PETERS TOWNSHIP, Pa. — The new Swedish ambassador to the United States was wedged into the back seat of a Honda Civic headed south out of Pittsburgh in search of some true-believing, climate-change-denying, anti-free-trade, “America first” Trump voters.
On one side of Ambassador Karin Olofsdotter sat a former German defense minister and on the other a Washington think-tanker, a former Obama White House official who had organized the Trump country excursion.
Olofsdotter was only a couple of months into her stint as Sweden’s ambassador and still struggling to make sense of a country that seemed as though it had been flipped upside down politically since her last U.S. tour six years ago, when she was the embassy’s second-in-command. From her car window on a late October afternoon, she watched as stately stone houses, built during the steel booms of an earlier era, gave way to the sleepy, well-lit strip malls of Peters Township and the Pittsburgh suburbs.
These were some of the neighborhoods that helped elect President Trump and set off something of a panic on the other side of the Atlantic. For the first time since the end of World War II, European leaders worried whether the United States was willing and capable of leading the West. They fretted over the survival of an American-led order that had generally kept the peace in Europe for more than 70 years and wondered whether Trump and the voters who backed him even knew what they were forsaking.
Many of those fears were summed up this fall in a manifesto written by a dozen former German government officials and foreign policy experts. “German policy now requires something that it did not need before: a U.S. strategy” to manage an increasingly unreliable American president, concluded the essay, published in Die Zeit, a weekly newspaper.
As ambassador, a big part of Olofsdotter’s job is to explain this new America to her fellow Swedes. So when Julie Smith, the think-tanker in the back seat, offered her a chance to talk with Trump voters, Olofsdotter jumped at it. The centerpiece of the two-day visit to western Pennsylvania — and the main attraction for Olofsdotter — was a public discussion at the Peters Township public library, where the Swedish ambassador was promised she would get a chance to meet some typical Americans in a county that had backed Trump with more than 60 percent of the vote.
Much of what Olofsdotter knew about Pittsburgh she had learned from reading its Wikipedia entry on the plane ride from Washington.
“It has 446 bridges,” she said. “Doesn’t that seem a bit odd?”
She picked up some more information in meetings with Pittsburgh leaders and newspaper editors, who described the city’s transformation in recent years from a depressed and dirty manufacturing city into a hub for health-care and technology companies. Wages were rising and unemployment was falling, they told her. The biggest challenge they had was managing growth.
“Do the people who live in the Trump circles work in these high-tech companies?” Olofsdotter asked during her meeting with editors at the Pittsburgh Post-
“It’s a little scary, but a lot of them work in the medical field,” one of the editors replied.
Of Peters Township, where she was currently headed, she knew even less. Olofsdotter gazed out at the well-heeled suburb that was supposed to be home to some of the angry, populist sentiment that had vaulted Trump to the presidency. The sun was setting, the leaves were turning and the Halloween decorations were out. So far, it didn’t look so angry.
“Nice asphalt,” Olofsdotter observed of the easy ride over the rolling hills. “Ever since I lived in Russia, I have become an admirer of smooth asphalt.”
The car turned a corner where dozens of simple white crosses had been planted in the ground — an abortion protest that Olofsdotter assumed was part of the town’s Halloween festivities until she was corrected by her American hosts.
“It’s lovely out here,” Karl-
Theodor zu Guttenberg, the former German defense minister, said.
“Very well kept,” Olofsdotter added.
Soon they came to a stop at the public library, a new, two-story brick building, where the parking lot was full and the librarian was eagerly waiting for them by the front door.
The idea for the program that took Olofsdotter to Trump country was hatched at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in the first weeks after a presidential election that virtually all of Washington’s foreign policy establishment — Republican and Democrat — believed was a total disaster.
On the campaign trail and in office, Trump trashed the alliances that these elites had spent their careers nurturing. “The world is a mess,” Trump said repeatedly, and America’s long-serving foreign policy experts were largely to blame.
Many in that rarefied group of policy thinkers, in turn, wondered how they had fallen so far out of touch with the country they were supposed to be serving.
Last December, Smith, a senior fellow at CNAS, decided it was time for her to reconnect with America. She found a willing partner in the German government, which offered her money to fund a program that would send current and former European officials out into Trump’s America.
“I want to come back with better insights into how we can talk about foreign policy with the general public,” Smith said. “I want to hear their legitimate grievances.”
She sketched out a plan to visit 12 cities over three years.
Her first stop: western Pennsylvania.
Her first big problem: finding some aggrieved Trump supporters who were willing to make time for a discussion. Seven of the eight local Republican district chair officials said they were too busy. The local conservative radio station didn’t return her calls. A Christian radio station initially agreed to have Smith and her European guests on, but canceled a few hours before they arrived in Pittsburgh.
“This is so much harder than I realized,” she complained. “Shoot me now.”
That left the Peters Township public library as their best chance for a real conversation with people who might disagree with them. The librarian escorted the three guests past the young adult fiction section, the “lucky day” shelf and a table full of lemonade and cookies decorated with sprinkles in the colors of the Swedish and German flags.
“Do Trump voters go to libraries?” one of Smith’s former Obama administration colleagues, now a University of Pittsburgh professor, had asked her the previous day.
About 120 people were waiting for the program to start — a big crowd for a Thursday. There were about 30 Advanced Placement government and world history students from the local high school; they had been promised extra credit for attending. The rest of the audience consisted of older men and women in khakis, jeans and comfortable shoes. Two policemen lingered attentively by the front desk in case there was any trouble.
“A lot of think-tankers and government officials where I am from sit around and talk to each other,” Smith said, kicking things off. “After a while, you realize you are having the same conversations all the time with the same people.”
She looked up at the crowd, which filled the library’s main atrium and a second-floor balcony, and braced for a blast of frustration, anger and hopefully insight of the sort that she wasn’t hearing in Washington.
“What we don’t do is talk to people like you,” she said.
The two Europeans — Olofsdotter and Guttenberg — spent much of the next 90 minutes answering questions from a crowd that was far more curious than angry.
An Army veteran who had served in Europe asked whether NATO could survive without the United States.
“No,” answered Guttenberg, the former defense minister.
A high school student asked Olofsdotter about a proposed U.S.-European Union trade deal that died in the run-up to last year’s presidential election. Several of the older attendees wondered about the influx of Middle Eastern refugees, their impact on European culture and the recent rise of far-right parties.
Olofsdotter suggested that job-killing robots, not asylum seekers, were the real driver of anxiety on both sides of the Atlantic. This was her fourth time living in the United States. She first spent a year in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., outside Atlantic City, as a high school exchange student in the 1980s. She spent another year as a graduate student at UCLA.
But it was two diplomatic tours — six years ago and today — that drove home to Olofsdotter the confounding nature of the United States and its politics.
In October, she attended Trump’s speech on tax reform at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. The crowd was almost entirely white, a change from the presidential speeches of her previous tour. The event began with an opening prayer, something that hardly ever occurs in Europe and that she didn’t recall from her earlier stint in Washington. Midway through the post-speech dinner, one of her table mates asked her if it was still safe to travel in Sweden — a remark likely prompted by the president’s suggestion in February that an influx of asylum seekers had triggered a crime wave in the country.
“We’ve got to keep our country safe,” Trump told supporters. “You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden.”
The remarks were met with ridicule in Sweden and concern at the embassy, which earlier this year commissioned a poll of American attitudes toward the country.
Peters Township offered Olofsdotter the kind of complex snapshot that a poll couldn’t provide. After the discussion, she grabbed a cookie and mingled with the audience.
“I’m 37 percent Swedish, according to my DNA,” one man said by way of introduction.
A retired ophthalmologist asked her if she was worried that native Swedes were going to be “out-reproduced” by Muslim immigrants and asylum seekers. Swedes were reproducing just fine, she politely replied.
A former schoolteacher pressed her on Russian aggression in the Baltic Sea.
“Every day there is uneasiness,” she said.
At the hotel bar after the speech, Olofsdotter, Smith and Guttenberg tried to guess the percentage of Trump voters in the audience.
“I saw a few grumpy faces,” Guttenberg said.
“No hecklers,” Smith replied.
The discussion turned to particular audience members. The man who had introduced himself to Guttenberg by apologizing for “that idiot who is our president” definitely wasn’t a Trump voter. The ophthalmologist, they guessed, probably backed the president.
What about the librarian who had arranged for the cookies? She could go either way, the three concluded.
The next day Olofsdotter headed to the University of Pittsburgh to meet with some international affairs students, and Smith went to talk with the sole local Republican official who had agreed to make time for her.
Decades earlier, Andy Dlinn had served as a Navy officer and, like Smith, had worked in the office of the defense secretary in the Pentagon. Now he was a financial planner, a member of the ultraconservative John Birch Society and the Republican chairman for Pittsburgh’s 5th Council District.
“When I say Europe, what comes to mind?” Smith asked.
“It’s another entangling alliance,” Dlinn replied. “It detracts from our sovereignty.”
Soon their talk turned to the threats posed by immigration, refugees and the set of rules governing Islam, known as sharia law. “There are places right now in Detroit and also North Carolina — I am trying to remember the name of the city — where police can’t go because sharia runs the place,” Dlinn said.
“Okay,” Smith replied warily.
“I’ll give you another example,” Dlinn said. “It’s not Muslim. It’s Hispanic.” The National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group, was trying to form a breakaway state, stretching from California to Louisiana, he said. He described the Council on Foreign Relations as a “shadow government,” working secretly to impose its globalist, one-world-government vision on an unsuspecting America.
“Well, listen, this is terrific,” Smith said, gently ending the chat. “This is why we came to Pittsburgh.”
She headed toward the airport, still unsure what to make of her final meeting.
“That delivered in spades,” she said as she climbed into her Uber.
“But it can wear you down,” she added a few minutes later as the car raced through traffic.
To Olofsdotter, who was waiting for her at the gate, Smith said simply: “I wish you had heard it. It was out there, but it was important.”
Olofsdotter wondered if Dlinn had always harbored such extreme thoughts or had come to them more recently.
“That’s what I wanted to know,” replied Smith, who was now wishing she had asked.
“Maybe it’s a rude or arrogant question,” Olofsdotter replied.
On the flight home, Smith was still thinking about Dlinn and the next stops on her tour. “How do you engage someone like that?” she asked. “I don’t have the answers after one trip. I might not have them after 12 trips.”
Olofsdotter was wrestling with her own questions from the visit. On one point, she was certain: “The United States is an amazing, frustrating place.”