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Updated: Dec 15, 2020

May 29, 2020

I love to travel. I’ve traveled widely ever since I was old enough to buy my own plane tickets. No matter how broke I was, somehow I could always get where I wanted to go … even when it meant standing in a train packed with soldiers, students and crying babies, all the way from Venice to Sicily. Which, yes, I did.

We Americans tend to be popular tourists. We’re friendly and forthright, upbeat and optimistic, not to mention good tippers. I’ve often found myself been surrounded on the street, in markets and museums and cafes, by young people on the lookout for Americans to practice their English. There were always kids and teens, sometimes even young adults, clamoring to talk to me about baseball, gangsters and Hollywood. They wanted to know which celebrities I’d met, and what Disneyland is like; they belted out lyrics to American Top 40 hits, and wore t-shirts with American sayings on them, like “Zero Chill” or “Bazinga!” which they often didn't even know the meaning of. Just that they were American was enough,

Worldwide, our nation ranks third (after France and Italy) on most lists of the world’s top travel destinations. An Australian once said to me, “I don’t know if it’s your Constitution, your Rocky movies, World War II, how much money you give other countries, your accents, or what, but to the rest of us it seems like Americans can do no wrong.”

Well, not true. I’ve also had to dodge the “ugly American”stereotype. And I’ve listened, sometimes squirming, sometimes heartsick, as citizens of other countries explained their objections to our policies, military actions, or our “American indifference” (as a Moroccan scholar once put it) "to the travails of the rest of the world."

That’s how it was for a long time. We were mostly loved, very much admired, our way of life aspired to everywhere — altogether, much more sunlight than shadow.

Well, that's changed now.

We lost a lot of our luster when Donald Trump took office. My Dutch friends in the Caribbean, a Canadian couple I’ve stayed with, Kiwis and South Africans I’ve met, my Italian relatives, my Irish in-laws — in fact, virtually everyone my partner and I know elsewhere in the world simply can’t understand how a country like America could have fallen like we have. It's like the prettiest girl in town fell for the town's biggest thug.

I’ve tried to explain. “Most people didn’t vote for Trump, and the ones who did thought they were getting a sharp businessman, who’d make us savvy and competitive. They thought he was brash and real. On TV he seemed funny.”

But, they say.

“Yes, he doesn’t like to work. He’s cunning and bad-tempered. Yes, he really does tweet all day,” I allow. “He lies constantly and calls people mean nicknames. He’s incompetent and has no attention span. Yes, we've seen all that now. Yes, I do feel ashamed that after an entire campaign season, followed by a free and fair election (as far as we know), this is who we're stuck with.”

Loyal as I feel to my country, I’ve never experienced the slightest qualm about throwing this President under the bus. We may have elected him, but I don’t consider us accountable for his conduct. Not even his worst enablers can be held responsible for this man's personal viciousness, his profanity, his greed, his petulant rages, his indifference to any suffering that isn’t his.

Thanks to COVID, the contempt that much of the world has always felt for our President is soaring. Plenty of us here at home are also reeling — from his mangling of our national response to the virus, and now his insistence on trying to rekindle the economy at the expense of lives. How can a country whose citizens are dying by the hundreds of thousands build a booming economy? How?

Why has he set us apart from all other nations at a time when we could all be helping each other?

We’re seeing that the countries whose economies are recovering best are those whose leaders have prioritized health and safety. Jacinda Ardern, Moon Jae-in, Angela Merkel, Leo Varadkafr, Guiseppe Conte and others started with fewer resources than we had and, in the case of Conte, less time to prepare. Yet all brought the virus under control better than we did, and are opening their countries sanely, gradually, with compassion.

It’s no secret that Trump’s desire to re-open the U.S. is closely linked to his re-election hopes. This is the kind of brute self-interest that keeps causing him to fall further in the world’s estimation. And lately I've noticed that We, the People, seem to be falling now, too.

Around the world, we’re rightly held to account for following a leader whose ineptitude has been evident from the beginning. The corona crisis has only made Trump’s failings more evident -- while also leaving us more vulnerable to them.

On March 25, The Irish Times ran an Op-Ed by columnist Fintan O’Toole, titled “Donald Trump Has Destroyed the Country He Promised to Make Great Again.”

The subhead is even more painful: “The World Has Loved, Hated and Envied the U.S.. Now, for the First Time, We Pity It.”

To which I want to snap back, “We don’t need your pity! We’re Americans — we’re winners!” Except the only thing we’re winning right now is the #1 spot on the list of Things Not to Do in a Crisis.

As if to confirm our worthiness for that distinction, yesterday Trump cut U.S. ties to the World Health Organization.

Today in America, violent protests in Minnesota are continuing for the fourth day in a row over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black citizen, at the hands of police. Even as I write this, protesters in Atlanta have begun demonstrating along with them. The New York Times just announced that President Trump has authorized the military to be ready to intervene in Minneapolis.

Frankly, catastrophe has become commonplace in the spring of 2020. We spend our time trying to swim in a sea of news so alarming or heartbreaking, it would dominate our national consciousness for weeks, even months, in normal times. But nowadays we barely have time to react before another headline breaks.

We’ve learned over the past few weeks that the the CDC’s guidance and its “re-opening” guidelines have been suppressed by the White House, leaving states to throw open their doors and hope for the best.

Hardcore Trump followers, armed with machine guns, demonstrate their loyalty by menacing the statehouses of Democratic governors and refusing to practice virus precautions they say violate their Constitutional rights.

As of yesterday, there are more than 40 million Americans unemployed, more than 100,000 dead, and at least 1,777,037 new coronavirus cases in the U.S. And that may be a low estimate. We still don’t know exactly how many people are infected because we still don’t have the testing we’ve needed from the beginning.

Hunger has now set in, with food banks all over the country so overwhelmed that towns like Burlington, Vermont have had to close streets and highways to make room for the thousands of waiting cars.

Meanwhile Mitch McConnell, the lead Republican in Congress, has recently expressed regret that the relief aid distributed over the last six weeks was too generous — never mind that most small businesses and individuals didn’t get as much as they needed, that much of the aid still hasn’t arrived, and that a grotesque amount ($500 billion) of the March CARES package went to wealthy corporations, with investment giant BlackRock placed in an unsupervised management role that benefits its own operations and those of its business allies.

Yet 14 hours ago, McConnell stood in front of cameras and announced that the next round of aid to the people will be the last: “Ultimately, we can’t prop up the country forever.”

So our citizens will now have to surge back into the workforce, knowing we’ll start infecting each other again. Knowing, too, that our government will probably never allow us to shelter at home again, no matter how long this virus is with us, and no matter how many of us die.

A Swiss friend of mine recently compared our situation to that of Jews in Nazi Germany, after authorities had closed the borders.

“You do realize you can’t leave now?” she said. “Because even if you could find a way out, who would let you in?”

No, I hadn’t realized that, not until she said it. But she’s right. Maybe not the part about Nazi Germany, but the part about being trapped.

As New Zealand and Australia finalize plans for a “safe travel” corridor between their two nations, as other countries cautiously consider re-opening transportation hubs, the U.S. faces a summer, a year, perhaps even years, of isolation.

Which kind of makes us hostages now, doesn’t it?

Our leaders shame us by saying government is “propping” us up, as if relief aid comes from their pockets and not ours. As if we got ourselves sick and unemployed so we could finally become the grifters and freeloaders we’ve always dreamed of becoming. Trump, who demonstrated breathtaking insensitivity by golfing on Memorial Day weekend, told the New York Post this month that “there’s a great optimism” in our country, with many people "starting to feel good now.”

We are in the building with the gunmen, and all the exits are sealed.

The isolationism of the Trump years, which has felt so wrong all along, hasn’t helped us in any way. It’s definitely not keeping us safe from the pandemic now — just the opposite: we’ve created a situation where the virus can circulate freely, but we ourselves can’t escape, and no help can get in. Our poverty will keep us out and about, working — at least until herd immunity sets in, a vaccine is found, or we die, whichever comes first.

“It is hard not to feel sorry for Americans,” O’Toole writes. "Most of them did not vote for Donald Trump in 2016. Yet they are locked down with a malignant narcissist who, instead of protecting his people from Covid-19, has amplified its lethality."

We, the People, opted not to challenge the election of Donald Trump in 2016, though evidence of election interference and Electoral College manipulation have thrown long shadows across his victory.

We had a chance to oust him after last year's impeachment, especially when the Senate, under McConnell, refused to conduct even the appearance of a fair trial. But we, as a nation, preferred to wait for our next peaceful jumping-off point, November 2020.

Then came COVID.

It feels to me like we haven’t begun to face the magnitude of our losses here in the U.S., much less recover from them. Our people are now cringing before those we elected to serve us. Jobless Americans, objects of contempt to Republicans, are meekly suffering hunger rather than demanding more government assistance. Once proud, we’re now reduced to wondering if the men holding the guns will let us go to the bathroom.

Outside the windows, friends and neighbors signal frantically. But it’s as if we can’t hear them.

Photo credit: Jeremy Bishop

I wonder if we can yet change the course of this catastrophe — how much of that trademark American optimism it would take. I, personally, do believe it’s still possible.

Though the lives already lost can’t be saved, we can save future lives. We can demand our tax dollars be returned to us in the form of aid so we can weather this crisis in safety. When it’s safe to re-open, we can begin rebuilding our economy as we’ve done in the past, with cooperation and resolve.

And we can rein in this President, whatever that takes, before he drags us still lower. Because unless we do that, we may be facing an abyss like America has never known before — not during the Civil War, nor the Great Depression, nor the economic crash of 2008. If what’s already underway continues — the social unrest, the food shortages, the illness and death, and the isolation — we may be facing a loss of hope we’ve never known before, too.

Our nation was able to rebound from other crises in the same way that individuals get out of abusive relationships, or start fitness programs, or end an addiction: by deciding that We, Ourselves, are worth the effort.

Today, in the midst of the heartbreaking daily death tolls, the tribal hatreds, the armed protesters, the chaotic and dissembling White House, all the turmoil and ruthlessness and desperation that’s raging in this nation on May 30, 2020, somehow I still think: don’t count us out, world.

Photo credit: Koshu Konii

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