Keeping a low profile due to Trump's unpopularity in Europe before the elections, US conservatives have come out of the shadows after his victory. Teri Schultz meets the man whose voice proved prescient in the EU.
In the days leading up to November 8, 2016, it was impossible to find more than one person in Brussels who would publicly represent Republican candidate Donald Trump in political debates. Time after time in media appearances or organized debates, various members of "Democrats Abroad" would be tied up against the same man, tirelessly insisting to enormous skepticism that his candidate would be the next president of the United States.
That lone voice proved prescient and now Michael Kulbickas just smiles about those pre-election days. With most private Americans who live outside the US tending to lean Democrat, he's used to being the chairman of "Republicans Overseas" with few people to chair. Since Trump's win, however, the longtime Belgian resident says more individuals have "come out of the woodwork" saying they'd voted for Trump and are willing to help beef up the organization.
'Europeans misunderstand Trump'
Still, Kulbickas acknowledges, "there is a huge reluctance of people who are traditional Republicans to be associated with someone who has such high negatives among European elites." He insists that European antipathy to Trump is unwarranted, caused primarily by misreading or misunderstanding him.
"There's an extraordinarily distorted view of Mr. Trump in Europe in general and in Belgium in particular," he said from his office in Brussels, where he works as a management and cyber-security consultant. "Whenever the subject of American elections comes up, I am confronted with extraordinary opinions about Mr. Trump that are caricatures - clownish distortions of his character and what he says."
For example, while Kulbickas tells DW he doesn't agree with the attitude expressed by Trump in the videotape where he brags about grabbing women, he does support the often-mentioned defense that this is just how many men talk amongst themselves and should be dismissed. Trump's repeated disparagement of NATO is another hot-button issue in Brussels. Kulbickas believes this was a smart pre-emptive move that could finally prompt the alliance into addressing some of its problems, such as a disproportionate US share of funding.
As for the remarks that caused the most outrage among European politicians - that Britain's drop-out was a good decision and other EU countries may soon follow it - Kulbickas supported Brexit but doesn't unequivocally believe it would be good for the US if Europe truly fractured further. He does, however, appreciate the rhetoric. In his opinion, signalling to the Europeans that the US doesn't need them or even believe in their EU project is the sign of an expert negotiator who can get what he wants out of partners. "You have to be ready to get up and walk away," he explained.
Kulbickas, who confesses he was a Democrat until 9/11, says he decided early on to back Trump instead of one of the more than a dozen Republican primary contenders because he seemed more decisive than the other candidates. Kulbickas wrote candidate Trump a letter of advice, outlining strategy for his office run. He never heard back and doesn't know if Trump himself even knows there is a Republicans Overseas chapter in Brussels.
Trump team taps Brussels outpost for insights
But other members of the new administration are definitely aware of the organization, asking the group for tips on navigating the institutions and local cultures of the EU and its member states. Though the departing US ambassadors to NATO and the EU said they had received no requests for handover conversations before their Trump-mandated departures, Kulbickas mentions he and others have been providing, by request, insights into their countries of residence and the political environment, including the Europe-wide trend toward populism. Kulbickas says Trump should make common cause with leaders such as the Netherlands' Geert Wilders, a point the president's closest advisors are also pushing, according to Washington Post writer Josh Rogin.
But if the Republican group is getting stronger, it's not alone. Democrats Abroad chair Pauline Manos says requests to get involved have been pouring in since the election. More than in most other years, Manos told DW, her organization is going to push for expatriates to vote in the mid-term elections for Congress two years from now. "The reality is that most Americans who are abroad tend to show up for the presidential elections, but then things kind of quiet down for four years," Manos explained. "And I think the message that everybody has gotten is that we can't let it quiet down."