I was living with my family in Thailand when the whole Trump phenomenon began. Shortly after his meteoric rise within the GOP, I got into a cab with one of the rare Thai taxi drivers who knows a little English, and is forever practicing it on helpless customers. "So, you like Trump?" he asked, after discovering I was from the United States. "No," I replied, entirely uninterested in talking politics. "Oh... you like Obama?" he prodded. "No." There was a moment's pause, then he ventured, "So... who you like?" "None of them." I retorted. "To hell with the lot of 'em!"
I think I speak for many American expats at that time when I say that living overseas during the ascendancy of Trump was both confounding and surreal, regardless of one's politics. When I first heard he would be competing in a crowded Republican primary, I figured it was some publicity stunt. "Really? The guy from the reality show? The one who co-owned the Miss Universe pageant? The man notorious for his divorces and sexual promiscuity, a consistent guest on the 'Howard Stern Show?' The casino magnate?!?" Surely this was some kind of joke.
And yet he was drawing big crowds and winning state primaries. Foreign friends from Thailand, Australia, the United Kingdom, and handful of other countries wanted to know what the hell was going on. The president of the United States is, after all, the de facto leader of the free world. Decisions made in Washington often have global ramifications.
I wasn't sure I knew what to tell them. I would ramble through some answer that pieced together what I read in American newspapers and magazines -- that my fellow countrymen were tired of political correctness and a detached establishment. That Americans were frustrated by forever wars, a growing socio-economic divide between the coastal elites and flyover country, and a nation that seemed increasingly unmoored from its religious and cultural traditions. But none of that, I thought in the back of my mind, really seemed to make sense of Trump.
We moved back to the United States in late summer 2017. America seemed a lot different from what I had remembered leaving more than three years before. The political rhetoric and tensions seemed far more caustic than I had ever remembered. I had dutifully read the Washington Post everyday I lived overseas -- and thus knew that the Left and Never-Trumpers abhorred the man -- but I didn't realize how deeply that sentiment had seeped into people's day-to-day behavior and lived experience. He was, for a significant percentage of the American people, no less than the devil incarnate. His presence in the White House was a noxious offense that drove many to drink or seek therapy.
I started to think maybe I understood Trump's popularity. Even for people who acknowledged his flagrant immorality and risible ignorance, he was perceived as an effective weapon to combat a liberal establishment that dominated much of legacy media (with the exception of Fox News), academia, the federal bureaucracy, and corporate America, among many other institutions viewed as oppressive or out of touch. Supporters would say that yes, certainly he was an imperfect instrument (though some of my friends were surprisingly sanguine on his character), but Trump was America's best hope for a country careening into irreversible moral, cultural, and economic decline.
To my amazement, Trump actually held up his bargain on abortion and foreign wars, among other campaign promises. He was almost certainly the most pro-life president since Roe v. Wade (1973). Apart from a few explosions in Syria and Iraq, Trump seemed committed to reducing America's global military footprint and disastrous democracy-building experiment. Moreover, the absurd, pathological extent to which his opponents maligned him for even the most trivial offenses (ahem, WaPo Fact Checker) suggested that perhaps he was really upsetting the stasis of a detached, decadent establishment.
If covid-19 had never happened, I think America would likely be witnessing a second-term of the "Orange Bad Man." The economy was strong, the president had survived an impeachment trial on charges many voters disinterestedly shrugged at, and he was eager and prepared for some major polemical fireworks against the Biden team. Yet the pandemic -- and then explosive racial tensions following George Floyd's death-- exposed what perhaps nothing else could: the incompetence and unprofessionalism of Trump's administration. The comic Doonesbury portrayed Trump as a hapless, narcissist with blood on his hands in every Sunday strip. Perhaps few Americans read Doonesbury, but I think that perception of the Donald -- or something like it -- was a motivating force for a significant percentage of the electorate on 3 November.
Many could predict what would happen if Trump, the consummate self-absorbed bully, lost on that Tuesday: fraud allegations, attempts to rally his doggedly devoted base, and a puerile refusal to prepare for the inevitable incoming Biden administration. Few, though, could imagine what would happen on 6 January when a mob of Trump supporters, Right-wing fanatics, and conspiratorial looney toons emboldened by remarks from their uncompromising leader, would storm the U.S. Capitol. The great Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke's prescient warning seems apt: "Moderation will be stigmatized as the virtue of cowards; and compromise as the prudence of traitors."
And with that, I return to my time in Southeast Asia, witnessing from afar Trump's political ascent. As much as I was sympathetic to some elements of Trumpism (e.g. a vigorous pro-life stance and an aversion to foreign intervention), I couldn't understand why American voters cheered the man. Indeed, I suspected his 2016 campaign was some elaborate con. Residing again in the United States for several years, I thought I had come to understand the social and political factors that birthed and perpetuated his political stardom, even if I found some (e.g. QAnon) preposterous and dangerous. Yet these last couple of months have reminded me of the cold, humbling truth: I still don't get it.