Category Archives: Living la vida española

Confinement and Ramadan

UPDATED BELOW

At the beginning of confinement back in March, one of my first thoughts was that lockdown was going to be a lot like Ramadan, just instead of not eating, we wouldn’t be able to go outside. One clear difference, though, was that with Ramadan at least you knew it would last no more than 30 days.

This is only my third year observing Ramadan, but my wife who has celebrated it her entire life always says (and I can now corroborate) that the first week is hard because your body is adjusting. The last week is hard because of the anticipation of it being over. During both the first and last weeks, you are very vocal. You spend a lot of energy speaking to friends and family, first about what you are preparing for evening meals, and then later about what you will do when Ramadan is over. It is that middle period – the in-between days where no one is as excited about what they are cooking and no one sees the light at the end of the tunnel – that is the hardest. Things get real quiet and fasting becomes tedious, losing its celebratory luster.

When confinement began, I switched what I was reading at the time and re-read Camus’ The Plague. One of the things that struck me the most was this comment from one of the characters:

At the beginning of a pestilence and when it ends, there is always a propensity for rhetoric. In the first case, habits have not yet been lost; in the second, they’re returning. It is in the thick of a calamity that one gets hardened to the truth. In other words, to silence. So let’s wait.

That is exactly how I have felt during this prolonged period of confinement. At first, it was about adjusting to the staying inside, and now it is about what the new normal will be like as we try to slowly reopen. In the middle, it has been real quiet and tedious.

Today is day 15 of Ramadan, so I am in the midst of the silence, routine and grunt of it (and also the secondary effect of lots and lots of hunger-induced typos and grammatical errors). On the bright side, I have shaved off a couple of pounds/kilos.

UPDATE: Continue reading

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Filed under Literature, Living la vida española, Married to a Moroccan, The Quarantined Life

Esto no es vida but it’s the only one we’ve got

Last Sunday was the first day that my children’s feet touched the street in forty-five days. Tears came to my eyes as I watched them sprint down the sidewalk. Freedom, albeit limited.

On the Monday, we went out when there were much less children and found a quiet path beneath some trees. At first, I felt like I was living in a chapter of The Road, but then I had my own feeling of freedom. In Spain, there is a saying when things are bad: “Esto no es vida” or “this is no life”. But this is our life. It is the only one we’re living, so we have to enjoy it. Who knows what will happen next? Right now we are healthy, tomorrow that may not be the case. Let’s enjoy the small freedoms and all the other ways life is worth living.

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Walking Around

During the past 50 odd days living under the strict confinement rules here in Madrid, Spain, I have often looked out from my balcony towards the horizon where I would have previously seen a constant flow of airplanes landing. These days I have only seen empty skies. When I look down towards the streets where I would have previously seen traffic and people walking around, now the streets seem liberated of human activity save for the stray dog-walker and the occasional empty bus with its lone driver. Except for birds chirping in the early hours of the day and the 8pm applause of neighbors, more than anything else confinement in Madrid has been defined by silence.

And each day, I have thought about Pablo Neruda’s “Walking Around”. Sure, I want my kids to leave the house, go to school, soccer practice, and play with their friends. They need other kids more than anything else right now. And sure, I would love to be able to go to the grocery store or walk out the front door and not fear that inhaling or touching my face were life threatening. I do not want to live in fear. I do not want to breath into a piece of cloth. I do not want to question if and when I will see family again.

But I am not ready to go back. I don’t have any need to ride the bus to work or get into a crowded elevator. I don’t feel nostalgia for the office, for meeting rooms, or dropping by someone’s desk. I don’t want to share the same door handles or bathroom. I don’t miss button-down shirts or proper pants. I am getting along with out them very well. I could use a haircut, but like Neruda’s man who is sick of being a man, I don’t want to walk into a barbershop.

But then today, after seven weeks of silence, adults have been allowed out of their homes, albeit on a limited basis. And suddenly, I look over my balcony and finally everywhere there are people … walking around.

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My Children’s Mental Health is what Terrifies Me about Covid-19

 

We live in Spain, one of the countries hardest hit by Covid-19 and with some of the strictest confinement rules around. Covid-19 has affected people here in many different ways from

  • the health care works living through war-like conditions with war-like causalities,
  • to sick and dying wondering whether they will leave this earth without ever seeing the face or feeling the embrace of a loved one again,
  • to the family-centric Spaniards watching from a distance as their parents and loved ones die without being able to do anything to comfort them or even bury their bodies,
  • to those single people who haven’t had a physical human interaction (other than at the grocery store) in over 50 days,
  • to families like mine trying to juggle work and homeschooling with their children’s extreme cabin fever.

My family has been very fortunate that we haven’t been sick yet and that as non-Spaniards we haven’t had to suffer the predicament of elderly relatives.  So while I recognize that Covid-19 has been much harder on other people here than on us, watching the impact on my children’s mental health and not knowing how to help has been worse than the sleepless nights, the worrying about the future, or when I will see my parents again.

Even when the government lifted the strict restrictions on children leaving the house after 45 days of total confinement, the one hour/day walk they’re now permitted to do isn’t doing the trick. I still witness my children unravel – from one moment to the next – before my eyes. And it terrifies me. More than going outside, they need to interact with other children their age. The need space from their brothers and sisters, from the parents. They need to be with other people that do not live in their same home, and they need to be with them in 3D, not on a flat screen with a blue light.

Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening any time in the near future. More than wanting my life back, I want theirs back.

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Spanish Leadership, Casa de Papel and Covid-19

This is my twentieth year living in Spain, and during this time I have learned to appreciate Spaniards for their modesty, compassion, intelligence, tolerance, family values, kindness and generosity. Spaniards are as forgiving as Americans are vindictive. They are great colleagues and great neighbors. Spain has an incredibly competent workforce with a high level of expertise and excellent professionals, including doctors and scientists. In many ways, the government works surprisingly efficiently with many processes like paying taxes almost fully digitalized.

But where Spaniards lack is in leadership. Culturally — with high value placed on consensus, modesty and conformity — it is very difficult for a Spaniard to raise her voice. Standing out in a crowd and being noticed is vulgar. Where Americans all dream of being the guy who gets to take the penalty kick or the last second shot to win the game, Spaniards never want to be the trigger man. Prior to the generation of Pau Gasol, Iker Casillas, and Rafa Nadal, Spaniards were losers. Not because they were worse athletes, less skilled or didn’t work as hard, they lost because they were afraid to succeed.

This inability to lead and to make the hard decisions also translates into a management culture of passiveness and indecision, where a crisis is not met with urgency but with paralysis like a dear in the headlights. The bosses are more worried about getting it wrong than focused on getting it right.

The Spanish TV series Casa de Papel (The Money Heist in English) — a story about a hostage crisis at the Spanish national minta — is the perfect microcosm of this culture. The show is excellent. The writing, acting and production are world class. The chief investigator in charge of managing an unprecedented crisis of national security, intense political pressure and non-stop press coverage nonetheless find the time to leave the war room to:

  • Take numerous coffee breaks during the day
  • Go to the bar to grab a beer and unwind
  • Go home for dinner every night
  • Fall in love with a stranger

There is a national crisis, yet the chief investigator does not interrupt the daily essentials of Spanish life: her coffee, her caña, her family obligations, and her personal life. There is no urgency. There is no concept of prioritization. The wealth of competence is interrupted by other earthly distractions causing an inability to focus.

Yes, like Hollywood, the show takes lots of liberties to make the story more entertaining. I get it, but this is in fact exactly what Spanish management culture is like. It is exactly how the Spanish government is managing the Covid-19 crisis.  Again, Spain is a country full of scientific experts, competent doctors, hard-working health care workers dedicated to putting their own lives at risk to save others, police and citizens ready to lend a hand. It is an amazingly praiseworthy society. These are people I admire. Nevertheless, the leaders are simply incapable of leading.

I don’t blame this particular government. I’ve lived here long enough to know that any of the other political alternatives would have failed in exactly the same ways. I also get that the politicians and experts are overwhelmed, exhausted and facing a once in a century crisis. I do not question their earnestness. But while the U.S. leadership is made up of sociopaths who make decisions out of malice or for self-gain, the Spanish government is simply paralyzed by its inability to act.

There is no plan. Just lockdown. After 40 days of confinement there is no end in sight. Just indecision and improv.

So where is the urgency? Where are the leaders? Where are the Gasols, Casillas, and Nadals convinced of their ability to win carrying them to victor? Just as they represented a landmark cultural shift in Spanish sports, we desperately need a change in Spanish leadership culture. It is a matter of life or death!

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How Quickly Everything Changes

One month ago

Easter weekend is coming up. We were supposed to be in Florida on vacation, but now we’re quarantined here in Madrid until further notice. My children have literally not left the house in 26 days. I leave my apartment building only to take out the trash, grab the nerf ball when it goes over the balcony, or to go grocery shopping which I aim to do only once per week (but it usually turns out to be once every 5 days).

Today

Today we are out of milk and bread. We have very little fruit or vegetables left, so I have no choice but to make a mask out of whatever I can find in the house, put on gloves and venture out.

I go shopping at the grocery store in Palacio de Hielo next to where we live. As mentioned previously, the ice-skating rink (which is located on top of the grocery store) has been converted into a morgue. Exactly one month ago, just days before schools were closed, my son was at a birthday at the ice-skating rink.

Every aspect of our lives and the world around us have changed. All very quickly.

 

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Living The Plague

A week ago – based on other global realities – I started Kim Ghattas’ Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East. But sometimes the world changes, and sometimes it changes so quickly and so all of a sudden that you have no chance to adjust.

As you may know, I live in Madrid, Spain, and we are living in total lock-down. I could write (and still may) volumes about the Quarantined Life, but let me just say that as quickly as Covid-19 changed my world, I lost the ability to focus on the problems of Iran and Saudi Arabia regardless of how engaging Ghattas’ work was.

Then I was reminded of one of my favorite books from my late teens. When I was a senior in high school, now 30 years ago (!!!), I was a die hard soccer jock who paid little attention to school. One day I found myself injured, sidelined and with little to occupy my time. Cliché as it was, I turned to the existentialists: Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Franz Kafka and Miguel de Unamuno. For a guy who never studied, I started getting to school early every morning. I’d park myself in front of my locker and start the day reading The Stranger or Nausea and not be able to put them down. In fact, a teacher kicked me out of class one day for reading a poetry book during Trigonometry. All these years later, I had almost completely forgotten that Camus’ The Plague was one of my favorites.

Until last week. I picked up the book, and it is the world I am currently living in:

The word “plague” had just been uttered for the first time. At this stage of the narrative, with Dr. Bernard Rieux standing at his window, the narrator may, perhaps, be allowed to justify the doctor’s uncertainty and surprise, since, with very slight differences, his reaction was the same as that of the great majority of our townsfolk. Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.

In fact, like our fellow citizens, Rieux was caught off his guard, and we should understand his hesitations in the light of this fact; and similarly understand how he was torn between conflicting fears and confidence. When war breaks out, people say, “It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.” But though a war may well be “too stupid,” that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.

In this respect, our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences.

A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore, we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions.

Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free as long as there are pestilences.

Nevertheless, many continued hoping that the epidemic would soon die out and they and their families would be spared. Thus they felt under no obligation to make any change in their habits as yet. Plague was for them an unwelcome visitant, bound to take its leave one day as unexpectedly as it had come. Alarmed, but far from desperate, they hadn’t yet reached the phase when plague would seem to them the very tissue of their existence; when they forgot the lives that until now it had been given to them lead. In short, they were waiting for the turn of events.

Two years ago when I visited Normandy where so many young Americans sacrificed so much, and I already had the feeling between Brexit and Trump trashing NATO we were taking for granted the long, unique arch of peace that had covered so much of the world since World War II. As Camus explains, no one expects war and no one expects a pestilence and when they come we are always left dumbfounded.  This is where we are today.

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Christmas Series Part 2: Hanukkah

Part 1 of my Christmas Series 2017 was about how Jesus is also the Messiah in Islam. Part 2 is about Hanukkah.

My wife is Moroccan and from a Muslim family. I am from the U.S. and not from a Muslim household, so people often assume that religion would be a barrier in our relationship and in raising our children. But quite the contrary. What I always explain is that I was raised in a mixed household and community. My father was born in New York, the son of Italian immigrants and had a very strict Jesuit education, attending mass almost every day of his adolescence. He grew up in a very small apartment in the Bronx and was surrounded by the brown people of his generation: Italians, Jews, Puerto Ricans, Irish and African Americans. Meanwhile, my mother grew up a more middle class suburban lifestyle. Although her mother was a first generation immigrant, my grandmother’s parents were Swiss and integration was much smoother for them. She was a quintessential WASP, and my father was not. When they married, my father’s closest friend would not attend his wedding because it wasn’t in a Catholic ceremony, and at least as legend has it, my father was not the ideal son-in-law.

I grew up in a non-denominational and secular Christian household in a Washington, DC suburb. Most of my friends were Jewish. In fact I have seen more of the inside of a Jewish temple than a church, having spent every weekend at thirteen shuffling from bar mitzvah to bar mitzvah. When I was little, about the same age as my seven year old is today, I thought of people, not as Jewish or Christian, but as Hanukkah or Christmas. When you drove through my neighborhood, you could tell the two apart from how their houses were decorated in December. Christians had Christmas lights, and Jews had candles in the windows. I was always assessing whether it would be better to be Christmas or Hanukkah by counting the number of presents I got on Christmas morning to see if I had more than the eight my Hanukkah friends got. Plus, I loved potato latkes. My jealousy of my best childhood friend had no limits due to his father being Hanukkah and mother Christmas. He got both.

So what does this have to do with Christmas 2017? A few weeks back, my eldest son was pestering me about whether Santa Claus was real. I mean, he said, it just doesn’t make sense that Santa could deliver all of those presents to all the kids around the world in just one night. Good point, but: (1) there is a seven hour time difference between Madrid and our cousins in Texas, so he could make it; (2) not all kids are good every year; and (3) not all families celebrate Christmas. I then explained more or less the story of the birth of Jesus, the newborn king of the Jews in the time of the Romans. That Spaniards celebrate the three wise men or Reyes Magos, and that in Morocco where mommy is from, even though they believe that baby Jesus was the newborn king, they don’t celebrate Christmas. And finally, I explained that when I was growing up many of my friends were Jewish and celebrated Hanukkah, where they lit a candle every night for eight nights and for each night they got a present.

The look on my son’s face was the exact same look I had at his age. You could see conversion in his eyes. He was doing the math.

A few days later I announced to my wife that I wanted to get a menorah and have the family celebrate Hanukkah as well. We’d light candles each night and say a prayer. No, I am definitely not a religious person or even a believer, but how can you not be infected by the Hanukkah spirit when you see these tweets from my childhood classmate Leslie?

Tonight we celebrate the opportunity to remember the light of knowledge and understanding between neighbors. #Chanukah2017 pic.twitter.com/VY4t7x7ksJ

— Leslie Flaum Genna (@LeslieAlane) December 14, 2017

On Chanukah, we get together to fill our home with light; we also raise our voice in song to push away the night. Songs of joy and gratitude for living proud and free, songs that make all singers into one big family. pic.twitter.com/M1gxrgaRIr

— Leslie Flaum Genna (@LeslieAlane) December 18, 2017

The first issue I saw was where to find a menorah in Spain on such short notice, unless I went somewhere like Toledo or Cordoba where they sold fancy menorahs for Jewish American tourists. But reality set in when I proposed the idea to my wife. She suggested me that maybe I was going a little overboard. We had a Christmas tree that I put up on November 24th. We had stockings, lights, mistletoe, an advent calendar filled with chocolates, Christmas music was playing non-stop in the house, a failed gingerbread house, and I had already been cooking all of my family recipes from eggplant parmesan, meatballs, turkey stuffing, peanut butter cookies, and was constantly serving Moroccan tea.

I think she is right. At least for this year. Next year we can drop the gingerbread house and substitute it with a Menorah.

Shalom, Salam and Peace on Earth!

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Twenty Years

I dug up this old photo from twenty years ago. It’s of the same view that Mr. Trump would have had at his inauguration this January as he looked over the Washington DC Mall from the Capitol. Every time I’d read about the crowd size controversy, I’d think about that photo from a time when I was still living in my hometown.

Twenty years ago it was 1997. The English Patient had just won the Oscars, and Titanic was out in theaters. Notorious B.I.G., whose songs “Hypnotize” and “Mo Money, Mo Problems” were hits that year, had just been murdered. And it was the year that Mother Theresa and Princess Di would die.

I was finishing my second and entering my third year of law school. Bill Clinton was a few years older than I am now, and Monica Lewinsky was a few years younger than I was then. In a matter of months scandal would break.

Twenty years ago, a president had to lie about smoking pot and about consensual sex with an intern, long before a president could openly say inhaling was the point or another one could brag about being able to grab a woman by her private parts without her consent.

Twenty years ago, Donald Trump was getting ready for his second divorce and was about to “move on” Melania. The Twin Towers were still standing in Lower Manhattan and no one had heard of Bin Laden. George W. Bush was not yet president and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who were alive under a local dictator had not yet lost their lives to an American democracy. It would be a decade before the U.S. had its first black president or female presidential nominee.

In 1997, I was a few years away from my first cellphone, Apple still hadn’t made its comeback, and I got my email from AOL on a

desktop computer with a firm “you’ve got mail”. I made mix tapes, was building my CD collection, and apparently dedicated a lot of time to my hair.

Later that year, the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack was released, with its stellar roster of vintage Cuban musicians, including the great Omara Portuando singing:

Si las cosas que uno quiere
Se pudieran alcanzar
Tú me quisieras lo mismo
Que veinte años atrás

[If the things that we wished for
Were ever attainable
Then you would love me the same
As you did 20 years ago]

Twenty years ago, I had no idea where and to whom my life would take me. Twenty years later, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, I wake up in the middle of the night to someone crying in the next room. I look at my wife sleeping next to me. I walk past my baby girl breathing softly, past my middle child snoring, to my eldest who’s calling for Daddy, and Daddy is me. A wife and three kids. A family. People I didn’t know or who didn’t exit twenty years ago. Who would have thought all this was possible in just twenty years and at such a young age?

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Brand USA® and What Makes America Great

As an American in Europe for more than fifteen years, I have a pretty clear idea of what makes America great and where we could also use some improvement. Contrast this month’s decision by the EU Court of Justice to permit employers to discriminate against employees based on religious practice to the U.S. courts’ repeated decisions to overrule or stay the sitting president’s orders to bar entry to nationals from six Muslim countries. And I am reminded of what I love about my country.

According the EU Court of Justice,

An internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination,” the court said in a statement.

This is, of course, the exact opposite of the right to freedom of expression, association and religion enshrined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution and guaranteed to Americans by more than two hundred years of legislation and jurisprudence. Europe has never experienced anything similar to our anti-discrimination laws, Civil Rights Movement, or other social movements to make the “the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” of our Declaration of Independence available to all. Looking at the European court’s ruling with the eyes of an American lawyer, the Europeans have in fact perfectly defined and then legalized direct discrimination.

If you’re not convinced about the difference, read the rules prohibiting religious discrimination in the American workplace, including “religious garb”. Or read the judge’s decision on the second Trump travel ban:

According to Plaintiffs, the Executive order also results in “their having to live in a country and in a State where there is the perception that the Government has established a disfavored religion”

But isn’t that the real difference between how Americans and European define themselves? A large part of the American self-image is based on living in a society that does not promote or prohibit religion; in theory thus allowing for new entrants to compete for the American Dream based on economic ambition, rather than pure cosmetic and ethno-cultural assimilation. Of course in practice the reality has been less than optimal, but at least as a society we are able to aspire to the principles of our founding, and with the help of lawyers and activists, improve step by step. Where were the religious freedom activists when the EU Court of Justice gave its ruling? Meanwhile, there were scores of pro bono lawyers camping out at airports around the country when Trump passed his first ban.

On the other hand, Europeans have a lot of trouble figuring out what it means to be European other than simply being from Europe. So Europeans expect you as the new entrant to become just like them. To eat, dress, and talk like they do. In fact the biggest compliment a European can give you is “you are just like one of us”. Almost every single day of the week when I go to lunch an hour earlier than my colleagues here in Spain, I always get a comment about how strange I am for eating at 12:30, instead of at 2:00pm. Or for eating just a sandwich instead of a hot meal.

It’s no doubt that after having cleansed themselves of practically all non-Christians in the 20th Century, Europeans find any other form of religious expression, foreign and confrontational. No one finds it strange that women have to wear a veil when meeting the Pope at the Vatican, but could never understand why a woman would voluntarily wear a Muslim veil, unless under male duress.

They also forget that European women wore scarves well into the last century. In Madrid, for example, on the feast day of their patron Saint Isdro, local women and little girls were the traditional Chulapa dress and headscarf. And in my old neighborhood of Chamberí, if you saw a woman dressed like she was from Saudi Arabia, she was usually a Catholic nun (and teaching at a publicly subsidized charter school).

From an American perspective, having grown up in a multicultural town where my next door neighbors were Jewish, Iranian, Hindu, Black, Mormon, Nicaraguan, and Korean, there was nothing strange about having, for example, a Jewish or Sik boy sitting next to me on the yellow public school bus wearing a kippah or turban respectively or seeing my friend’s mother get the mail dressed in a sari.  As long as you bought into the fiction of the American dream (hard work and meritocracy), you could be whatever religion you wanted.

While I enjoy some of the significantly more civilized and advanced aspects of European life (few guns, low crime, free universal health care, generous vacation and paid maternity/paternity leave), when I read about the EU court permitting religious discrimination in the workplace by the same Je Suis Charlie hypocrites, I dearly miss my First Amendment right to be both free from religion and free to be openly religious.

But it’s not just the Bill of Rights. As my former boss and now president of George Mason University, Angel Cabrera, wrote yesterday in the Washington Post,

American innovation has been the envy of the world for the last century. Our ability to discover scientific breakthroughs, invent disruptive technologies and build successful companies that make those advances broadly available has been unparalleled. This creativity is the product of a culture that is uniquely open to new ideas, that encourages and rewards risk taking, that values people for what they achieve, not where they come from. It is also the result of a constant supply of talented people from outside the United States, many of whom came to this country seeking world-class education and an open society where they could thrive.

America is more than just my rights story. It’s a global brand with its can-do outlook. It’s about being solution-driven, making things happen, and moving forward. It’s about striving to be the best. But, people around the world don’t buy the American flag t-shirt or beach towel because they think it stands for “America First” or you are not welcome or trusted here. For that, they could have worn a different flag on their outfit.

Of all people, Mr. Trump of the Trump brand empire should understand that his words, travel bans, walls and nativism will have a major effect on the American brand.

So it is to Trump and Trumpsters that I ask: when you talk about “making America great again” what exactly is it that made us great in the first place? And when the rest of the world looks at USA® what is that you want them to buy into?

 

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