I’m writing from a third-floor, light-filled living room in an apartment that was built in 1909. The 14-foot ceilings are ornamented with stucco angels and flowers; in the middle is a solid iron hook once used to hang heavy chandeliers. The floor is oak parquet, and a large center hallway boasts a few spacious rooms on either side. In the 1920s and ’30s, a well-off Jewish family lived here. By the early 1940s, they did not. A plaque on the front of the building commemorates where they went—or, rather, were taken: Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Dachau.
When I arrived in the Schöneberg neighborhood of Berlin, nearly ten years ago, I knew my exit from United States would likely be permanent: I moved for love. My wife, whom I met in graduate school, is from the western German city of Wuppertal, once a prominent industrial center and home to one of the world’s few elevated suspension railways, the Schwebebahn. During the war, 40 percent of Wuppertal was destroyed. My maternal grandfather, born in suburban Philadelphia in 1917, had something to do with that: He marched through Wuppertal’s hilly streets with the U.S. Army 58th Infantry Division, Second Battalion, in March 1945. His tattered brown notebook from the day he entered the city reads, “Finished Ruhr Pocket.”
My wife and I met a half-century later, in 1996, under more placid conditions: studying art history and philosophy at Stony Brook University, on the north shore of Long Island. Like many smitten international couples, we then moved around a lot: to a quaint German university town where she was studying; back across the ocean, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where we landed jobs in publishing and the arts. Back across the Atlantic again, to the German port city of Hamburg, for her job, and, finally, to Berlin, for mine, in 2008. Since then, we have frequently visited the United States to see my family but have never seriously contemplated moving back. And now that we have a son in first grade—in a German-American school, no less—that prospect has faded further.
Increasingly, over this campaign season and after multiple American mass shootings, we are, on the whole, glad. But moving to Berlin was a more challenging idea in 2008. Barack Obama was about to become the next President of the United States, which meant an end to the previous eight years of a President whose policies and preferences we did not like. These were difficult years for any Left-leaning American, especially for one living abroad who was nearly everything the Christian Right despised: secular, humanistic, evolutionist. The George W. Bush years also posed a distinct challenge to anyone who thought the European social and economic model compared favorably, at least in many ways, to the U.S. one. As American “exceptionalism” was being countered by sobering social statistics—the decline of social trust, citizen engagement, and literacy; increases in shootings, economic stagnation, obesity, and diabetes epidemics—the European model was issuing forth in happier, healthier, more productive and educated citizens. It was during these early Bush years that I began to distance myself inwardly from my own country. This was not intentional. It just sort of started to happen.
I remained an American proud of my history, of my country’s standing as a beacon of freedom in the 20th century, its slow but definite progress in civil rights and social justice, its enormous and admirable economic might, cultural energy, and intellectual resources, and its determination to extinguish the anti-democratic forces of fascism and communism with the brains and brawn—and blood—of its own citizens. I am still happily imbricated with American optimism, can-do spirit, and sense of specialness. And I cherish the traits of spontaneous, pragmatic decision-making, groundbreaking innovation, forthright action, and impromptu creative activity—all quintessential American characteristics that have altered the world, on balance for the better. These traits become highlighted when you live abroad and witness, for example, the constipated, ploddingly methodological, risk-averse, authority-worshipping intellectual style of German thinking.
For anyone who has been an American in Europe for longer than a vacation, you know you play a role as a representative of your country, like it or not. You are forced to answer for America in ways that you are never required to do in the United States; you are a de facto model of your nation’s values. The behaviors you exhibit—showing up on time, keeping your promises, being straightforward yet compassionate, going out of your way to help, dealing with others equally, showing fallibility and accountability—come to reflect not just your personal moral character but also that of your compatriots. When you are abroad, you become a metonym for America.
I have been proud to do this, to be able to show Europeans an American who was not the American that European media knee-jerkingly pounce upon: a violence-prone, fat, racist cowboy sitting in football-team sweatpants with a gun at a casino eating a cheeseburger while sucking a hyper-sweetened Frappuccino through a straw from an enormously domed plastic Starbucks cup. Europeans love to caricature Americans, the adage goes, because it distracts them from their own flaws. They have done this for so long that, quite often these days, when they think no one foreign is listening, they reveal a shared view: Americans, on the whole, are stupid. Every country has its biases, some founded, some not.
I’ve not thought about any of this stuff in a long time, actually. When you first come to Europe to live, you think about the differences and make comparisons between them and us. This is better, that is worse; they are like this, we are like that, and so on. But at some point, about two years in, this gets boring. You are simply living in Europe now. You are integrated, adjusted, you speak the language; it’s all normal. You can know who has moved here recently by listening to who is still making the comparisons.
Lately, shouldering this representative role and thinking about differences has again become more urgent, you might say, since Donald Trump has been shaping America’s image abroad, which, make no mistake, he has been doing. Europeans know that a President Trump would reconsider NATO’s legitimacy and promises; redress trade deals he does not like; consider allowing countries to proceed with nuclear armament; cozy up to Russia; come to resemble a dictator rather than a democrat; and threaten alliances and the postwar global order. Europeans, dependent on U.S. security and moral leadership for the past half-century, are worried. “What is happening over there with this Mr. Trump? Is he serious?” some Germans—friends, colleagues, family—ask me. “Oh, he’s serious,” I say. While we are discussing the United States, they also ask me what is going on with the spate of mass shootings, unarmed African-American deaths by police, rioting, climate-change denial, the Jesus freaks, and, most baffling, the NRA’s push for fewer restrictions on assault weapons.
As they are asking me these questions, I begin to feel that inward disassociation I felt when George W. Bush was President; my eyes gloss over, my stomach sinks. I want to try to think of an intelligent answer that will help to legitimate the decisions that are being made in my country, to put things in some kind of larger context. These days, however, I just raise my eyebrows, purse my lips, and throw my arms into the air: “Who knows?” As a person who will vote for Clinton and has donated money to her campaign, I explain that I have done what I can.
I became most conscious of being an American in Europe and a supporter of Hillary Clinton when, on August 12, Donald Trump tried to disparage Clinton by comparing her to Angela Merkel. Referring to the German chancellor’s liberal immigration policy, which has triggered Germany accepting circa 890,000 refugees over the past year, Trump said at an Ohio rally, “Crime has risen to levels that no one thought they would ever, ever see. It’s a catastrophe,” adding that Clinton wanted to be “America’s Angela Merkel.” Factual inaccuracies aside (there have not been massive increases in crime, and desperate Syrian refugees have been met with extraordinary generosity by German volunteers, far from a catastrophe), I immediately thought: America should be so lucky as to have an Angela Merkel.
The current Chancellor of Germany has been re-elected three times, controls the largest economy in Europe, has found a centrist position on multiple issues despite the challenges she faces within her own party, is a tough negotiator and shrewd strategist, is respected by all her parliamentary colleagues despite disagreements, and has steered her country through the most difficult global challenges of the past decade (the euro and immigration crises). She continually gains high marks for her integrity, truthfulness, and accountability. In the 2013 election, she received an astounding 41.5 percent of the vote in a multiparty parliamentary system—no mean achievement. Merkel also has a Ph.D. in quantum chemistry, speaks several languages, and commands respect and admiration for her leadership skills the world over. Forbes has named her the most powerful woman in the world for a record tenth time. She was Time’s Person of the Year in 2015.
If Hillary Clinton were to become the American Angela Merkel, then the United States, finally, might begin to look more like Europe—a model Barack Obama has furthered more than any President since FDR—partaking in the standard model of 21st-century statecraft. Aiming to be more like postwar northern Europe would be hitching the American wagon to a model of how most Western nations and societies have functioned since the end of World War II, and what has made them so successful by doing so.
Adopting a European model of domestic policy would recast the U.S. position on what the state actually offers its citizens: universal healthcare, paid sick-leave, generous paid parental leave, affordable and widely available childcare and kindergartens, four weeks of vacation, fewer working hours, and expansive worker protections. These offerings have resulted in higher productivity, happier citizens, better primary schools, multilingual children, affordable rents, higher levels of saving, lower levels of poverty, and higher levels of social equality. European cities like Berlin have enormous amounts of public space, bike lanes, cleaner air, public museums, operas, other cultural institutions, superior public transportation systems, better highways, smaller buildings, and smaller cars. On the macro scale, European countries see more oversight of financial institutions and tighter regulations on financial activities, more environmental protection, radically lower rates of crime and violence, the total absence of guns among the general population (which explains why the U.S. murder rate is over 500 percent higher than Germany’s), and an overarching sense of society working together to provide the best for everyone—to which even the exorbitantly wealthy gladly contribute. This is why countries such as Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and Denmark have the highest ratings on the OECD Better Life Index, and boast some of the most green, family-friendly, and wealthy cities the Continent has to offer.
In Europe, free-market capitalism is kept in check by state measures and strong unions (here is the “socialism” charge, known in Europe plainly as “social capitalism”), so it doesn’t run roughshod over human lives by firing people on the spot, making them work too much or for too little, or creating a new variety of serfdom. State oversight protects citizens when they are without a job or sick, and it makes sure that all children are taken care of, especially those of the poor, who, after all, did not choose their fates and should be given the chance, at least, to be healthy and fed and educated. That seems a bare minimum of what a state should be doing, in addition to protecting the safety and property of its people.
But for many Americans of the Trump persuasion, the state—that is to say, the government of the United States and the mechanisms of Federal and state administration—has become a public enemy. The charge of socialism—a word Bernie Sanders and his supporters proudly used—arises as soon as the state is perceived to have any power over market forces whatsoever. Europeans split the difference: Social capitalism is the only rational way to manage the affairs of state if you want to uphold the ideals of Western democracy—economic fairness, equality before the law and at the ballot box, and the promotion of human dignity and freedom.
It is true that wage earners pay more tax in Europe. I pay an approximate 30 percent tax rate on my salary, which covers complete public health insurance for my family of three (to which my employer contributes), my social-security payments, “old age” payments, a contribution to the still-struggling eastern half of Germany (Solidaritätszuschlag, an annoying and politically contested remnant of post-Wall economics, to be slowly dissolved beginning in 2019), and, because my wife is Catholic, a church contribution (also annoying and, for an American, unconstitutional. But, when in Rome . . .). All in all, Europeans receive a lot in return and pay less for it publicly than Americans pay for it privately, if one factors in ballooning U.S. healthcare costs. These averaged $17,500 per family annually in 2015.1
The first few years I traveled to and from northern Europe, in the late 1990s, I hoped the United States would become more like it. I was inspired by the vigor, freedom, and authenticity of public life in Europe—people went out in public just to be in public, in spaces that were un-colonized by hokey or oppressive corporate branding. I felt, perhaps for the first time, “a sense of society,” which, Tocqueville observed, America patently lacked.
This sense of shared life was something created by decisions made in local and national politics. I voted Democrat in the United States in part because I saw candidates who believed, similarly, that the state played an important role in making people’s lives better. This is not to say—as is so often caricatured—that the state would control one’s life and fate, that it would rob the individual of his freedom. It is rather to note that those who promote the rational combination of state controls and free enterprise must first inherently agree on a vision of the kind of society they wish to have. Because of the increasing disparity between the visions of the political Left and Right over the past eight years, the United States, I fear, may never get to a place of agreement. Without it, there is little hope of a new social policy that can work.
This is why my hopes for the United States have become much less bright—and in part why I have decided not to live there. We Americans are too enamored of our guns and violence and exceptionalism and “USA! USA! USA!” incantations, which seem to celebrate, above all, our unique ability for self-destruction. We are too in love with entertainment and the private lives of kitschy celebrities instead of concerning ourselves with the colder, detached assessments of how social policy will actually affect human lives and levels of contentment. Due to the explosion of entertainment and its various means of transmission over the past half-century, we have increasingly forgotten that the work of government is the more fundamental reality of everyday life. Policy, not Pokémon.
In contrast, political life in Europe is boring, as politics for the most part is. There are no Twitter wars or obsessions with beauty contestants or talk-show hosts. Politics in Europe is not entertainment. Indeed, no one in Germany knows much about Angela Merkel’s personal life, beyond the story of her GDR youth and who her husband is (Joachim Sauer, a quantum chemist at Humboldt University), and no one really cares to know. This is because Germans generally accept that the real work of politics is impersonal, long, laborious, concentration-intensive, and tedious. This is the reality of responsible adulthood in a Western-style democracy. Politicians have to carry out the numbing work of creating and sustaining the laws that ensure freedoms and choices for their citizens, and they have to keep criminals, catastrophes, and market forces in check to ensure the survival of a functional political and social system in the future. The administration of a state is an immensely complex undertaking, requiring self-sacrifice, impersonality, and an ability to work outside of the spotlight.
Americans of the Trump variety would do well to remember that these kinds of traits are not inherent in their candidate. He can barely stay out of the spotlight for an hour. They would also do well to remember that the conditions of liberty, equality, and freedom in a modern society are not naturally occurring; they are conditions created by the work of government and society together. Forged well, they give rise to a thriving middle class, like they did during the middle of the 20th century, leading to the Baby Boom and a Pax Americana. But if neglected, what occurs is an abdication of watchfulness over the mechanisms of economic activity, giving way to the natural economic law that capital accumulates to capital, and power accumulates to power, when uninhibited by concerns about liberty and equality for anyone but its beneficiaries.
I don’t want to be hyperbolic, but I am reminded daily by the plaque on the front of my building that this abdication is exactly what happened in Germany and what the United States ultimately halted and reversed, for the good of Europe and the world. It is true that bad things happen. But it is equally true that bad government helps make them happen. No nation is immune. If there is anything an American living in Berlin knows, it is this.
1“Health Insurance: Premiums and Increases,” National Conference of State Legislatures, August 5, 2016.