Opinion: Is 2024 the year you’ll become an American expat?

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In 2000, Eddie Vedder, the Pearl Jam baritone and outspoken proponent of abortion rights, threatened to move to “a different country” if George W. Bush were elected president.

“With three Supreme Court positions opening in the next administration, I’m frightened to think of a Republican in office,” he said.

The same year, Alec Baldwin reportedly said he’d leave if Bush won. So did the late director Robert Altman.

Bush won. Vedder stayed. Baldwin stayed. Altman stayed. The right-wing joke about huffy posturing by celebrities was born.

Indeed, the threat to leave the United States if X or Y is elected — or B or T — is usually both bombastic and empty. The common wisdom is that it’s better not to make the threat at all. It’s like divorce. You’re not supposed to mention it unless you’re ready to follow through.

But with pollsters telling us that “dread” tops the list of Americans’ feelings about the 2024 election, and with Donald Trump hoping for an explicitly dictatorial White House comeback, the prospect of decamping for more democratic shores has fresh appeal. Hollow threats are foolish. But it’s worth remembering a fundamental freedom: to move.

I’ve hardly ever thought about leaving the U.S. in political protest. Even after the elections of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, whose politics diverged steeply from my own, expatriating didn’t cross my mind. Those two were democratically elected by an American majority.

Yes, being forced to accept presidents who were opposed by the majority of the American electorate — George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016 — was demoralizing. Presidents who slide into the Oval Office courtesy of gerrymandering and the ever-more-imbalanced electoral college, with flagrant assists from the Supreme Court (Bush) or the Kremlin (Trump) are terrible for morale in a democracy.

Still, I haven’t yet fired up listings for rentals in Auckland, New Zealand, or Vancouver.

But accepting a leader who installs himself in the White House with a violent insurrection, as Trump tried to do just three years ago? That’s where the expatriation fantasy kicks in in earnest.

In last year’s sweeping history of human civilization, “The Dawn of Everything,” the authors David Graeber and David Wengrow propose that human society requires three priceless freedoms: the freedom to disobey, the freedom to reimagine society and the freedom to move away.

To remember that we can indeed escape this country if the American experiment is hijacked is to send a signal to the nervous system that we’re still free — in all three ways. Until all the borders and harbors and highways close, until every single plane is grounded and martial law instituted, we’re not stuck here.

It’s a deeply worthwhile practice of citizenship to visit the question of whether America has finally failed. After all, the origin story of many American families is escape. Consider it a thought experiment: What would it take for you to leave?

According to Gallup, record numbers of Americans seriously considered leaving the United States during Trump’s term. Sixteen percent said they wanted to split for good. This was considerably higher than during the administrations of George W. Bush (11%) and Barack Obama (10%). Most notably, 40% of women under 30 told Gallup in 2019 that they’d like to leave. According to data collected last year by the Washington Post, the desire to get out spiked again after Roe vs. Wade was overturned in June 2022.

When I asked ChatGPT about emigrating to Canada I didn’t exactly get the kindly “Come on in!” message I’d hoped for. Instead, it told me to try my luck with the Canadian bureaucracy — visas and family sponsorship, Express Entry and the Provincial Nominee Program.

At the same time, if you can find a foothold abroad, it’s easier than ever to support yourself in foreign lands. Pandemic-era workforces remain far-flung. Last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that around 28% of private-sector establishments had employees teleworking some or all the time, and other research indicates that that percentage may be too low. You might be able to leave the U.S. and take your job with you.

And plenty of people do leave. In 2020, a prominent American legal journalist took her family to Canada, where she grew up. She’s content no longer to live in the long shadow of our sold-out, far-right Supreme Court. A 26-year-old gay American, who presciently fled stateside political instability for Norway in 2019, convened a Reddit group called r/AmerExit to help others considering a move. One member, Richard Altfeld, headed to the Netherlands with his wife, Tiana Esperanza. A biracial couple, Altfeld and Esperanza were — among other things — fed up with American racism.

The urge to escape, of course, isn’t only felt by liberals. Another Gallup poll finds that pride in being American is at near-record lows for Republicans.

If they’re casting around for new homelands, Republicans might look to Trump for inspiration. On the stump he’s been lavishing praise on the dictatorships in Hungary, China, Russia and North Korea. His followers have at least four solid options for expatriation if President Biden wins reelection.

But, of course, actually leaving isn’t easy. The hitch in moving to Canada may be bureaucracy. But the hitch in moving to the autocracies that are richest in Trumpian values is that they also tend to be hostile to immigrants.

Virginia Heffernan is a regular contributor to Wired and writes a newsletter, Magic and Loss, at virginiaheffernan.substack.com.



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