How could the U.S. elect Barack Obama for two terms, and then turn around and elect Donald Trump as U.S. president? Antoine Ripoll asked community leaders that question at Indiana State University Friday.
Ripoll, director of the European Parliament Liaison Office with the U.S. Congress, was one of 22 foreign diplomats on campus to learn more about American politics and elections. At Indiana State, they learned about Vigo County’s bellwether status as well as the university’s efforts to encourage students to vote through the American Democracy Project.
The mystery to Ripoll, who is French, was how the U.S. — and Vigo County — could vote for two politically polar-opposite presidents without a major crisis to precipitate such a radical change.
“It’s mind-boggling for me, and I think for the whole world. How can this happen?” he said in an interview.
When asked for other countries’ views of Trump, he laughed, “Do I have to be diplomatic?”
European views of the U.S. have changed with the election of Trump and the agenda he espouses, Ripoll said. In the past, America meant a confident country that embraced the world, was open to trade and welcomed migrants and diversity.
Now, “We see an America that has lost its confidence,” he said. “It’s fearful of migrants ... protects its trade and uses tariffs” on foreign products. It has withdrawn from the climate change agreement.
“We are just wondering, what’s happening,” he said. “Why are Americans changing completely?”
The panel attempted to answer his question.
Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett suggested, “I think sometimes when somebody gets in office, especially for two terms, things begin to go a certain direction. I think under Obama, a lot of people felt like there was a little too much government involvement in our lives.”
With the election of Trump, “People were looking to take it the other direction.” Bennett believes after Trump’s tenure ends, whether after one or two terms, “My guess is there will be a shift back in the other direction.”
State Rep. Clyde Kersey (D-Terre Haute) suggested one big reason was people losing good-paying jobs with the 2008 recession and those jobs disappearing; they’ve not been able to recover financially. “They’re having a hard time making a living, they’re working two or three jobs and they’re angry,” he said.
Ripoll said the diplomats have to explain to their “bosses” in their native countries “what’s happening in this country.” And while they are based in Washington, D.C. embassies, they like to get out of the Beltway. Typically, they visit more metropolitan areas, but they wanted to come to the Midwest — and Indiana — to learn from politicians, activists and voters how they feel about their country and politics and why they plan to vote a certain way.
“What are the big issues for them, and what are they worried about?” he said. In visiting Indiana, the diplomats found that people here are more concerned about local issues, not so much international ones, and they aren’t big fans of the federal government.
The diplomats visited Indiana State as part of the Embassy Guild, a nonprofit that provides training on how U.S. politics work.
Matt Decker, Embassy Guild president, said one reason for visiting Indiana was the close senate race between U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly and Mike Braun; diplomats visited both South Bend, where Donnelly is from, and Jasper, where Braun resides.
The visitors expressed “shock about the importance of money” in that campaign and others, Decker said.
“We met with the wife of Mike Braun [Friday morning], and she talked a lot about that,” Decker said. “Money is always the biggest surprise to these guys when they start talking American politics.”
He wanted them to visit the Midwest to get a better understanding of why Donald Trump was elected president. For example, they went to Elkhart and learned how the 2008 recession impacted residents there.
“I think one of the things they have learned is maybe it’s not that people love Donald Trump, though some of them do of course, but it’s that they feel disconnected from the powers that be,” Decker said.
One diplomat, who asked to remain unnamed, said what they hear in Washington, D.C. is not always the same as what they hear in the Heartland.
“These are the real-world voters,” she said. By visiting, they are learning what Hoosiers “really care about,” including education, the economy and jobs.
Asked what people in her country think about Donald Trump, she said, “People have different ideas, but we believe that he is trying to bring the most benefits for the American people, in his own way, in his own understanding.’
Asked what she’s learned about U.S. democracy and politics, she said, “It’s complicated and difficult to predict.”
Christian Jetzlsperger, who is with the Federal Republic of Germany embassy, found it interesting to talk to people in the Midwest to understand what their concerns are and how they feel about the president and national issues. People he’s talked to in Indiana are concerned about health care, the cost and quality of education and illegal immigration.
Other Western democracies, in Europe as well, are also facing challenges with the rise of populism, he said. But for Germany, the U.S. is the most important partner and ally outside of Europe, “and will remain the most important partner and ally outside of Europe for many years to come. For us this relationship is really crucial and important,” he said.
Ed Pease, chairman of the Indiana State University board of trustees, knows Matt Decker and invited the international visitors to the university. “They were interested in Indiana State because they view it as representative of the Midwest,” Pease said.