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Slovenia's Trump translator: How I became the American explaining our election to Melania's people

I'm an art historian, not a pundit. But this year I became the go-to Yankee for the tiny, obsessed European country


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Noah Charney
November 14, 2016 12:00AM (UTC)

For the past few months, I’ve been writing a weekly politics column for a popular Slovenian magazine (we might call it the Salon of Slovenia). Every Tuesday, I would do my best to explain the latest on the election to a readership understandably confused about what on earth is happening in America. The result of the election only poured gasoline onto the surrealist fire. The questions came thick and fast: How, exactly, could this happen? Is this a joke? What have you done to your country, to the world?

Slovenian interest in the election was first drawn by the presence of President-elect Donald Trump's wife and incoming First Lady, Melania Trump. Being Slovenian, her fellow countrymen were quite proud of her having “made” it (if marrying someone so despised can be considered an achievement). Never mind that she has exhibited no interest whatsoever in her native land, apparently not speaking Slovene to her son and visiting as little as possible (Donald has only been once). But Slovenes tend to be especially proud of their countrymen who achieve notoriety abroad, beyond the idyllic borders of the two-million-strong nation. Success at home is all well and good, but you’ve only really made good if you’ve succeeded elsewhere.

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I’ve lived in Slovenia for many years now (if you’re curious about the feats of manliness I was obliged to perform there during the dreaded šranga on my wedding day, check out my first-ever article for Salon). There are few enough expats in Slovenia that I tend to be the go-to American here — I appeared on three different Slovene television programs last week ahead of the election. I’m often in the media because I’m so outspokenly in love with my adopted land. After having lived in eight different countries, and after thorough research, I genuinely consider it the best place to live in the world (I’m just finishing writing a book called "Slovenology: Life and Adventures in the World’s Best Country"). I’m something of Slovenia’s leading cheerleader. To that end, I wrote a piece for The Washington Post on what the Slovenian government does particularly well to care for their populace, programs that other countries (like ours) could learn from. This led to an invitation to write this politics column, to help Slovenes understand what the heck has been going on with this Mad Hatter’s Tea Party of an election (pun intended).

I knew relatively little about politics before a few months ago. I’m a professor of art history and I normally write about culture, and I've had to learn. I’ve intentionally avoided weighing in on politics, because I, like every person on the planet, have built-in prejudices. My beliefs are based on what my parents, my teachers and my peers believe. I grew up in a coastal American city (New Haven, Connecticut), with educated, middle-class parents (both my parents were professors at Yale, and so was I), and so it was inevitable that I’d be liberal and support Democrats, though I’m quite mild and passive about it.

When I was growing up, I intentionally avoided reading about or discussing politics, mostly because my family would get so enraged at Republican shenanigans, while we ate breakfast and muttered curses over the news in The New York Times, that I found myself only getting annoyed when I followed elections and the ridiculous partisan warring. This was something I needed to explain, because Slovenes (and likewise, I imagine, any non-Americans) have a lot of trouble wrapping their heads around, for instance, why a Republican Congress would block Obama’s well-meaning programs simply because he is a Democrat, scuttling them on principle without seeming to consider what’s best for the country. Or how, after so many mass shootings, no one could manage to pass substantial gun laws. Or how Republicans convince the poor to vote for them, when their policies make the rich richer and don’t seem to do much to help those from lower-income families. How a minority can vote for someone who is outspoken against minorities, or how a someone with a low income could vote for a candidate who has promised to remove any chance they have at receiving health insurance. That’s not to say that similar things don’t happen in Slovene politics, but it’s more black-and-white in the American two-party system, and our lobbies are stronger, and it’s often easier to see the forest for the trees when following events abroad than in your own backyard.

Frequent questions included an explanation of the labyrinthine electoral college system (which I’ll admit I had to look up), why the congressional race was just as important as the presidential one (with congress being more powerful collectively than the president), and how it’s possible to have so many mass shootings (in Slovenia it’s a national headline if there’s a single violent crime) without anyone passing a serious gun control law.

These points strike me as just as illogical as they do the curious foreigners. It’s likewise illogical that someone has been elected who has said as many divisive and untrue things as Trump has. Any one of his dozens of statements would have ended a normal politician’s career — but Trump, and the U.S. population, are anything but normal or followers of traditional logic.

Slovenes generally seemed to feel that neither Trump nor Hillary Clinton were fit for office. I can understand that Trump argument, but I had to do a lot of research to understand why Clinton is so unpopular — among both Americans and foreigners. There was a lot of talk about her seeming disingenuous, or two-faced, or “up to no good.” But there was a distinct lack of empirical evidence, fact or specificity to back it up. Just this general dislike. The disdain for Trump is as universal here as could be expected, but it was cut by a tendency to believe news sources circulated via social media, without double-checking the headlines or probing the source, which sometimes supported him and smeared Clinton. For instance, those obviously invented pro-Trump news stories emerging from websites run by teenagers in Macedonia were generally taken as fact. Likewise, that Wikileaks released emails from Clinton was taken to mean that those emails contained scandalous content — which, when journalists actually took the time to read them, they did not. Here headlines, particularly those in English and German, tend to be more valued, and are likelier to be believed, by Slovenes than their own, local media. However we explain the negative aura around Clinton, whether the result of false news and rumors or some intrinsic unpopularity vibe, it is felt by both Americans and foreigners.

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Slovenia has a multi-party system and, to them, the idea of a two-party system seems designed to be divisive — if there are only two options, and you favor one side, you necessarily dislike the other. The multi-party system in Slovenia can be confusing. There are so many parties and politicians that it can be dizzying, but the collective result is that the angst is more diffused. Politics here is also followed by a smaller subsection of the population than in the States, as most fairly quickly came to the conclusion that “all politicians are the same,” implying that they are corrupt or not working in the best interests of the people. This may or may not be the case, but it surprised me that Slovenes, who only achieved independence and the right to vote in 1991, should so quickly have grown jaded (several friends here told me that enthusiasm for the democratic process here lasted only about two or three years).

Slovenia is a country I idealize, and America is one I’ve not been too hot on for a long time. The current situation just confirmed and deepened my concerns.

Over the past few days, my friends in the States have, to say the least, been freaking out, and a number have asked me about moving abroad. It seems they’re not the only ones, as reports come in of Canadian and New Zealand immigration websites crashing from overuse. I don’t think you could pick a better country to move to than Slovenia, and it would be ironic that, just as Melania has “made it” by moving from Slovenia to the top of the United States of America, droves of Americans would look to flee in the opposite direction.

The day after the election, having filed my last column in the series, I found a new Facebook page entitled “Screw This, I’m Moving to Slovenia.”

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I highly recommend it.


Noah Charney

Noah Charney is a Salon arts columnist and professor specializing in art crime, and author of "The Art of Forgery" (Phaidon).

MORE FROM Noah Charney

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Donald Trump Elections 2016 Melania Trump Slovenia

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