(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Donald Trump’s decision to cancel his meeting with Danish Prime minister Mette Frederiksen because she wouldn’t sell him Greenland is just another episode in a comedy someone should make about Trump’s strange relationship with the Nordic countries. They clearly occupy a special place in his mind, perhaps because they’re often held up by his opponents as examples of sound, socially conscious governance and by his supporters as clueless socialist countries ruined by immigration.
Since his election as president, Trump has needled every Nordic nation except Iceland (though his son Eric reportedly had an abortive adventure there in 2016). It could even look as though he’s deliberately targeting them one after another; each of the interactions has a surreal element to it.
Trump first trolled Sweden in February, 2017, saying at a rally, “You look at what's happening in Germany. You look at what's happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden. They took in large numbers and they're having problems like they never thought possible.” In response, baffled Swedes, unaware of anything of consequence happening in their country the previous night, created the #lastnightinsweden hashtag and used it to post references various mundane occurrences. Trump explained that he meant something he’d seen on Fox News, and a year later, he claimed – at a press conference with the Swedish prime minister – that he’d made no mistake. The hashtag is still alive, though; it’s mostly used by various xenophobes to post links to reports of immigrant crime in the Nordic country.
Trump’s second, seemingly unplanned run-in with Sweden is recent; on the urging of his admirer, Kanye West, the president developed an interest in the case of A$AP Rocky, a U.S. rapper detained after punching a man on a Stockholm street, and started demanding his release. On Twitter, he offered to put up bail for Rocky and expressed disappointment that “we do so much for Sweden but it doesn’t seem to work the other way around.”
Trump ignored Prime Minister Stefan Lofven’s explanation that the Swedish government cannot influence the courts and that the rapper won’t get special treatment; his ambassador to Sweden even threatened “negative consequences” unless Rocky got a “humanitarian release.” Earlier this month, A$AP Rocky was allowed to return to the U.S. (Trump celebrated this on Twitter) – but on Aug. 14, the rapper was found guilty of assault, given a two-year suspended sentence and ordered to pay $1,300 to the victim.
Norway, for its part, had its moment in the Trump spotlight in January, 2018, when he declared at a meeting with legislators that he wanted fewer immigrants to the U.S. from less prosperous countries and more from “places like Norway.” This was an occasion for Norwegians to start tweeting that they’ll pass (“on behalf of Norway, thanks but no thanks,” conservative politician Torbjorn Saetre wrote).
Then came Finland’s turn. In November, 2018, Trump said the Finnish president had told him his country prevented forest fires by regularly raking the forest floor. President Sauli Ninisto remembered the conversation differently: He’d told Trump that Finland had a good surveillance system to track fires. And Finns took pains to explain to Trump that their country had about 80% the area of California, three-quarters of it covered by forests, so there just weren’t enough people to rake the woods. (To be fair, it’s common practice in Finland and most other developed nations to clean up after cutting trees).
Denmark’s turn came with the Greenland saga. Seduced by the strategic appeal of a large island the U.S. had tried twice before to acquire, Trump apparently failed to grasp that Greenland is a self-governed territory Denmark cannot just sell, even if it wanted to. The result? Anger in both Denmark and Greenland and an undermined relationship with a loyal, active U.S. ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
All these Trump experiences with the Nordic nations betray a perception of them as quaint little places with funny rules that the U.S. mostly can ignore and wrongheaded ideas about things like immigration. In addition to Trump’s own utterances, his Council of Economic Advisers issued a report on “The Opportunity Costs of Socialism” last year, which lambasted the Nordics’ social policies. It caused much dismay throughout the region as economists and politicians countered that the Nordics are market economies – just a different, more caring kind than the U.S. one.
Given all the apparent misconceptions about the Nordics in Trump’s head, it’s not hard to see why he might think Norwegians or Greenlanders wouldn’t mind becoming U.S. citizens. That, of course, is another misconception: few Europeans, and especially few people from the affluent Nordic countries, would like to live in the U.S. (one way to see that is to look at the number of applications for the U.S. green card lottery). And Trump personally is especially unpopular: His negative ratings are sky high throughout the region.
Trump, of course, has offended, outraged or bewildered the residents and leaders of plenty of other countries, too. But his history with the Northern Europeans is particularly remarkable for their willingness to troll him back (always in excellent English), to tell the world that they don’t share his values and that they place his behavior and beliefs on the spectrum between simply weird and unacceptable. The obvious values gap isn’t the stuff of comedy. Post-Trump, the U.S. will need to show some of the wealthiest, most free and democratic Western nations that it’s not jingoistic but rather part of the same Western tradition as they are. Otherwise it’ll be hard for the U.S. to find the same support for its strategic goals in the north, a region that will grow in importance as the climate changes.
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Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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