Robert J. Callahan, Chicago Tribune
How would you explain Donald Trump to a foreign audience? Could it be done in a coherent way? Could it be done at all?
To citizens at home, this may be merely an intriguing exercise. But to our country's diplomats it is a daily challenge. As part of their jobs, especially if they are public diplomacy officers, as I was, they are charged with "telling America's story to the world," and this includes describing the leading figures and issues in an election year.
During my 32 years in the State Department, ending in 2011, I had to explain the Nicaraguan Contras to skeptical Brits, Ross Perot to stunned Bolivians, and the 2000 election mess to dumbfounded Italians. But I never had a task as difficult as that facing our Foreign Service officers today — how Trump has come to be the presumptive presidential nominee of one of our two national parties.
Reflecting on how I might approach the assignment, I imagine myself today among those foreigners I saw frequently over the course of my career. I spent a lot of time with journalists and co-workers. I met often with politicians, professors and artists of one kind or another. All tended to be well-informed and curious, just the types who would want to know more about Trump.
In Baghdad, for example, I'd have to explain to the dozen or so Iraqis who worked in the press office why Trump wanted to prohibit them and their families from entering the United States. These Iraqis, all of them Muslim by birth but few of them observant, waited for hours to pass through security to get into the protected Green Zone and the embassy where they worked. While in line, withering under a relentless sun, they might be atomized by a suicide bomber or mortar shell.
Or they might be identified by one of the many groups who opposed America's presence in the country. If so, they might get an unwelcome visitor some night who would order them to quit helping the occupiers or pay a price. The embassy barber had such a visit. When he ignored the threat and returned from work a few days later, he lost his right hand to a butcher knife.
What would the Italians make of Trump? Might the jut of his jaw and the narrowing of his eyes, the exaggerated gestures and bombastic rhetoric, recall Il Duce — Benito Mussolini — himself? And being attentive to manners and style, the "bella figura," Italians might find the candidate's breezy vulgarity offensive. And what would they make of his cantilevered hair and its day-glo color? They might ask, do you really want this man to represent America to the world?
The Bolivians, at least those of a certain age, might find in Trump a familiar figure. Back in the 1960s, when plain-talking Gen. Rene Barrientos engineered a coup and took office, he advised Bolivians to travel with their last will and testament, even when walking down a city street, because they would never know when a bullet might find them. Now there was a man who spoke his mind, just like Trump.
What about the Central Americans? I lived in three countries on the isthmus for a total of eight years. With the exception of Costa Rica, Central America has suffered from political instability and pervasive poverty, although conditions are now improving.
Still, many Central Americans have a fragile self-image. To them, Mexico is the colossus of the North. If Trump thinks that most Mexicans are criminals and layabouts, they must ask themselves, what could he possibly think of us? We're poorer, weaker, smaller. They would want answers, some reassurance.
The British, it is true, have an active appreciation for the silly and absurd, but it tends to show itself in subtle ways. And there is nothing subtle about Trump. But when the British go for blatant political humor, they leave no doubt as to what they think. One of their parties, now defunct but much in the news when I was there in the late 1980s, was called The Official Monster Raving Loony Party. Perhaps partisans could be persuaded to invite The Donald to lead the ticket, even though some of Britain's kill-joy politicians want to ban him from the country for his hate speech.
The Greeks, like the Bolivians, have their own historical reference point for Trump. In 1967, as the other members of NATO were strengthening democracy and building strong economies, several Greek colonels led a coup d'etat, which distinguished them among their generation of Europeans, even those in the Soviet Bloc.
The colonels, among other bizarre initiatives, ordered that the language be altered. They had the schools jettison demotic Greek, which had been around for centuries, and begin teaching "Katharevousa," or purified Greek, a weird amalgam of the classic and the modern. If you can change by fiat the way the people speak, the colonels might argue, then it's perfectly logical to believe you can build a wall along the Rio Grande and make the Mexicans pay for it.
One of those Greek colonels still lingered in prison when I lived there in the late-1990s. He would have surely admired the Republican nominee's penchant for intimidation, his fondness for water-boarding, and his readiness to see autocratic regimes acquire nuclear weapons.
Come to think of it, if he's still alive perhaps the colonel can explain Donald Trump's appeal. I can't.
Robert J. Callahan, a retired diplomat and former Chicagoan, served as U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua.