In the past two weeks, I have visited Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. In each, the conversation inevitably turns to President Trump — but not in the way that he might imagine. He is a source of morbid fascination everywhere. The most common question I get is, “How long do you think he will remain in office?” The next most common is, “How did this happen?”
There are Trump defenders out there, even if I have yet to encounter anyone who is truly enthusiastic about him. There are government officials in the Middle East who welcome that he seems tougher on Iran than President Barack Obama was. In Mexico, I encountered a businessman who regularly lost employees who had migrated north — he alleged illegally — across the U.S. border. He was sympathetic to Trump’s promise to better police that border.
But even those defenders seemed to have been taken aback by the events of the past few weeks. It appears Trump’s defense of neo-Nazis and white supremacists in the wake of Charlottesville was as much a watershed abroad as it was in the United States. It has become harder to publicly back him given his willingness to associate himself with racist American extremists. The pardon of former sheriff Joe Arpaio was seen as a doubling down on these odious impulses, coming as it did in the wake of the controversy over Trump’s Charlottesville remarks and his subsequent defense of them in his rambling, unhinged Phoenix rally. Particularly among Latin communities outside the United States, Arpaio is among the leading symbols of discrimination, abuse and hate-mongering. He is the Bull Connor of his generation, the leading example — until Trump — of those who twist the law to use it against the weakest and the innocent.
Trump’s U.S. opponents may view this as only one of the president’s defects and a fairly domestic one at that. But based upon my travels and conversations with international visitors, I would argue that of all his flaws and mistakes in office, none has had so profound or so detrimental effect around the world as the president’s racism. The Russia scandal, Trump’s incompetence, his revolving door of staff and his failure to get anything substantive done legislatively all account for little in the consciousness of most foreigners. And while his foreign policy — particularly his seeming willingness to flirt with nuclear confrontation with North Korea and with other military conflicts from the Middle East to Venezuela — has generated legitimate concerns worldwide, the most frequent criticisms I have heard of his actions tie to his intolerance and attacks on ethnic groups.
This began during the presidential campaign, of course, with his insults to Mexicans and his anti-Muslim rhetoric. It was compounded when he surrounded himself in the White House with people closely associated with white supremacist and intolerant views, including Stephen K. Bannon, Sebastian Gorka and Stephen Miller. Even now that Bannon and Gorka are gone, the pattern of the first seven months of Trump’s presidency centers around the president’s fear or hatred of the “other.” From the bungled but tenaciously pursued travel ban to the consistent prioritization of the wall with Mexico to an immigration crackdown that has targeted the innocent, Trump consistently has sent a signal to those outside the United States that they are no longer welcome.
This perception has been compounded by his regular comments denigrating foreign leaders or entire peoples. Statements by apparently valued White House aides — such as Miller’s claim that the welcoming words on the Statue of Liberty were an afterthought that could be ignored — have reinforced the sense of hostility. As a result, in country after country I have visited, the most common theme I have heard is one of avoiding the United States. People said they would not visit the as planned, that they had relatives who would not be studying there as planned, that something had changed. As one Arab executive said to me, “I don’t know how I or my family will be treated anymore. Why take the risk?”
One consequence of this is that according to the Global Business Travel Association the United States will lose $1.3 billion in tourism revenue and as many as 4,000 jobs. A travel monitoring service called ForwardKeys predicted summer travel to the United States would be down 3.5 percent. Since most “foreign relations” these days is conducted person-to-person this is damaging. But when the president fails to condemn domestic terrorism by whites against Muslims or others, he plays into the hands of terrorist groups overseas just as he does when takes actions that suggest that the United States is targeting all Muslims rather than just dangerous extremists. This rhetoric increases the risk for U.S. service people and diplomats deployed overseas.
It has become clearer in the past several weeks than ever before that at his core, Donald Trump is a racist committed to promoting division and intolerance as a core political strategy and central policy initiative. That’s terrible for us at home. And from traveling around the world, it is clear that his policies are not only undercutting America’s standing in the world but also making us less safe by alienating our friends and inflaming our enemies.