Donald Trump's long tenure at the top of the Republican presidential polls has many around the world concerned—and left a lot of American travelers in the awkward position of having to explaining his rise.
I recently took a trip to Mauritius, a small island country off the coast of southeast Africa. To the west, violence and extreme poverty threaten Madagascar's newfound political stability. To the north, rising sea levels are swallowing the 115-island archipelago of Seychelles. On the mainland, South Africa is facing a possible economic crisis and student-led rebellion. Chaos, corruption, disease, poverty, and ethnic conflict are everywhere you turn, but what people want to talk about on Mauritius is the same thing everyone else wants to talk about: Donald Trump.
"Donald Trump is very bad man," says Abdelino Borax, who introduces himself as Mauritius's only "hip-hop barber." Abdelino is skewering my beard at the Tamarin-based Gentleman's Emporium as we discuss at length the American rap scene, when suddenly the conversation sours.
"What does he want to do? Lock us all up?" Abdelino, one of more than 200,000 Muslims on the island, is referring to the recent and well-publicized Trump proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
There is little reason for someone in this part of the world to follow the minutia of American politics. Never has an American president stepped foot on Mauritian soil while serving in office. Most here couldn't explain the difference between a Republican and Democrat. But many have heard about the bad man named Donald.
It had been a good run. For a while, Americans could travel abroad relatively freely, without having to lie about our nationality for fear of being spit on as many did during the George W. Bush years. This is due in large part to the global popularity of President Barack Obama. In Indonesia little kids would scream "Oh-Ba-Ma!" after learning you were American. Bright rainbow colored murals of "HOPE" and "Yes You Can!" adorned the African continent. Americans were still mocked, distrusted, and perceived as obnoxiously fat—but before Trump's improbable rise in the polls, it wasn't so shameful to be a US citizen out in the world.
"I find it embarrassing," says Nardin Sarkis, an exchange student from the University of California Santa Barbara studying in Paris. "I'm always having to distance myself from [Trump] with statements like, 'But I'm from California.' Or, 'I'm a first-generation American.'"
It is rare to find the global community so united around any one sentiment, for good or ill. But everyone hates Trump. The UK and French prime minsters have publicly denounced Trump's proposed ban on Muslims, a petition to block Trump from entering Britain received more than 500,000 signatures, and opinion columnists around the world—like their American counterparts—have been denouncing Trump for months. JK Rowling famously tweeted: " Trump worse than Voldemort." In France, there have been comparisons in the media between Trump and Marine La Pen, the charismatic leader of the far right National Front party.
But even the National Front, which is in some ways more extreme in their stance against immigration than Trump (La Pen called for an end to all immigration—legal and illegal), is distancing itself from the ugly American.
As to whether this so-called "Trump phenomenon" has harmed America's image abroad, beyond anecdotal evidence it is still too early to tell.
"I would call him more of a nuisance than anything... like a fungus or a venereal infection," as one American traveler described him at a Brussels hostel, who asked not to be identified by name for fear of being labeled a lifetime STD carrier.
While many view Trump as a clownish figure with orange skin and the hair of a puppet, there is growing concern that his candidacy poses a legitimate threat. "Something as Americans viscerally tells us that the US won't let this happen," says Sarkis. "But people abroad know he's leading the Republican polls and immediately see him as supported by a large amount of Americans, and therefore a viable candidate."
Kayla Hamidi, an undergraduate student at Sciences Po University in Paris, disagrees. "If anyone brings up the possibility of him [Trump] becoming president, it is sort of a doomsday scenario; something too incomprehensible to ever actually happen."
The Donald Trump phenomenon has created a global society of pundits who seek to draw meaning to the one question that never seems to die: Why the fuck are we still talking about this man? But there's no question we're still talking about him, and his message's ubiquity has had consequences he couldn't have foreseen.
Rabie Bakarat, a Professor of Media Studies at the American University of Beirut, says that in the Arab world, the media's coverage of Trump has been "vast and overwhelmingly alarming." In Al-Hayat, a leading pan-Arab newspaper, the columnist Daoud al-Shiryan argues that Trump has achieved his goal, which is to re-establish grounds for hatred that "many have thought ceased to exist."
"Trump's comments have provided government-sponsored media outlets a chance to be on the offensive," says Bakarat of outlets like Al Hayat and Al Aribiya, both of which are Saudi-owned. "Basically you hear people saying, 'We are not responsible for all this [terrorism] bullshit. Americans have similar problems. You have candidates like Trump who are supporting their own form of extremism.'"
Herein lies the problem with Trump's perceived "hate speech." To some it is another political act, and to others it is hurtful, even personal. Many Muslims living abroad, like Abdelino, still believe that Muslims are generally treated favorably in the US, as evidenced by the large number currently living in the country (estimates range from 3 to 8 million).
Bakarat and others in the Arab world believe that despite Trump's global reach and earth-shattering bravado, his words will remain impotent unless he somehow wins.
"The damage is only momentary," Bakarat says. "Or at least we hope."