America Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum: Part 1

This is part 1 of a discussion I had with Leonie, a German political, historical, and cultural social media creator and graduate student in American Studies. After watching one of her(very accurate) posts I was immediately interested in her observations about our (completely nutty) politics in light of Biden’s recent inauguration and the events of the past four years leading up to it. Leonie’s insights are astute and very telling; something Americans would be well served to pay attention to.

What does everyone think of me?” Aaahh the question of a million middle and high schoolers navigating puberty, growth, change, and the next steps that lay ahead of them. It’s a question important to people of that age, though the older influences in their lives try to impart the futility of caring too much about the answers. But you still want to know. Sometimes you find out that the issues about yourself you were so worried about aren’t even registering with others. Other times you discover there are many things you need to pay more attention to.

It’s not that different in the life of a nation. Especially if your name is the United States of America. Though the administration of the last four years tried to pretend America stood alone with no reason to care about other countries sharing this planet, those very countries have indeed cared about what we were doing. And they have been watching.

Is the United States of America still regarded as an everlasting bastion of democracy on the world stage? What have the last four years done to our reputation? Read on to find out.

Wilo:

So, where did your interest in America, American culture, and our politics and history come from? Why pursue graduate work in American Studies?

Leonie:

The reason I’m doing what I’m doing is probably influenced by the pop cultural influences I had as a kid and teenager. Our pop culture in Germany is heavily influenced by American pop culture. I learned English from watching American shows streamed in English and not being afraid to speak it. The older I got, I got an emotional connection and spent some time in the U.S. I took part in a jazz music exchange twice as a teenager. But as I grew older and became more politically active and just political in general, I of course had an interest in the political side of the country I was so fascinated with.

Wilo:

What’s been the perception of the United States and its politics in Germany?

Leonie:

[Speaking of the Trump years for example], what a lot of Trump supporters making comments to my content just don’t get is that what Trump did not just affect the United States. Pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord affected us. All of the sudden, in a matter of days, pulling troops out of Germany affected us. Germany stores weapons for the United States and the history and the relationship of these two countries just makes it impossible to think the U.S. just exists in a vacuum.

I can’t speak to how Germany in general perceives the United States but thinking of the Obama administration or Obama running for president and the pop cultural influences and all that. It all played into this idealized perception of America. Now the more you get involved in that, the more research you do, the more people you meet, it gets clearer that this is not the case, but this is also what gets me.

Wilo:

What is the news cycle like in Germany in terms of covering American politics?

Leonie:

The major headlines do make their way over to Germany. German news works very differently than it does in the United States. We do have news channels, but they are in no way, shape, or form comparable with American news organizations. We do have publicly funded television and publicly funded news, which are very matter of fact. I would say it covers 50% German news and 50% from around the world, and the U.S. is in there.

Wilo:

Let’s talk about when Donald Trump first burst on to the political scene and announced his run for president. Did you keep track of that?

Leonie:

Yeah, absolutely back then. I was doing my bachelor’s work so was already very interested in all of that. We did follow and I think it was similar to what most Democrats and a lot of Republicans felt at the time: that no one should take him seriously. We’re not taking him seriously. Then it got to the point where he was the Republican nominee and we saw this. Now with the German history we see things through that lens and can see a certain rhetoric. I know it worried us for sure, because we’ve seen this, and we’ve seen this from the right-wing party in Germany. We’ve seen that you don’t even have to win the race to shift the political discourse.

We’ve seen this in Germany now. They are a minority but through existing in the public discourse they have brought back a rhetoric that was deemed unacceptable before. And that is what we saw during the Trump candidacy. And that was what really worried us—that people all of a sudden felt comfortable saying racist, homophobic, ableist, sexist, misogynistic things in public.

Wilo:

When you woke up to the November 9, 2016 news that Trump had won, what was your reaction, and that of the German public that you could see?

Leonie:

So, this year we didn’t have a viewing event at the university in the American Studies department, which is something do every presidential election, except for during a global pandemic. [In 2016], I stayed until 11 or midnight and I was really emotionally exhausted. I went to bed relatively early that night because I knew it was going to take some time. But I went to bed feeling optimistic because at that point, Hillary Clinton was still in the lead. I felt like, you know what? I’m going to wake up tomorrow morning and the U.S. is going to have its first female president. This is awesome. But then there as already this voice in my saying, don’t be so sure.

I woke up pretty early the next morning and grabbed the remote control to turn on the TV, only to see the last few electoral votes coming in that pushed Trump over the finish line. And I started crying because I knew that this affected so many people. I remember I saw the other day in my archives, something I posted on Instagram that has been so shockingly true. I posted something like people are going to lose their insurance, their healthcare, their lives, their dignity, their homes, their safety. I didn’t know I was going to be that right. I wish I wasn’t.

That morning I had to go to a seminar on American politics or American institutions or something like that. And overall in the department it was very, very, quiet. You could feel there we were all in collective shock. So, I can only imagine what it felt like in the U.S.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

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