LONDON — How did Donald Trump win the 2016 election? Can you explain how this is even possible given his comments on minorities and the claims of sexual assault? Will he really seek to jail his vanquished opponent?
These are the kinds of questions that many Americans living abroad have faced in the wake of Trump’s shock victory.
“The undercurrent to conversations goes like this: ‘What the hell is your country thinking?’ and ‘Can you speak for your country?’ ” said Mena Mark Hanna, a 32-year-old academic who moved to Berlin two years ago.
It is estimated that more than 8 million Americans live abroad, and, like many of them, Hanna is no fan of the 45th president-elect. But that hasn’t stopped him from being pelted with questions about how his fellow Americans could vote for Trump.
Hanna doesn’t always know how to answer the questions. “I can’t speak for this man, Trump, or the political results of this election. It’s not the America I know or recognize,” he said, noting that Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton, won the popular vote.
Trump is widely disliked in Europe. In Britain, members of Parliament debated earlier this year whether to ban him from the country after his controversial comments about Muslims. The motion was not passed, but lawmakers dug deep into the well of insulting adjectives, calling Trump a “ridiculous xenophobe” and “the orange prince of American self-publicity.”
Trump’s victory sent shock waves around the world, and reactions from global leaders have ranged from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s optimistic note of congratulations to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s very cautious welcome.
But there is an intense curiosity and eagerness on the ground to understand how the nation that elected Barack Obama could, just a few years later, choose Trump, or as the comedy writer Rob Fee tweeted: “How do we go from our first black president to a president endorsed by the KKK? How?”
Foreigners are curious, too, and ears perk up when they hear an American accent with its distinctive “r’s.”
“As expats, we are expected to be able to explain the actions of the president,” said Lucia Lucas, a 36-year-old from Sacramento who moved to Germany in 2009. Sometimes strangers overhear her on the train, recognize her accent and launch into questions about U.S. politics. “People who don’t know us feel like we owe them an explanation,” she said.
She hasn’t resorted to sewing a maple leaf on her backpack or — as some of her American friends have done — telling people that her accent is a Canadian one. But she has vowed to work on her German accent in hopes of blending in.
This sensation is new. When Obama first assumed power eight years ago, the world was enamored with the United States for electing its first black president, and there was enough stardust around to be sprinkled on U.S. expats. It was a strange feeling for many Americans who lived overseas during the George W. Bush era, when anti-Americanism was rife.
“Obama has this rock star status, and you felt like, as an American over here, you were a roadie in his rock star entourage, just because you were an American,” said John Scardino, a 56-year-old high school teacher who moved to Britain in 2000.
Now, he says, his British friends and colleagues are flabbergasted.
“When I walk into school, a lot of my teaching colleagues will say, ‘What is going on?’ Something Trump has proposed or said will be in the news, and people at work will say, ‘Is this for real?’ ”
Some expats find it easier than others to explain the appeal of Trump.
“I think Brexit and Trumpism are a necessary corrective to excesses of globalization,” said Alex Sundstrom, a 37-year-old from Boston and a board member of the British branch of Republicans Overseas.
On Tuesday night, Sundstrom was at a watch party at the U.S. Embassy in London, where he estimated that of the 1,500 guests, about “99 to 99.5 percent were pro-Hillary.” But he also said that just as there are “shy Tories” in Britain, there are “shy Trump supporters,” too.
At the embassy party, Sundstrom’s “Make America Great Again” pin easily identified him as pro-Trump, and he described the experience of walking into a room filled with journalists as “going into a pen with starving lions and wrapping yourself with raw meat.”
Part of the global interest in the results of the election stem from how Trump defied the expectations of almost every pollster and pundit.
Albert Frantz, 41, an American entrepreneur who lives in Vienna, was “pre-celebrating” with friends on Tuesday evening. But as it became clear that Trump had won, the proud American went from feeling jubilant to feeling “ashamed” of his homeland.
“I was shocked and horrified. We just clicked the undo button for all of the advances that Western societies have made in the last century,” he said. “I never thought this could be a reality.”