We are drifting slowly down the Rhone River in southeastern France, through occasional locks, with vineyards on the surrounding foothills and ancient Roman cities. In just a few days, we’ve learned a surprising amount about the history of the many regions of this 500-mile valley, and the personalities of the grapes that define them. Pinot Noir and Merlot. Black Gamay in Beaujolais. Hermitage at the entrance to Provence.

We have never imagined doing a river cruise. But here we are, drifting in the lap of luxury, moving ever so slowly toward the Mediterranean. None of it would have happened, of course, without the subliminal power of the many Viking Cruise ads that preceded each episode of Public Broadcasting’s hit series, “Downton Abbey,” which we watched with anticipation for years.

Not that you’ll hear any complaints from us. We’ve already decided that we could do this for another year or so, were it not for the pesky details of losing our jobs and having to say au revoir to our savings. For now, at least, we’ll enjoy a few more days of being pampered, enlightened, over-stuffed with local foods and wines and enjoying the vibrant pastels of Provence.

One thing that we didn’t expect is how closely the people here, and, it seems, throughout Europe, are following our presidential election. In the few encounters in which the topic of politics has arisen, and in the ceaseless press coverage of the American election, we’ve heard everything from confusion to outright fear at the prospect that America is seriously entertaining the idea of electing Donald Trump, a man who seems to be universally regarded on this side of the pond as both clueless and dangerous.

“What are you Americans thinking?,” one man indignantly asked some in our party. “Why have you not stopped this!”

Of course, the first instinct when your country is attacked is to offer a spirited defense. But the best we could offer is that the election is a long way from over, and that Winston Churchill was right when he said, “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, once they’ve exhausted every other option.”

Despite those rousing assurances, it would seem that people here, as across America, remain nervous.

Looking at this election through the eyes of Europeans makes it easy to see why they’re so concerned. The election of the president of the United States is a decision that can affect the whole world — friends and foes alike. And all of those people who will be affected, beyond our shores, have no vote.

But that doesn’t mean they have nothing to say.

The Europeans, in particular, have hard-learned experience with angry and divisive leaders, and the destruction that they can bring. As we traveled these last few days through villages and towns where thousands of lives were lost to extremist madness in World War II, we can see why Europeans wish they could sit Americans down and talk some sense into us.

While we Americans are inclined to believe that we are the global experts on democracy, it turns out that the French, the British and the Germans also know a thing or two. The French, in particular, whose revolution came just a few years after ours, did more than defeat a distant king to earn their freedom. They overturned an ancient system that was the foundation under that king.

More immediately, they know firsthand the horror that extremism on both the left and right can bring. And they know from a kind of experience that we have so far been able to avoid, how tyrants and demagogues arise, and how they move from novelties and clowns to monsters.

What Europeans understand is that emerging tyrants start by tapping into the deepest pools of anger in a society. They give voice to festering complaints and ancient prejudices bubbling just below the surface of society. They give license to the urges for vengeance against enemies real and imagined. And they promise greatness.

In the beginning, they say they are for the little people, while offering simple solutions to complex problems. They attack elites and knowledge, while promoting superstitions and conspiracies. In time, if given power, they will move toward eliminating opposition, ignoring constitutions and making all who disagree with them the enemies of patriotism.

We should listen carefully to these voices coming from Europe. They have something important to teach us. Our friends here are trying to warn us not to be seduced by a demagogic showman. Because a step in that direction can take us down a path of no easy return.

Europeans have seen this show many times. Americans hardly at all. They know what they’re talking about.

Alan Caron, a Waterville native, owns Caron Communications. He can be reached at: [email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: