As I wrote here, I am in Ghent for a week, with a stop first in Amsterdam and with a side trip across the border to Germany.
Nothing against the homeland but when I travel I prefer the company of the locals, not so much because they are preferable to Americans but because for me one of the joys of travel is that slightly heady, unbalanced feeling you get when, to paraphrase the old sage Noah Cross, you may think you know what is going on but you don’t.
And in that regard this trip has not disappointed. I have my six students to coach and attend to but other than that it is Europeans all the way: students and faculty from several universities across the continent–Belgium, Sweden, Germany, Austria and Poland.
It’s a undertaking underwritten by Erasmus+, a ‘programme’ for education and training of the European Commission, with the goal being cross-national and cross-cultural understanding and learning. The formal learning is on a matter of policy (in this case public and private debt) but the intensive interaction of students and faculty provides plenty of opportunity for ex parte cultural exchange as well.
It is alleged that where the students are concerned, holed up in a hostel downtown, this may involve special types of ex parte communications. Me, I stayed in a private apartment through Airbnb. None of my cultural exchanges were held at that site and all were entirely appropriate, though rewarding nonetheless.
So when faculty got outside the boundaries of the formal program what did they discuss?
One word: Trump.
Two words, actually. Trump and migrants, in roughly that order.
While there is no question but that the migrant crisis is the main question of the day within Europe, the presence of these curious creatures, the Americans, brought the question of Trump quickly and forcefully to the surface.
They all detest The Donald, of course, and would detest him even more if they thought he had any real chance of the presidency. All were unanimous that of course, natuurlijk, Na sicher, oczywiście “Hillary will win in November . . .
(pause, then nervously)
. . . .das ist nicht richtig?” Isn’t that correct?
I said I wouldn’t bet against Hillary but advised them strongly against counting The Donald out.
For sure I was not going to make an outright prediction. I mean we in America are ourselves hugely conflicted over what it’s all about, with the rise of Trump ascribed variously to the appeal of reality TV, P.T. Barnum and Archie Bunker; and the rise of Trumpism (a different but related phenomenon) to the past omissions of the Republicans, the past sins of the Democrats, excess political correctness, the authoritarian personality, the revealed racism of mainstream America, xenophobia, failed neocon foreign policy, the loss of blue collar jobs and various other causative factors. Indeed, as of today there are two new entries into the causative sweepstakes: that Trump results from a delayed reaction to the 2008 meltdown and/or that Trump results from Obama’s divisiveness. Success has many fathers for sure, even when the son is a bastard that Dad would prefer to disown.
So until we can figure out what is happening I am loath to put on my pundit hat for the Europeans.
But I will say this: if we are wallowing in alternative explanations–most or all of which likely have some purchase–the Europeans are fairly single-minded about it. When you get past the surface expressions of general distaste what you find is an instinctive aversion to nationalism, and to the fact that he stirs popular passions. And the Europeans can’t abide that, can’t stomach it. In fact they fear it viscerally.
Nationalism. We visited a World War I museum in Ypres, near the French border. It is a powerful museum, and uses all manner of interactive tools, historical explanation and objects to get across the terrible meat grinder quality of that hideous conflict. The visitor is reminded at the outset of the tour that the reason the conflagration started so quickly when the fuse was lit in Sarajevo was the excess nationalism to be found across the continent in the Belle Epoque. It is as though the main moral lesson the museum is aiming to convey is less the futility of war than the dangers of the nationalism that led to it. It is a lesson that Europe has in its bones.
So for my European friends Trump represents the kind of thinking that plunged Europe into chaos for almost half of the 20th century. That is not to be scoffed at.
Still, I pointed out to a faculty member from Sweden that the neoconservative crowd that brought the world the Iraq War was adamant in its opposition to Trump, with some threatening to jump ship to Hillary. And that if Europe desired stability in Syria to reduce the flow of refugees the better bet might be Trump. I got cross-eyed looks on that one. Trump is the barbarian, no?
Popular Passions. Or take the visit of several of us to a soccer match across the border near Düsseldorf. The section reserved for the away team, Frankfurt, was walled off from the rest of the stadium seating by six foot high plexiglass walls topped with another few feet of fencing. Inside the pen, Frankfurt fans hooted and hollered and waved their large flags, one of which carried an image of Malcolm MacDowell as ultra-violent goon Alex in Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange. “Bad, very bad” was the verdict of the Austrian professor to this kind of thing. It is just not good to let the passions run too wild as they can get out of hand. Trump is the barbarian, no?
So I figured: sure, liberal academics would not get Trump. They don’t in the United States either. But what of the rabble themselves? The night of the soccer game I returned to my Ghent neighborhood, far enough from the medieval downtown to include workaday Belgians, to visit a bar I had seen on the corner.
I sat down to order a jenever–the local gin, quite different from juniper scented English gin–but my fractured Dutch immediately gave me away. Was I English?, the bartender asked (this is the only part of the world I have visited where people guess you are English first, rather than American). No, I responded, I am American.
Bingo. We were on to Trump. After a few minutes we were joined by a burly local brandishing a cell phone on which he had been watching Trump on YouTube. “Troomp! Troomp!” he exclaimed, pointing to the tiny image on the screen of Troomp giving an address to a large crowd.
This guy looked a little like Christopher Hitchens, and he had Hitch’s glee in a brawling bar conversation, though he lacked the master’s precision with English. He made it clear though, in English fractured by bad translation and beer, that while fascinated by Trump he was intent on looking down on him as a crude and inferior being.
As he ducked and weaved recounting his views concerning Troomp, we wandered from American politics to European current events, and touched on the question of migration and the Muslim population in Europe.
“Brussels is hell!”, he blurted out. “Hell on earth!” He recently had a knife held to his throat by a band of Muslims in the wrong kind of neighborhood in Brussels, and had to call the police to get him out of a tough spot. Neither had he any tolerance for the French-speaking EU bureaucrats he had to deal with in Brussels: they will bend over backwards for you if you speak Arabic, and will be pleased to converse in French or English, but Dutch? They have no desire to deal with you in Dutch.
I reminded my friend that the overall tone of his conversation was not unlike that taken by supporters of Trump in the United States. He didn’t like that. “Troomp? Troomp? No no no no no!”
Steve Sailer wrote fondly recently of Freud’s concept of projection, and how it provided a useful way of thinking about the current dust-up between Trump and his more active detractors at home. The same insight applies in Europe, too, I think. I strongly suspect that Europeans–both educated liberals as well as men on the street–project their own ambivalence about their own migrant problem onto Americans, and onto Trump.
For the Europeans I talked with were nothing if not ambivalent about the migrant problem.
On the surface the usual liberal pieties apply. An elderly Dutch woman I know well started a conversation on this topic by observing that a few hundred thousand Muslims in a population of 17 million was not all that bad. And that Geert Wilders was irresponsible in some of his pronouncements. But then let this person keep talking, honestly and from the heart, and soon you come round to a somewhat different view. Assimilation is hard. They do not want to learn the language. They do not want to adopt our ways. Too many, too fast, too hard to keep up.
I had variations on this conversation time and time again, with an initial expression of solidarity and sympathy fairly quickly giving way to anxiety. And mind you: this anxiety only concerns the problem of the current migrants! When I extended the conversation from this point to discuss the problem of continued migration, this year and the next and the next, my interlocutors universally hardened. No, of course it must be stopped, and stopped now. We cannot go further. They seemed to be saying that handling the moral and ethical problems of the current migrants was more than enough for their consciences, thank you. More we cannot do. We will not be able to process the migrants, or our own feelings.