‘The US is seen as a joke’: American expats on Trump, Biden and the 2024 election

Gustaf Kilander speaks to Americans who moved abroad about how they perceive their country now — and how the people they know perceive them

Tuesday 30 April 2024 16:05 BST

An election in which 1 in 6 Americans don’t like either candidate is new territory. And no one finds themselves more called upon to defend their country’s choices than the Americans who currently live abroad.

Studies show there are clear differences in how the US is seen by outsiders when Democrats are in the White House versus when Republicans are. Democrats have held the White House for 11 out of the last 15 years. And for those 11 years, international views of the US were generally quite positive.

Jacob Poushter, an associate director at Pew Research Center, tells The Independent that “in surveys that we conducted in 2017 around the world, we did see a precipitous decline in favourable views of the US” following the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

“In particular, confidence in President Trump’s ability to handle international affairs was drastically lower than [President Barack] Obama’s, across virtually all the countries surveyed,” he adds.

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‘Everybody wanted to hear my thoughts on Trump’

Haylee Pearson, 33, experienced this firsthand while living in Madrid, Spain.

“When Trump won, everybody wanted to hear my thoughts on Trump: ‘What do you think about Trump? What do your parents think about Trump? Do you own a gun? Does your parents own a gun?’” she says. As an American expat in western Europe, she experienced a frenzy of questions from interested people throughout Trump’s term.

“All of these taboo things would be in what seemed like a very trivial question [from] someone who I just met at a party or just met in a work setting,” she says. “Their genuine curiosity was actually incredibly difficult for me – [it was hard] to explain all the time because I felt like I had to caveat like, ‘Oh, I don’t support Trump. I don’t agree with Trump. Please don’t put me in that category of Americans – in that way of thinking.’”

The US expats that The Independent spoke to for this article all said they experienced similar sentiments from the residents of the places where they lived. In Canada and western Europe in particular, views of the US reached new highs during the presidency of Barack Obama, and then plummeted during the Trump years, before starting to recover as President Joe Biden came into office.

In late June 2016, Mr Pouschter and Richard Wike wrote for Pew, regarding Mr Obama: “Around half or more in 15 of 16 countries surveyed, including the United States, have confidence in him to do the right thing regarding world affairs. This includes more than 80 per cent in Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, France and Australia.”

Nearly four years later, in January 2020, Mr Pouschter, Mr Wike, and two additional co-authors noted: “Across 32 countries surveyed by Pew Research Center, a median of 64 per cent say they do not have confidence in Trump to do the right thing in world affairs, while just 29 per cent express confidence in the American leader.”

In June last year, across 23 countries, 54 per cent expressed confidence in Mr Biden, while 39 per cent said they did not have confidence in the president, according to the centre. 

Ms Pearson left the US at the age of 26. After living in Madrid, she moved to London at the end of 2019.

“In the time between 26 and now, I’ve entered the corporate world, I’ve gotten married, and I’ve had my first child,” she notes, adding that now “everything just seems more intense and more real”.

“We made a rule and even joked with my coworkers: no Trump talk, please don’t ask me about Trump. I can’t deal with it anymore,” she adds.

Maggie Fitzsimmons, 31, lives in London now. But she grew up in Arizona, went to college in Texas, and lived in New York City during her young adulthood – places that cover “quite a broad range” of political viewpoints, she says when speaking to The Independent.

Having left the US for a job opportunity in 2017, she says she has found that “there’s this interesting inflexion point that happens when you’ve hit five years abroad. In that, you both start to care less, but then you also realize how much more ridiculous it is [inside the US] at the same time”.

‘The whole character of where I was living had changed entirely’

In 2020, at the age of 60, Alice Engelmore moved to Canada, after having lived in Ireland between 2013 and 2017. She moved during the pandemic, leaving California for Vancouver.

“I just felt that the whole character of where I was living had changed entirely; that people weren’t being kind to each other. It was in the middle of the pandemic, and there was quite a split, even in my neighbourhood in California, where my neighbours were anti-vaxxers. And they were not complying with restrictions … having parties. And it was just very difficult,” she tells The Independent.

“When Obama was elected in 2008, we saw a … jump in ratings from the lows of the George W Bush administration,” Mr Poushter says, adding that the 2017 “decline in favorable views of the US was driven a lot by a lack of confidence in Trump and opposition to his signature foreign policy pledges, such as building a wall between the US and Mexico and withdrawing from international climate agreements.”

“I thought he’d be indicted before he was elected,” Ms Engelmore says, recalling what it was like in 2016. “I honestly didn’t think he would be elected.”

‘Negative aspects of US soft power’

Mr Poushter cites an international survey amid the pandemic, which showed that one of the more negative aspects of US soft power was the “US standard of living.” In particular, “the health care system got especially poor marks”.

Ms Pearson believes “Biden is almost trying to bring America up to the standard of living that Europeans and Brits already understand”.

“I think people think that [the US] operates like a much poorer country than it is,” Ms Fitsimmons says. “I think people view it almost as a country that should be considered almost third-world, but it should be operating at a richer capacity than it is.”

She adds that locals around her see the Biden-Trump rematch as a bit “satirical”.

“They think it’s kind of a joke of a country in a lot of ways,” she says. “I think it differs between the people who have spent time in America and know Americans versus those who maybe have watched it through TV. And those who have watched it through TV are probably the ones who think it’s more of a joke, whereas people who have lived there, gone there, understand it a bit more.”

Ms Fitsimmons says that when the topic of US politics comes up, locals may recall “snippets of things they’ve heard in the news. Like, ‘Oh, is the wall still being built?’ Or ‘Trump, he was arrested, right? Didn’t he have a mug shot?’ – I think they pick up on little snippets that they’ve seen, rather than engage in like intelligent discourse about it”.

‘America is not the greatest country. It never really has been’

Mr Poushter says the ratings for Mr Biden “range from country to country. Biden’s very popular in Poland, for example — 83 per cent have confidence in him. But in neighbouring Hungary, only 19 per cent have confidence in Biden. So his ratings are generally positive, but mixed views towards the US are also generally positive in the last year … due to … some of the soft power aspects – American technology, entertainment, universities, and the military are also all seen very strongly”.

“Just to get Trump’s finger off the trigger is a great relief to the world,” Ms Engelmore says. “I think that because he’s still in the wings, he still might become president, there’s still a lot of trepidation.”

“The US is still very much like an episode of Veep, but not in such a dangerous way. Biden is delightfully boring, which is exactly what you would want from someone with so much power,” Ms Pearson adds.

But much like Americans living through this election cycle in the US, the expats are all disappointed that there’s no younger blood in the wings.

“I’m very disappointed with Biden – he told us that he would be sort of the bridge president into the next generation … And he did nothing to elevate any younger potential candidates,” Ms Engelmore says. “I think he should have he should have elevated someone else and then back them.”

The rise of “middle-finger politics” may not be unique to the US but it’s possibly more pronounced compared to other western nations.

“It’s less polarizing here,” Ms Fitsimmons says of the UK. “I could sit in a room with someone who voted Conservative and someone who voted Labour and they can have a polite conversation. Whereas I feel like in the US, it’s become a lot more polarized, and people of different views can’t have a functional conversation anymore.”

“Canada is a much more collectivist country,” Ms Engelmore says. “Vancouver came through the pandemic much better than the cities in the states that I was in – people generally do what their government tells them to do.”

But she adds that the US has a massive cultural influence in Canada: “When I first got here, there were people that were waving Canadian flags off their cars. That is not something I saw before. And the trucker rallies, the gatherings of anti-vaxxers, and conspiracy theorists on corners. All of that feels new, and it feels a little Trumpy.”

Ms Pearson says “I think that there’s been a reckoning with a lot of Americans in the past eight years and … there is this acceptance that America is not the greatest country. It has never really been. There are a lot of things to be proud of about America, but none have happened within the past 10 years.”

“Trump’s America was almost theatrically scary, almost like a bad 80s movie, like he’s an evil politician from a low-budget film. But now that I have a son, everything has changed,” she adds.

“Is this really what we have to offer? Are we really the loudest? Do we really have anything to say?”

How the US can improve its image

Views of the US rebounded somewhat after Mr Biden came into office, following the close-to-historic lows during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Pew’s 2023 survey of 23 countries, a median of 59 per cent said they had a positive view of the US in 2024.

“I honestly think it probably would be through the figureheads,” Ms Fitsimmons says, when asked how the US can improve its image abroad. “And through laws changing. I think people can’t even put their heads around something like gun control not being a thing.”

“I think it does have to do a lot with the person who’s in power, because that’s kind of the way in … And also people just spending time with Americans in America to know that the people are not the government,” she adds.

“Views towards Trump were a lot lower in the western European countries relative to the eastern European countries, which probably means that, for example, Poland, a country that we’ve surveyed, since … 2005, was actually one of the countries that had relatively positive views of the US during the Bush administration,” Mr Pouschter says. “There’s a lot of positive feelings towards the US in eastern Europe, especially in Poland and that’s continued throughout the administrations.”

He goes on to note that eastern Europeans’ experience during the Cold War and the subsequent NATO expansion to the east has helped keep views of the US mainly positive, regardless of who’s in the White House.

“Germany is a country that swung quite wildly between negative views of Bush, high views of Obama, negative views of Trump, high views of Biden. So I think there is a little more awareness about the American political system in western Europe,” Mr Pouschter says. “That leads to more changes – if there’s a change in the presidency” there can be “pretty wild swings in US image and confidence in the US president based on who’s in the presidency”.

Ms Engelmore says she hopes the US can rein in social media companies, something which may improve views of the US abroad. With a looming possible ban on TikTok, she may get her wish.

“I’ve got really mixed feelings about government censorship,” she says. “But I think the truth is that the kind of misinformation and conspiracy theories that are affecting the US are affecting the rest of the world. If the US could do something to counter that, that would be a huge relief.”

“I think of how careless [Mr Trump] is trying to instigate wars on social media, how reckless he is with the lives of 300 million people and everything just seems scarier now with him being in power and everything seems a little bit more finite,” Ms Pearson adds. “Here he is, with all of his legal issues, with all of his money tied up … It’s just very scary to see that people continue to support him.”

“That’s a testament to American culture, but it’s also a testament to how broken the system is,” she adds. “He wouldn’t even be able to get a job working … as a bank teller, but he can run for public office.

“America will always continue to be a superpower. I don’t see that ending anytime soon. But public opinion, our reputation – I don’t even think four more years of Biden will fix that.”

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