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Swiss in New York: ‘The US is very much based on the individual’

New York City as seen from New Jersey Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

From the moment Paolo Grassi arrived in the United States some thirty years ago, he’s noticed American politics deteriorating.

This content was published on November 2, 2020 - 11:41
Tony Ganzer

Though he’s from Ticino, and studied law in Bern, he’s now a dual Swiss-US citizen living in New York City during another contentious election year.

“I think the good thing about the Trump administration is that everything has been personalised on him. So all these attacks on Europe, they are seen as [coming from] Trump and his administration,” Grassi says, referring to the tit-for-tat tariffs and US withdrawal from multilateral diplomatic efforts.

“I mean, the US never was [antagonistic] to Europe. It's Trump that brought in this notion,” he continues. “So I think [Europeans] are ready when this turns over, they are ready to re-engage.”

courtesy Paolo Grassi

The end of compromise

Grassi has always liked watching politics, becoming a US citizen not long before one of the most hotly-contested Presidential elections in the country’s history: the race between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000.

For Grassi, the spirit of true political bipartisanship was damaged earlier in the 1990s. It’s said that most conservative lawmakers decided not to consider any legislation that they couldn’t pass themselves, without minority party votes.

“That, to me, is where it ended, the politics of compromise,” he says. “Coming from Europe we have multi-party systems and we are more used to compromise.”

It’s partly because of Democrat Joe Biden’s time in the Senate that Grassi thinks cooperation among the parties on important issues might again be possible, if he is elected president.

This is assuming important issues are given more attention.

Nuance and individualism

Grassi thinks Europeans don’t fully understand the nuance of American elections, filled with stories meant to distract people from more important items. He says a number of European colleagues recently asked him about why Donald Trump was talking of changing standards on how much water comes out of shower heads.

“It's funny, with all the subjects, they focused on this because they don't understand what's going on,” Grassi says, dismissing it as a campaigning distraction. “These are nuances that to some extent escape [Europeans].”

Grassi considers himself politically centre-left, by Swiss terms, but some of his politically conservative American friends just call him a communist.

“I'm very socially minded,” he says. “When you come from Europe, we have a less individualistic approach, while the US is very much based on the individual. So we believe, and I believe, in universal healthcare.”

Grassi also believes in paying taxes to contribute to government programs to help people in need, for example.

“That's why my friends, when we debate, they just call me a communist, because for them it's a very foreign concept to stand for these things,” he says.

Immigration insecurities

Grassi works in legal services for American corporate and individual clients who do cross-border business. He also helps foreign businesses create or transfer holdings in the US. He says he has seen clients closely considering what the situation under the Trump administration means for investment now and in the future.

Many of the clients’ insecurities are tied to whether they can reliably get visas for their employees to work in the US under tightened immigration policies, Grassi says.

“If you send Susie to the US [from abroad], she has to stay there because if she leaves, she may not get the visa and she may not get a re-entry,” he cites as an example. “So now you have to get somebody who is prepared to go and stick around without going back home. For a year? Who knows? That has a very big impact.”

A groundbreaking ticket

Looking to more intangible benefits of the US election, Grassi points to Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate.

Harris is the first Black, South Asian woman on a presidential ticket for a major US party.

“She projects an image of accomplishment, that may not yet be fully appreciated, as it should,” Grassi says. “The Swiss tend to be more conservative than the rest of the Europeans by tradition, and [it’s notable] to see a strong, dedicated woman of a different race succeed in the US, which is something for which [Switzerland] still has work to do.”

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