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An American abroad in the time of Trump

| Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Every time I open my mouth in Ireland, somebody asks me about Donald Trump. My American accent gives me away, and everyone from curious taxi drivers and bartenders to the person sitting at the next table at Starbucks want to hear what I have to say about the new president.

It’s been like this since I arrived in Dublin last August. Before the election, everyone wanted predictions. After four years studying political science, I told them what I knew to be true: past research seemed to indicate that Donald Trump didn’t stand much of a chance, but that research also gave him even less of a chance of winning the nomination in the first place. I told anyone who asked that I honestly thought Hillary Clinton would win, but after the chaos of the primary season, I wouldn’t make any real predictions.

Luckily I didn’t, because I woke up to a stunned world on Nov. 9. In Ireland, the morning after the election was quiet, almost eerie. In a nation partly defined by its people’s ability to talk to anyone about anything, nobody I encountered seemed able to articulate what just happened. For that matter, neither could I.

That’s the reality of being an American abroad in the time of Trump. The world wants answers and I don’t have them. My opinion would do just fine, too, but right now I don’t know what I think. When the topic of the Trump administration arises with my Irish counterparts now, I can really only tell them, “Well, it’ll be an interesting four years.”

A few weeks after the election, I went on a tour of Irish parliament with a group of Notre Dame study abroad students. Our tour guide, an Irish senator, asked who among us lived in a swing state — namely, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan. He asked those students how it was that Trump won their home states. The line of questioning grew somewhat embarrassing, and when nobody gave an answer that satisfied him, we moved on with the tour.

As we walked into the next room, I turned to a few students walking with me and said, “That’s what the rest of the world thinks of us now.” That’s the other reality of living outside the U.S. right now, and the reality with which our generation will have to grapple for the rest of our lives. Despite President Trump and his “movement’s” repudiation of globalization, we live and will continue to live in a world that is more interconnected than ever before. The forces of globalization will long outlast Donald Trump’s presidency, and our generation will be left to deal with whatever legacy he leaves behind on the global stage.

And for young Americans like me, who for the rest of our lives will perhaps live, work and travel overseas, our country and Donald Trump’s leadership of it present a great challenge. In the same way that teachers tell their students that they represent their school on field trips, Americans abroad are ambassadors for our country wherever we go, for better or worse. Right now, that’s a difficult task.

The final reality of being an American abroad during the Trump era snapped into focus as I watched his inauguration last Friday. A few Irish colleagues gathered around my desk to watch some of the ceremonies and the inaugural address. I sat mostly silent, absorbing the speech and its potential effects. They were enthralled. It was then that I finally realized that over the past few months, the world has watched the U.S. closely not only as a practical matter of trying to foresee the course of international relations, but also as a form of entertainment.

All week, my Irish colleagues have been making jokes about “alternative facts.” They tell me that Saturday Night Live has never been more visible in Ireland than it has since Alec Baldwin started playing Donald Trump brilliantly. I can’t speak too broadly, but the final reality of living abroad right now is reckoning with the knowledge that a lot of the free world views its so-called leader as a joke.

I personally cast no judgement on President Trump and his new administration. I only seek to stay as connected as I can to what is going on back home and absorb as much of the experience of living abroad at such a fascinating time as I can. Indeed, it is a strange, captivating, challenging, sometimes surreal time to be an American living abroad, but that’s just the reality of it all.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Jack Rooney

Jack is a 2016 graduate of Notre Dame, and The Observer's former managing editor. He is currently spending a year living and working for the University in Ireland, and writing columns to keep him busy. For more random thoughts and plenty of news links, follow Jack on Twitter @RooneyReports.

Contact Jack