De Ja Vu All Over Again

De Ja Vu All Over Again

There it was again. That feeling. The feeling that I hadn’t felt in a long time, but that I still remember very well. I used to feel it each time I met someone new. I used to feel it, pretty much constantly, for the seven years I lived in Europe, thirty years ago.

Memories of this time burst back into the news a few days ago with the passing of Nancy Reagan. I know it might sound churlish to point it out so soon after her death, and I know for some of you it may come as a shock, but her husband was not all that popular on European university campuses of the 1980’s, perhaps on university campuses in general. In fact, on all the university campuses I ever visited, or in the pubs and cafes their students frequented, Ronald Reagan was thoroughly reviled. It didn’t matter whether I was in England, Finland, Sweden, or West Germany, as soon as people knew I was American, they wanted to know what I thought of Reagan. You had to declare yourself. Your answer was critical.

As it happened, my answer to this question was the one they wanted to hear. I had not voted for him the first time, and jumped through hoops (getting my absentee ballot across the Atlantic) to not vote for him the second time either, but I have to admit the constant pressure to state my position, to prove that in my opposition to him and his policies I was worthy of their serious consideration, grew wearying. I wanted Reagan to just go away. Sometimes I wanted them to go with him.

For despite the fact Ronald Reagan is now lionized over here for his “winning of the Cold War,” back in the day, over there in Europe, amongst a large segment of the population, Gorbachev, not Reagan, was the man of the hour. People wore Gorbachev’s face on T-shirts. They named their pets after him. Maybe it was Reagan’s military build-up that forced the Soviet Empire to its knees, but to the people living in the middle, people who believed that if it came to war, it was their countries that were going to be obliterated, for a lot of these people, the Russian guy often looked like the better option.

One of the chief things I remember disliking about Reagan, was that every time I heard him speak, I was intensely aware that he was acting. He so often sounded like one of his characters from those many B-films he made back in Hollywood in the fifties. I remember it seeming horribly false to me at the time, but in the light of recent events, as we are now being offered Vegas instead, Old Hollywood is starting to look really good to me. Reagan might have been acting. He might even have been acting badly, but you never had to worry about him saying something utterly vulgar. It just wasn’t in his DNA.

Fast forward more than thirty years, and as my husband and I stepped into the taxi at Vancouver International Airport and the driver learned we’d just arrived from the States, the question was immediate. “What do you think of Trump?”

Now, at the time we didn’t yet know what had been said in the course of last Thursday’s debate. We’d been up in the air, flying westward over the frozen Canadian vastness. I didn’t yet know that posting articles on Facebook from The New York Times about the Republican primary debates was now likely to put me in danger of offending against the moral’s clause in my teacher’s contract.

All I thought was, “Uh, oh. Here we go again.”

Back to the eighties.

Of course, our answer reassured our driver that he had reasonable, thinking humans in the back seat of his cab and not Muslim-bashers. (He was Muslim.) The fact we had to give an answer, however, the fact we were already apologizing only a few minutes over the border, was sad, embarrassing, depressing. The shape of things to come.

Now, I know a lot of Americans don’t travel outside the United States and say they don’t care what the world thinks of us, but what your neighbors think of you is often quite instructive. For many of the people who live in other countries can tell you what happens when the norms of civility and public discourse are thrown to the winds. They can tell you what it’s like when a “civilized country” somehow devolves into warring factions. They can tell you what happens when a “strong man” comes to power with the stated intention of kicking butt and cleaning house. They can tell you what it’s like to live in chaos.

When I lived in West Germany, I remember reading a series of interesting conversations between people who had voted for Hitler in 1933 and their now-adult children. It was all part of the Germans’ never-ending attempt to come to terms with their difficult past. One grown man, I remember, when he asked his father how he could have voted for Hitler, received the following reply:

“Son, in 1933, I would have voted for the devil if he’d given me a job.”

And his father did vote for that devil.

And that devil did give him a job.

And that job was in a munitions factory.

The rest, as they say, is history.