Originally published on the Star Tribune Blog.
Spend a few days in Copenhagen, Denmark, and you’re bound to realize the rather tidy, bustling city exhibits one extraordinary difference from major American cities: somehow it’s sort of quiet.
Now, to be fair, this isn’t the type of quiet coveted by old ladies, heads bowed, praying the rosary at church. It’s the type of sonorous quiet indicative of social cohesion. Danes will be making their way through the streets, many riding bicycles on their way to work or school. Particularly busy intersections feature a street musician or two: an accordion player stringing together would-be Italian classics, a sole violinist playing an Itzhak Perlman piece to the accompaniment of a small stereo, a clarinetist, playing over and over again, the opening trill from Rhapsody in Blue. People are polite and helpful. One rarely sees anything out of place, socially unacceptable, or confusing. In sum, Copenhagen functions with a harmonious, ant colony-like attitude. The visible vicissitudes of American social, political, and economic life seem to be lacking.
But this year’s US presidential election is extraordinarily loud, and the same sirens that ring in the United States make their calls across the Atlantic.
Perhaps this is part of the reason Danes ask me so quizzically about Donald Trump. Rarely do they inquire in the same way a Brit I recently met did: she with provocative bewilderment and a fair dose of disdain, expecting me to substantiate her outrage over Trump’s candidacy. On the other hand, if I ask what puzzles Danes about Donald Trump, usually boisterousness tops the list. “Why does he talk about the size of his penis?” “What’s the big deal about how rich he is?” and “Isn’t a wall a little excessive?” are the usual suspects.
This is not to say I haven’t had policy-related discussions. Depending on the person, all sorts of conventional topics emerge. The conversations I’ve had span from tax policy, to the treatment of minorities in America, to wars in the Middle East. These are areas of legitimate concern to Danes. As one Dane, I think correctly, put it: “We care more about your president than whoever our prime minister is. The United States president will have a larger effect on our country than our own PM.” This is true. Danes follow the election quite closely (probably, at least substantively, closer than most US citizens) because they understand what is at stake in the world with US leadership.
However, I am always a bit amazed by their mesmerization of Trump’s candidacy. At the end of a conversation, Trump’s celebrity image as a pompous ass continues to leave many baffled. His UPO’s (unidentified policy objects) can be resolved with a simple, “Well, he just has no idea what he’s talking about.” The attraction of his image is harder for a Dane to resolve. What do people like about this guy?
Of course, Denmark is just one, very small country– and a country bound to be dismayed by such attention-grabbing, reality television schemes by a potential United States president. Nonetheless, the perspective still exposes the confusing American appetite, undoubtedly fueled by American media outlets, for theater. Disagree with Trump all you want, but somehow he has managed to captivate the world and draw a large portion of the American public into his sphere.
The same, at least, cannot be said of the Danes I’ve met– captivated, yes, but not drawn in. Captivated, because the spectacle functions much in the same way a senseless act of violence functions in cinema: you find it confusing and horrifying, truly unnecessary and inexplicable, yet you can’t peel your eyes from the screen. But they fail to be drawn in, because, despite the magnetism of spectacle in some societies, efficient and orderly Danes simply can’t make any sense of its American political version.
And frankly, as all the repetitive conversations I have had with Danes remind me, I still can’t either.