If there is ever a time when it is acceptable and even desirable to ignore the racket of the American political world, it surely is when living in rural Burgundy, France. In our small village, locals are concerned more with the cost of bread than the cost of winner-take-all primaries. I have repeatedly tried to tune it out, to enjoy local food specialties, wines, and habits on local time without the distraction of democratic socialists (we've got the real thing in power here).
The US presidential race, however, has just been too spicy to block out. I devour the noise from big-time prognosticators, experts, and insiders. (Only in America do you get a high-paying job where you get to say on television or in print, "He has no chance" and then later get to say, in the same mediums, "He is inevitable" without issuing a mea culpa. And if you think I am talking about the current situation, be reminded of 2008, s'il vous plaît. What a great country.)
In time, I realized that, while my new French friends may not know much about filibusters or why DC license plates say "Taxation Without Representation," they do follow U.S. politics. And, so, in my little corner of the Burgundian countryside, I offered up my knowledge.
Recently, at the local community center, 60 curious people came to hear me talk about the current American political landscape. They had only one word on their lips: Trump.
The flier announcing the event described me as an “expert de la vie politique Américaine.” While I have neither appeared on Meet the Press nor been mocked at a Gridiron Club Dinner, I figured that since I might be the only person within 50 miles capable of explaining the Electoral College, expert wasn’t too far of a stretch.
The French excel in many things: flirting, debate, food and wine, smoking. They are also astonishingly adroit at making pronouncements about subjects they know little about. The national motto could easily be the same as my father-in-law’s personal philosophy: “Sometimes wrong, never in doubt.” So, in the weeks leading up to my presentation, there were many pronouncements: “That governor of Texas is going to win.” “It is definitely going to be Bush-Clinton.” It was amateur French punditry: Christophe Le Matthews, guaranteeing results.
On the evening of the talk, days after Super Tuesday, people trickled in, giving each other les bises, the two little cheek kisses that supplant the handshake in French culture, and took their seats. They wanted to get an American viewpoint into the politics in the world’s most powerful country. They wanted to understand when and how we voted. They wanted a little history.
But, mostly, they wanted to talk about Mr. Trump.
I expected the audience to be interested, but I was not entirely prepared for people to be deeply troubled regarding Mr. Trump. In a room full of artisan bakers, construction workers, winemakers, math teachers, and housewives, there was palpable angst about the potential of a Trump presidency. That they were paying attention to the American political process at all was startling; people here are deeply rooted to their own communities, and are oftentimes indifferent to events outside Burgundy. Local residents had largely issued a collective shrug when their own capital was attacked in November; Paris is too far away to trouble their daily lives. Their interest, I realized, was a reminder of America’s unique ability to dominate global discussion. I doubted a comparable sample of Americans would have specific feelings about the next leader of France.
Over 90 minutes, they peppered me with questions about Mr. Trump. “What are his policies?” (I simplified: build a wall, be tough with China, repeal Obamacare, take care of veterans. One woman muttered, “Those aren’t policies.”) “Who is supporting him and why?” “How is he winning?” “Why is he popular?” As I recounted some of Mr. Trump’s philosophies and unique tactics, there was considerable head shaking and no small amount of gasps. Little did we know that later that same night he would reassure nervous people around the world about his anatomy.
Of course, the average American voter does not care one iota about the opinions of a few dozen people in the French countryside – and rightly so. But as the evening ended, I couldn’t help but reflect on the words my new neighbors were using to describe the man who might be the next president of my country. They called him worrisome, dangerous, ridiculous, and scary.
Maybe now I shouldn't beat myself up so much about following American politics. It seems that Le Donald is officially global.