In the early morning hours after the 2016 presidential election, Kirk Kiefer walked from his bedroom to his home office to check his computer.
There, he learned the news: Donald Trump would be the new president of the United States.
Kiefer walked back to his bedroom.
“I just turned to my wife and was like, ‘So, let’s go ahead and just move to Japan then,’” said Kiefer.
He started working on his resume that night.
A little over four months later, Keifer landed in Yokohama, Japan, ready to start his new career as an English teacher. (His wife stayed a little longer to sell their house).
“I’m über liberal,” said Kiefer, 36, “and Trump being elected, combined with lots of other things going on in the country, the direction things were going, it just was sort of, like, this sign to me that, ‘okay, things are not improving. Things are not necessarily going to get better for a while.’”
So, he left.
Kiefer was not alone in this feeling in Louisville and across the country. And he isn’t the only one to have acted on his impulse to leave as Trump’s indiscretions have piled up: immigrant children being separated from their parents, allegations of obstruction of justice and — most recently — an impeachment trial. There is no concrete way to measure how many Americans have left since the election, but polling shows a large number has expressed an interest in moving abroad.
Sixteen percent of Americans in 2017 and 2018 said they’d like to move permanently to another country, with Canada being the most popular preferred destination, according to a Gallup poll released in January, which had a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points. That’s an increase from similar polls taken during the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations, which showed 10% and 11% of Americans wanting to move, respectively.
Of course, we all knew someone or heard about a celebrity who swore they’d move to the Great White North if Trump was elected. But it’s not so easy to tell how many people have actually uprooted their lives to move to another country.
Canadian immigration statistics showed a slight increase — by 1,055 — in the number of Americans who were granted permanent residency in 2017 and the first quarter of 2018, as compared to the average number under Obama’s tenure.
Dustin Staggers, 38, who owned restaurants in Louisville for a few years, has been staying in the tropical Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico for almost a year out of concern for his 2-year-old daughter, Ellory. He said he didn’t want her growing up in a country that elected a president he thinks is racist and sexist.
Scott Ritcher, 50, made the move abroad more than 10 years ago, landing in Sweden. While Trump wasn’t a politician when Ritcher became an expat, his frustration with American politics prompted him to leave the country. Richter returned to Louisville in January. In August, he wondered how he’d do under the stress of a Trump presidency after a decade of peaceful disconnect from the United States’ political system.
State Rep. Nima Kulkarni, 41, and Courier Journal editorial cartoonist Marc Murphy, 60, both oppose Trump’s policies, but they decided to do the opposite of Kiefer, Staggers and Ritcher and stay in the United States to fight for the America they want.
They don’t, however, criticize those who have left the country. They said that the decision to flee is a reasonable one, given the seriousness of the issues that face Americans at home.
“There are practical considerations: The freedom of press is being limited, both from the corporate perspective, and then also, you know, there’s a lot of talk even from the legislative perspective,” said Murphy. “And then you have your healthcare issue, and then you have a ton of practical reasons why your own life is short. You’ve committed to an enterprise and a cause. And, if you have the ability to leave, perhaps you should.”
MOVING FOR HIS DAUGHTER
Like Kiefer, Staggers is no fan of Trump. But, it wasn’t necessarily the president as an individual who made him want to live in Mexico (even though he considers Trump to be a “racist, vile piece of shit”).
“He’s obviously clearly an issue,” said Staggers. “But 60 million people voted for him, and there’s a decent likelihood that 60-something million people are going to vote for him again. And the problems that have now been brought to the forefront remain. So racism is now OK, and hatred has now been normalized.”
Staggers, who most recently lived full-time in Florida but owned restaurants in Louisville, said he is particularly bothered by gun violence in the United States and how school shootings potentially could harm his child.
“Even though my daughter is a little white girl, I don’t want her growing up in an environment where that’s normalized,” he said. “I couldn’t justify that to her or for myself, to be frank.”
It’s also because of his child that Staggers said it would have been foolhardy of him stay in the United States and attempt to change it into the country he wants it to be.
“That’s a pretty big burden, like, no offense, especially when my main focus is the health and safety of my child,” said Staggers. “If it was just me and my wife, that would be a different story.”
Plus, the America that Staggers would like would take years of toil.
Still, he said he applauds those devoted to making a difference. After Trump’s election, he found himself constantly battling strangers and others on social media over political beliefs. In his case, though, his tiffs had a negative effect, particularly on himself.
“It was getting to the point where I was so angry every day,” he said. “I was incessantly watching the news, on Twitter, reading garbage, arguing with people, going out and getting into arguments with fucking idiots.”
Staggers chose to relocate to Mérida, Mexico on a tourist visa because of its proximity, beauty and food, but also because he liked the idea of moving to a country that Trump has demonized.
“That was my, like, my personal fuck you,” Staggers said.
Now, he spends his days enjoying the new city and meeting people.
On Twitter, if he complains about America and gets the standard, “If you don’t like it, you can leave” response, he relishes his comeback:
“Bitch, I left, so now what?”
As the 2020 election approaches, Staggers said he sees his friends getting excited, as they are convinced that Trump’s reign is almost over. But, he thinks it’s naive to believe Trump couldn’t get elected again.
Even if a candidate as progressive as Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren won, Staggers said, he doesn’t think he’d move back to the United States. Trump exposed issues with America that aren’t going to go away, he said.
THE EARLY EXPAT
In 2008, Scott Ritcher needed a break from America.
He had just finished a “brutal” state senate campaign as an Independent, running on a platform of state health insurance for all and election reform.
The 100 signatures Ritcher needed for his campaign to be eligible for the ballot were challenged in court by his opponent, an incumbent Democrat, and she succeeded in having several of them removed, rendering his candidacy invalid.
“I think a lot of people get into politics idealistically, and then they get their ass handed to them on a silver platter,” said Ritcher, “and that’s what happened to me.”
Three months later, Ritcher moved to Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. Other factors influenced Ritcher’s move, many of the same that led Ritcher to run for office: healthcare concerns, the cost of higher education and the influence of lobbyists in politics.
“I felt like a lot of those things were already fixed in Sweden,” Ritcher said.
But, when he left the United States, he was optimistic for his country because of the election of Barack Obama.
“I felt like, ‘OK, there is hope after the darkness of the previous years,’” Ritcher said. “In my opinion, I felt like, ‘OK, now things are looking up.’”
In Sweden, Ritcher initially sustained himself with remote freelance jobs that he held onto from the United States. Despite having to sell most of his possessions, not knowing Swedish and financial struggles in his first year, it was relatively easy for Ritcher to move to Sweden because of his work and lack of ties to a partner, children and pets. Also, the country has many English speakers. Eventually, he found a job as a graphic designer for a magazine, as well as friends and the joys of government-funded healthcare and college. He got a residency permit and started taking free Swedish classes, courtesy of the Swedish government. Later, he became a citizen.
Despite warnings from people back home that it would be hard to find a Swedish doctor or that wait lists would be too long, Ritcher said he had no such problems.
And as for tax-funded college, he felt that it improved everyday life to be around so many people with college degrees. “It really makes such a huge difference in how respectful people are to each other and how accepting they are of different backgrounds and cultures,” said Ritcher.
Sweden wasn’t a liberal paradise all of the time for Ritcher. When he first moved to the country, Sweden’s far-right, anti-migrant party was a joke to many who lived there. As time went on, and especially after discord and violence in the Middle East and Africa brought a flood of refugees to Europe, the group, called the Sweden Democrats, gained in popularity.
“They got bigger and bigger, and it stopped being funny,” Ritcher said.
He compares the party’s rise to what happened in the United States, which was going through a period of political polarization and tense race relations as white supremacy gained new relevancy during and after Trump’s election.
While Ritcher found it easy to disengage from American politics from thousands of miles away, he could see his friends and family growing increasingly tired of what was going on in the United States. When Ritcher tried to talk with them about American politics, they didn’t want to. The cause was “outrage fatigue,” he said.
In January, Ritcher moved to Louisville. He still was enjoying life in Sweden, but he wanted to devote more of his time to a whiskey company he started with friends, Bedtime Bourbon.
His family and friends warned him that he might not be able to handle the America that had emerged in his absence.
“It’s possible that I’ve gotten spoiled living in a country where everyone is taken care of and where nobody takes an automatic machine gun out at the grocery store once a week or any other manner of absurd things that happen in the United States where people are left to die because they don’t have money,” said Ritcher when he was interviewed in August before he returned. “So, it’s possible that I’m not ready to go back to that. And I do feel that it’s gotten much worse since I left, so I don’t know.”
Two weeks into his return, Ritcher said in an email that he hasn’t had much time to readjust to life in the United States. He’s busy with Bedtime Bourbon and moderating his intake of American politics “to just the important stuff.”
One thing that he doesn’t like dealing with again is an old worry -— health insurance and copays. But, he reassured himself before moving that leaving Sweden does not have to be permanent: “I can totally come back anytime,” he said.
Yet, it has become more difficult for Americans to move to Sweden as immigration rules have tightened, said Ritcher. He believes that staying in your country to change it for the better is “one of the strongest forms of love,” but he said he encourages those who do wish to leave the United States to do so.
“I think that it’s always a good idea to, if you’re curious about somewhere else and you have the possibility to experience a different culture and a different country and different languages and people with different backgrounds you should definitely do that,” he said.
TO STAY AND FIGHT
Three years since moving to Japan, Kiefer has no thoughts of leaving. He had grown frustrated with growing income inequality and racial issues in the U.S. In Japan, he said, he appreciates how the country’s citizens are concerned with the collective good of society: The streets are clean and organized and public transportation is quiet — no loudmouths talking on their cell phones.
But, he said he feels a lingering sense of guilt — “like you’re deserting people or deserting the country.”
He still donates to the American Civil Liberties Union and votes. He asks himself, “If you were in the States, what would you be doing that would make any difference at this point anyway? At least now you’re happy otherwise.”
Murphy, the editorial cartoonist, doesn’t fault Kiefer or any American expat who has moved for political reasons.
Murphy is one of the 65 million people who voted against Trump, and he continues to emphatically criticize the president, but he has remained in the United States partly because, he said, he has hope that the current state of American politics is temporary.
What gives him this confidence is the American people, the majority of whom he said are offended by what’s going on in the United States, as well as the power of the country’s founding documents, which haven’t always served everyone here but have the ability to do so.
“I probably lose hope about once every hour,” Murphy said, “but it comes back, and I think we’ll survive.”
Murphy’s roots also help keep him tethered to the United States. He is a first-generation American. His father grew up poor on Prince Edward Island off the east coast of Canada but joined the United States military and became a citizen as a result. After being injured in the Battle of the Bulge and spending a year in a veterans hospital, he moved to the United States permanently.
Murphy grew up in Ashland, Kentucky, and, like his dad, joined the Army. But, he served as an ROTC student at the University of Notre Dame, went to UofL law school and was stationed in Germany and Central America.
Murphy’s son became a soldier, too, narrowly escaping his sleeping quarters being hit by a missile while in Afghanistan.
“The point is that the Murphys have put themselves on the line for this country with the exclusion of me, and I’m proud of that,” Murphy said.
Murphy fights against the current administration in a way that suits his skill set.
“I give speeches, and I draw pictures,” he said with a laugh. “Even to say that, it sounds so pathetic, but, I guess, people have told me they feel supported by what I do. The people who are on the front lines feel supported by what I do. And, if it makes them think that there are others on their side that can generate an audience for them, if I can show them that they’re not alone, I guess that’s what I do.”
State Rep. Kulkarni is one of those resistors on what Murphy considers “the front lines.”
‘I COULD DO A LOT MORE’
Kulkarni came to the United States from India as a child with her family, later becoming a citizen and immigration attorney based in Louisville. Instead of pushing her to leave the United States, Trump’s election bound Kulkarni even more tightly to her country, she said.
She became one of the female lawmakers in the “blue wave” — the influx of Democratic freshman who flooded Congress and statehouses in the 2018 midterms.
“I guess the turning point came after the 2016 election like it did for a lot of people, a lot of women that ran,” she said. “And then also looking around and seeing that our governor, well now ex-governor [Matt Bevin], basically was trying to echo some of that same rhetoric and mimic the divisiveness that was happening nationally. And so that, the combination I think of that, made me think that I needed to do more. I could help people on a case by case basis, but I really thought that I could do a lot more in terms of helping our state by running for this office.”
Kulkarni comes from a line of active citizens.
Her father, a grocery store owner, was the city of Louisville’s first director of the Office of Globalization, which helps the city’s immigrants and promotes global economic outreach.
“It was something I learned from my parents and seeing everything that they did, and they of course always tried to help anybody they could in whatever way they could, even if they couldn’t do a lot,” Kulkarni said.
She believes that “Trump’s America” is not the real America.
“I guess I fundamentally believe that this is not who we are,” she said, “that this is something that we’re going through, and that we will come out on the other side better for it.”
Since the country’s founding, Kulkarni believes that the country has ultimately made progress regarding issues such as immigration, despite some setbacks and a slow pace.
“That’s what you see when you kind of take a really long, long view of history,” she said. “I mean, really we have had a very short history; this is a very young country. But, we’ve made a lot of progress.”
And yet, she said she also understands why some citizens feel compelled to leave.
“The rhetoric is not just rhetoric now. I mean, there’s violence that has increased” she said. “So, it’s not just words and feelings, there is an actual attendant increase in violence and violent acts and physical threats and intimidation and all that stuff. So, why would you want to stay in a country that is seemingly telling you they don’t want you here?” •