland, California. A public park.

There’s Permit Patty, who tried, but failed, to summons police to arrest an 8-year-old black girl selling bottled water on a San Francisco sidewalk to pay for a trip to Disneyland.

There’s the Starbucks manager in Philly who called police on two black realtors waiting for a white client. The black men were arrested.

And of course, there are the pizza vigilantes trolling immigrants who don’t know the proper American method for eating pizza.

Now it’s Europe’s turn

Last week, I watched Trump spread the contagion to Europe, where he sabotaged trade and military alliances that have endured for 75 years. It is the first step toward pulling the plug on the free and flourishing democracies of the European Union in favor of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, whose GRU intelligence organization hacked the 2016 American presidential election and made all this possible.

The trip began with Trump’s confrontational meetings with EU leaders and NATO officials in Brussels. Afterward, Trump departed for Great Britain, where he distanced himself from Theresa May for not being sufficiently isolationist and pursuing a “soft” Brexit:

If they do a deal like that, we would be dealing with the European Union instead of dealing with the U.K., so it will probably kill the deal … The deal she is striking is a much different deal than the one the people voted on.

Trump ended his overseas mission in Helsinki where he groveled at Putin’s feet, saying he believes the Russian’s denial of election interference while denigrating his own intelligence community and their mountains of evidence. It’s worth noting that Trump and Putin are united in a common goal: Destroying the EU.

Toward that goal, Trump’s scruffy acolyte and former chief political advisor Steve Bannon is setting up up a foundation – The Movement –  in Brussels to support Far Right groups in the run-up to the 2019 European Parliament election. During the past year, Bannon worked to connect right-wing leaders across the continent including Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Polish fascists with the aim of sharing resources and expertise.

These are not conservatives. These are the people who want to replace an open and free Europe with Putin-friendly dictators.

Emboldened by Trump, the Typhoid Marys of anti-immigration and antisemitic nationalism – which share the same DNA – are spreading the hate in Hungary, Austria, Poland and the UK. Europe already is a tinderbox,  a continent long divided along ethnic, linguistic and religious lines. So I worry it’s a matter of time before this plague spreads to the Netherlands if progressive Americans don’t come to their senses.

Because if the lights go out in America, we’re all going to wake up in 1938 again, with nowhere to run.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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