Our correspondent bids farewell to America after three and a half years of madness. Some things made him despair – others he will miss in Germany. In the end, the US president surprised him again.
In the last few meters, the US President and the First Lady amazed me again. When they invited to the White House for the national holiday, a new Joe Biden suddenly appeared, or rather, an old Biden was back.
The president of the past six months, the warning mask wearer and the thoughtful example for all cautious, was suddenly history. Instead, the man I had last seen in March 2020 emerged: the Biden you can touch.
Biden fooled around with his predecessors, who competed in the form of giant mascots on the South Lawn (Teddy Roosevelt won). Jill Biden sprinted almost in high spirits, at least to our great surprise, into the small group of approved journalists and posed for a group selfie. Then the two of them went into close contact with the guests, each for themselves: a good thousand essential workers (e.g. nurses or firefighters) and soldiers were invited.
Biden and the old presidents: party mood at the White House on July 4th. (Source: Patrick Semansky / AP / dpa)
Even the pompous pop song “God Bless the USA”, the invading song of Donald Trump during his performances, suddenly played at Biden’s party.
It was a re-appropriation, a friendly takeover of symbols that were most recently associated with Trump. Two years ago I was with Trump, who hit a couple of tanks at the Lincoln Memorial on July 4th and fighter jets thundered over Washington. It was Trump’s biggest show and this was now the biggest event in Biden’s tenure to date. More relaxed, less agitated and a nice farewell for me.
I am now leaving Washington and boarding the plane to Germany. I was here for three and a half years. It was a crazy time: exhausting, breathless, fascinating and repulsive, at times also a bit depressing. After years of permanent state of emergency, I am leaving an America that is now characterized by a return to normality. Just like you could see at Biden’s Independence Day celebration.
Joe Biden with wife Jill and granddaughters Finnegan and Naomi: Fireworks at the White House. (Source: Patrick Semansky / AP / dpa)
The White House is working again, with all the problems and mistakes that governance brings with it, but without chaos and circus. In large parts of America, Corona looks like it was from the distant past. The decline of millions of Americans in the meantime into poverty has been slowed down by the upswing and many, many aid funds. The security fences at the White House (since the Black Lives Matter summer) and Capitol (since January 6) are currently being dismantled.
But all of this happens on the surface. Below that, the country is much more troubled. Donald Trump has trained his party to parrot his lies about the election – he is now touring the country again with it. In many areas, Americans do not want to be vaccinated or restricted by slight corona rules, so that the virus threatens to flare up again and again. Even though Biden also celebrated the “independence from Covid-19” on Independence Day – he failed to achieve his goal of vaccinating 70 percent of adult Americans. And the pandemic has only made the rich richer while Biden’s major welfare programs are blocked in Congress.
America is stuck in many different realities. This is not a particularly new finding, but my impression is that they are getting further and further apart. And on each side you work with devotion on the other side. I encountered this strange desire not only at work, but also in everyday life.
I have just been treated by a physiotherapist for a few weeks. At the beginning of the first session, we were just getting to know each other, she was indignant that Biden was senile and just a puppet. When I replied that I wouldn’t get that impression in the White House, there was a strange silence at first. At the second appointment she whispered how Biden had virtually betrayed his country on his trip to Europe.
On the other hand, when I asked my old friend David how he was doing over brunch over the weekend, he started by finding that he was living in “a politically terrifying time” and immediately relied on it for a major treatise on the Republican attacks Right to vote, through the Supreme Court, at some point it ended up with Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s. (I think he is fine, but he never found his way back to this subject in his remarks.)
A nation in the trenches, gaze and anger always directed at the other side. This is how I experienced America in these years. A nation that cannot agree on what its past really was, what it is and what it wants to be. Not much united, these states.
Incidentally, David is not even wrong: The fact that one side is fighting to ensure that as few of the fellow citizens as possible who look different than they are allowed to vote shows how much America’s democracy is always in crisis. “Nothing about our democracy is guaranteed,” said Biden in his speech on July 4th. “We have to fight for them, defend them, they deserve us.”
Correspondent Fabian Reinbold in front of the White House. (Source: Fabian Reinbold / t-online)
The topic also presented me with a challenge in this column: I never wanted to fall into a Democrat good / Republican bad pattern, after all, God knows reality is more complicated. But in these years democracy is actually only threatened from one side. Not just from Trump, who only accepts election results when they suit him, but from large parts of his party who talk about the “greatest democracy on earth” but have long been too happy to dispute their fellow citizens’ right to vote. It’s just one of those many contradictions that make America what it is.
Sometimes I am desperate about this America. When, in the first year of the pandemic, no one in government stopped the president’s deadly quacking. On the grotesquely expensive and often poor health system – recently, after a small examination in the emergency room, two, three, four bills came in and suddenly $ 3,000 was due again. Or when even smart acquaintances parrot the alleged atrocities that they get presented in the opinion shows on television, but which have nothing to do with reality.
However, I also appreciated her, her enthusiasm for opinion, the courage to publicly stand up for one’s point of view. That breathes life into democracy. I also like the way in which pragmatism is given precedence over riding on principles (keyword vaccination at the fruit counter). And I am impressed by how hard many Americans work and also tackle things that the state does elsewhere.
And then there is the American way of life, which one surrenders to at some point. At first I found it obscene that you can go anywhere by car, for example to mountain peaks in national parks, but now I find it practical and fair: not everyone can scramble. I recently did it myself in Wyoming.
Much is an invitation to comfort. The last time I withdrew cash was in 2018, and I was able to sell my car within ten minutes, the company simply picked it up at the front door. I dread the Berlin mentality: “I don’t have card payments.” I will probably only notice in Germany how much the years in America have shaped me.
I always found it particularly nice how you can get into conversation with all sorts of Americans with a simple “Hi, I’m from Germany”. The German-American connections, be it through immigration, family, military service, are enormously strong. So strong that Trump’s years of Germany-owes-us-something-talked little about them. Isn’t that a consolation?
Thank you for your great interest in this column. My goal was to get America and all its contradictions to grasp and to let you see Washington and the USA with my eyes. Your reactions have shown me that this has actually often succeeded. I’m really happy about that.
After these intense years, I am now taking a break in Germany. Before that, I talked to my colleague Marc Krüger about my three and a half years with Trump and Biden. You can listen to us in the “daybreak on the weekend” from Saturday.
Now I’m really looking forward to going home. Because of the pandemic, I haven’t been there for almost two years. Whenever I was in New England on Cape Cod in the summer, I always told people that it looks exactly the same there as it does on the German Baltic Sea. Now I’m going to check my bold assertion on the spot. The Baltic Sea instead of the Atlantic, then Berlin instead of Washington.
I have a feeling that it’s not a final goodbye to America. There’s no specific plan, it’s just a feeling, but a pretty good one.