Donald Trump was not the first American president to cancel a visit to Denmark in a huff. That would be President Barack Obama. Like Trump, he’d tangled with the Danish prime minister over Greenland.
This was a fictional huff, mind you. It happened on “Borgen,” a Danish TV series about a young centrist politician, Birgitte Nyborg, who becomes Denmark’s first female prime minister. In an early episode, a TV reporter gets a tip that the CIA has been using an air base in Greenland to transport Afghan prisoners. Nyborg’s deft handling of the scandal so irritates the U.S. president (who is not named, unlike his predecessor George W. Bush, who is explicitly deemed responsible for the transgression) that he backs out of a planned trip to Copenhagen. Niceties are observed; a scheduling conflict is cited.
On Tuesday, Trump skipped the niceties and wrote this in a tweet:
“Denmark is a very special country with incredible people, but based on Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s comments, that she would have no interest in discussing the purchase of Greenland, I will be postponing our meeting scheduled in two weeks for another time….”
The “Borgen” writers were prescient in other ways. Soon after the show first aired in 2010, Denmark actually selected its first female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt. And now Frederiksen, just two months into her term, is the youngest prime minister ever and even more similar to Nyborg, the fictional leader played by Sidse Babett Knudsen.
But the “Borgen” writers could not foresee that an American president would want to buy Greenland, not just use its air bases. And even the most hackneyed among them would not have written dialogue in which the American president cancels a state visit while calling his female counterpart “nasty,” as Trump did Frederiksen.
There’s little to celebrate in this latest devolution in diplomatic relations, and sadly, it’s not even that surprising that in the Trump administration, truth is cheesier than fiction.
But there are some hopeful signs. When the president tweets out something incendiary, he is usually reacting to an idiotic or false thing he saw on cable television, almost always on Fox News. Nobody really knows how Greenland got into his head, but even if he echoed a Danish TV series unwittingly, at least he was responding to good television.
“Borgen” ran for three seasons and was often described as a Nordic version of “The West Wing.” In many ways, it was more sophisticated than the American drama — even though it was set in the corridors and committee rooms of the Danish Parliament. The show, titled for the nickname of the palace that houses the government, managed to squeeze suspense and psychological drama out of cabinet shuffles and pension-reform bills in a small Scandinavian nation (population: not quite 6 million). Ruling coalitions were slim and constantly under siege, and Nyborg’s battle to stay in power required finesse, boldness, compromise and guile.
In fiction and reality, the stakes are similar. Semiautonomous Greenland is a geopolitical pawn; greater powers can be dismissive of its own wishes. In rejecting Trump’s “absurd” suggestion, Frederiksen said: “Greenland is not for sale. Greenland is not Danish. Greenland belongs to Greenland.”
Trump, for his part, barely acknowledged Greenlanders themselves. In “Borgen,” Nyborg wades into the quagmire. “I hear that the prime minister is having coffee with the offended Eskimos,” another politician sneers. But Greenland’s premier says this to her: “Kalaallit Nunaat — that is what Greenland is called in Inuit. It means ‘Land of the Greenlanders.’ That’s more an expression of hope than reality.”
Nyborg says later: “It’s not my fault the former prime minister gave Bush everything he wanted.” And still later: “I don’t know if we did Greenland any favors by discovering it.”
If television and movies are going to be predictive of presidential behavior, then it’s a blessing Trump didn’t stumble into a replay of “Team America,” the puppet movie made by the creators of “South Park,” in which paramilitary anti-terrorist commandos blow up the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre and are then irked that the French are not grateful.
There is another excellent Scandinavian political thriller that one can only hope is not prophetic. “Occupied,” a 2015 Norwegian series, posits that the United States leaves NATO. Norway, led by a Green Party zealot, cuts off all fossil fuel production. The European Union, dependent on imported energy, turns a blind eye to a Russian invasion of Norway. The writers of “Occupied” had no trouble imagining a scenario in which the United States would pull out of NATO, but even they didn’t envision a president who would befriend Russian President Vladimir Putin and so relentlessly castigate and alienate his country’s European allies.
On Wednesday, Trump tweeted this:
“For the record, Denmark is only at 1.35% of GDP for NATO spending. They are a wealthy country and should be at 2%. We protect Europe and yet, only 8 of the 28 NATO countries are at the 2% mark. The United States is at a much, much higher level than that….”
As with so much of Trump’s rhetoric, it’s not that simple. At one point in the Greenland episode of “Borgen,” the TV reporter hears out the tipster in her apartment, where a movie poster for “All the President’s Men” hangs on the bedroom door: “For 10 years I’ve watched as we’ve forfeited any kind of sovereignty when it comes to the U.S.,” he tells her. “We’ve become their eager little brothers. We enter into their wars without asking for valid reasons.”
Now that’s “nasty.”