04/07/2017 7:32 AM IST

8 Years, 2 Presidents, And A Whole Different World

Remo Casilli / Reuters
President Donald Trump salutes as he arrives at the Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport in Rome, Italy, May 23, 2017

GIARDINI NAXOS, Italy ― It was the cab driver’s last trip of the evening, close to midnight, running me from the G-7 summit press filing center to my hotel a few miles away, and as he sped down the deserted streets we made small talk about that day’s meetings.

He was an older guy, driving an older minivan, whose English was even more limited than my Italian. I said the day’s meetings had gone fine when, placing my accent, he asked me how Signor Trump was doing.

I almost answered automatically – he was fine – when on a lark I told him that I’d written a story saying people thought he was “molto pazzo” – very crazy. That many Italians were saying this.

Which was when he raised a hand: “No. No. Signor Trump non è molto pazzo. Signor Trump è tutto pazzo.”

Over the next few minutes I was able to discern some of his other views on Signor Trump. That he was an old man but acted like a “bambino.” That there was something not right with his “testa.” And how did he possibly get so rich being so dumb?

Hearing this wasn’t surprising. I’d already talked to people in Rome, Milan and Genoa, and this seemed to be the consensus view in Italy. (Indeed, a new Pew poll shows that low regard for President Donald Trump is not confined to Italy, but is pretty common around the world.) Trump’s recent visit to Rome drew protests, but the mayor’s refusal to grant permits kept them relatively modest.

That there were protests at all was, from my viewpoint, a breathtaking reversal. As it happened, I had also been in Italy eight years earlier ― not as a working journalist, but on a two-year sailing sabbatical ― when a different American president had come into office.

The contrast could not have been more stark. Barack Obama had been celebrated and cheered as a sure sign that the world was at a turning point. If a major power that had been among the last nations in the civilized world to outlaw slavery could elect as its leader someone from the race of those slaves – well, maybe the planet had some hope after all.

As unpopular as Trump is now in the world, Obama was beloved eight years ago. His visit to Berlin’s Tiergarten Park in 2008 drew a crowd of 200,000 – before he had even been elected. Throngs of well-wishers lined the streets of Rome to cheer his motorcade during a 2009 Vatican visit.

He had not been in office a full year before the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded him the Peace Prize – not for actual peace he had achieved in those first months, but for the prospect of peace he offered.

The fact that Obama was not able to completely end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or even close the United States’ prison for accused terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, certainly led to a letdown for many of his European fans.

“Personally, I was very disappointed,” said Alice Salvatore, a 35-year-old member of the Ligurian regional parliament. “I saw in him something new, as someone who could change politics all over the world.”

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Alice Salvatore, 35, is an elected member of the Regional Council of Liguria, the parliament for that region of northwest Italy. She is a member of the Five Star Movement, which supports withdrawing from the European Union and putting “Italy first.”

It’s striking that Salvatore, despite her youth, belongs to the Five Star Movement political party that wants to pull Italy out of the European Union, turn to protectionist trade policies, and cut back on the number of refugees entering the country.

A populism born of a deep-rooted pessimism – the same sort of pessimism that helped Trump win the presidency – has displaced the optimism that had seemed so inevitably ascendant just eight years ago.

Goodbye, hope and change. Hello, God help us all.

Thumbs-Up And Obama T-Shirts 

Sure, Obama was a popular president at home in 2009 – with approval ratings about as high as any president nowadays is likely to see, in the low 60s.

That was nothing compared to what people in other countries thought of him. Everywhere we sailed, the sight of the Stars and Stripes flying from our stern brought a smile. People greeted us, asked where we were from, and told us how much they loved our president. Some would ask if I had met him (perchance, I had, early in his primary campaign – a fact that afforded me bonus points). One time, as we lay at anchor, a couple actually swam over to our Alden 44 cutter, Juno, pointed at the flag and gave us a thumbs-up. “President Obama!” they shouted.

This was more than a little startling to us. For years during the George W. Bush presidency, cities across Europe saw enormous protest marches against him. I had worried that we would face some resentment in our travels – that we might personally be asked to answer for the Iraq War.

The election of Obama apparently washed away our sins in their eyes, at least for a time. Bermuda, the Azores, Spain, Italy, Greece, and then most notably in the predominantly black countries in the Caribbean – we met Obama fans in them all. Even in Brava, a tiny volcanic island in the Cape Verde archipelago, we saw a street vendor selling President Barack Obama T-shirts.

Perhaps this was to be expected in port towns that see a lot of yacht traffic. These places tend to be somewhat cosmopolitan. More surprising was people’s interest in Sibari, a tiny town up in the northwest corner of the “arch” in Italy’s boot, where we spent the first winter of the trip.

Southern Italy generally is rural and poor. Sibari was both of those things, but also isolated. Yet even there, we were peppered with questions about our president. From the marina office manager, from the waiters at the local pizzeria, from one of the boatyard workers.

Even Francesco, the taxi driver we would call when we needed a ride from the marina to the train station. (It never occurred to me to ask his last name. We got his number from the marina office – but for all I know, he might have been the only taxi driver in Sibari.)

On one of our first trips into the stazione in the center of the village, we got talking about Obama. He loved him, he said, and thought it was great that he had won. He did allow that a lot of people in southern Italy didn’t like him “perche è nero” – because he is black.

My Italian wasn’t yet good enough to respond that that was the reason a lot of people in the southern United States didn’t like him, either.

In any event, the sense of the place that stuck in my mind was optimism. Things were good, and were on their way to getting even better.

Eight years later, it seemed a different place entirely.

The Good Old Days, Maybe Not

If the change in outlook from the Obama years to now could be embodied in a single face, it might be that of Loredana Botarelli.

As a young woman, she began a career in re-insurance, the business of providing insurance to insurance companies. Over the years she worked in Rome, Milan and London as she moved up the ladder.

In 2009, after 27 years with Swiss Re, the company closed most of its field offices during the financial crisis and she was laid of. Botarelli took stock of her life and the only world she had known, and concluded that what she had wasn’t coming back. “I decided to just change my life completely,” she said.

Now in her mid-50s, Botarelli instead runs the Ivory Moda Uomi, a clothing store not far from Roman landmarks like Altare della Patria and the Trevi Fountain, where she spends her days among racks of men’s suits. The hours are long, the income not close to what she had been making.

If this sounds similar to the stories of former Rust Belt factory workers holding multiple jobs and still not making what they used to – well, the resulting politics are similar as well.

Botarelli was a supporter of longtime, off-and-on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, saying he improved the lives of all Italians. Not surprisingly, she supports Trump, too. “Trump is the best,” she beamed. “He is a good manager. Like Berlusconi. We had a lot of progress for everybody.”

A woman who spent nearly three decades working for a company built on the idea of international finance and trade is now, because of personal circumstances, on the opposite side of those same issues.

Everything-Is-Terrible-ism And A Not-So-Bad World 

Things were better back in the day, back before ...

At the core of it, that’s the idea shared by Berlusconi and Five Star supporters in Italy, and Trump supporters in the United States. That before “political correctness,” or the introduction of the Euro, or so many “illegals” snuck across the border, or all those refugees were brought in – before any of that stuff, things were not just good, but maybe the best they had ever been.

Of course, it’s objectively not true. Italy was a poorer nation prior to the introduction of the common currency than it is today, and was far, far poorer in the post-World War II years. The United States may have been an easier place to succeed for white men with only a high school degree in the 1950s and ’60s, but it was a less hospitable place for everybody else.

Indeed, when looking at the world as a whole, there has never been a time in human history when the future has been as bright and full of potential as it is right now. A smaller percentage of the world’s population is dying in childhood, or living in abject poverty, or perishing in a war than ever before. A greater percentage of girls and women are receiving educations around the globe than at any time previously.

Astonishingly rapid advances in solar technology mean that the world is on the cusp of a limitless and nearly pollution-free source of power. More broadly, fewer people are working fewer hours to produce life’s necessities.

Yet there remains a foreboding among so many, an “everything-is-terrible-ism” that seems intractable.

This is not completely surprising. Change is hard – and can be a politically useful tool for those claiming they can stop it.

There are today more than twice as many jobs in the solar industry than in coal, yet Republicans (including Trump) have been able to use the decline of coal mining as a campaign theme for years.

More fundamentally, workers not just in the United States, but the world over worry about losing their livelihoods not to cheaper workers in a poorer country, but to machines. So prevalent is this fear that the imperative of preserving jobs is competing against the promise of letting machines do most of the repetitive and thankless jobs that humans have been complaining about since jobs were first invented.

There are, of course, significant political and economic issues that need to be resolved in the coming decades. A society where the owners of the machines make up 1 percent of the population, but reap 99 percent of the income, would be inherently unstable – a plot line of a dystopian science fiction movie.

At any rate, it would seem that a distributional problem like that is a far better one to have than the constant struggle the species faced not that many generations ago, when much of the world’s population sought to have as many children as possible as a survival tactic.

Still, it’s perhaps too much to ask people who believe their lives are getting worse to look on the bright side and remind themselves that humankind as a whole has never been richer, better fed, or more at peace than it is right now – even if it happens to be true.

Salvatore, the Ligurian parliament member, said governments everywhere need to focus on their citizens, and with good jobs disappearing, to institute a universal basic income large enough that a decent life is possible for everyone. “This is the sort of thing as a society that we should be pursuing, because there is no other way,” she said.

Others, while agreeing that things could be better, don’t believe that they’re all that terrible. And more to the point, they don’t believe that walling countries off from each other will help anyone.

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Carlo Oxoli, 35, runs the Libreria Lirus bookstore in Milan, which his family has owned for 26 years. He says that leaving the European Union would be a disaster for Italy, and that more integration with the rest of Europe, not less, is the answer.

Carlo Oxoli runs his family’s Libreria Lirus bookstore in Milan. Like Salvatore, he is 35, but has a completely different outlook on Italy’s future. He said that pulling out of the European Union, like Salvatore’s Five Star Movement wants, would be “a disaster,” and that the EU should have more power and authority to bring about a cohesive Europe, not less. As to Five Star’s leader, Beppe Grillo: “He’s a comedian. He’s a clown.”

What’s more troubling for Oxoli than Italy’s particular problems at this moment, though, is the apparent abdication of responsibility American voters have demonstrated by putting someone like Trump into power, regardless of how well or badly things were going in America.

“Italy is a little country,” Oxoli said. “If we have another Silvio Berlusconi, it’s dangerous only for us.”