Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Facebook and email. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Denmark is obsessed with an American reality TV star.
And no, it’s not Donald Trump.
It’s Rufus Gifford – or “Rufus,” as everyone here seems to know him.
Gifford is the US ambassador to this little near-utopic nation, which is consistently ranked as one of happiest, best-educated and greenest places on Earth. The 40-something diplomat has found himself the unlikely star of a Danish reality TV show called “I Am the Ambassador.”
Gifford’s dog, Argos, and husband, Stephen, are fixtures of the six-episode program, which entirely lacks the drama of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” or the wine-glass-throwing of “The Real Housewives” series. For proof, look no further than the first episode’s description, which says, “The embassy hosts a barbecue for the ambassador’s birthday, and Rufus and Stephen throw a party. Rufus and the Danish defense minister talk terrorism.” You might think that last sentence – and “terrorism” – means there’s going to be some tension in the episode, some looming threat. You’d be wrong. There’s basically no drama here, no plot twist, no ex-boyfriend coming to sabotage the couple’s marriage, no slurry, vendetta-carrying party crashers.
And that’s exactly what Danes like about it.
“He walks in the gay pride parade. He runs the Copenhagen half-marathon. He’s very open,” said Lykke Leonardsen, who works on climate issues for the city of Copenhagen.
“He’s very American in the most positive way.”
At a time when another reality show veteran, Donald Trump, is clawing for the US presidency, Gifford, a former Obama fund-raiser, represents the America that Europeans want to believe still exists. There are no fiery, cantankerous speeches on the show, much less “rigged election” conspiracies or allegations of sexual assault. There’s no gotta-see-what-happens-next aspect to Gifford’s persona. Gifford is the inoffensive, big-smiling, gay, golden-retriever-walking anti-Trump.
Sadly, he’s exactly the kind of public figure who wouldn’t interest Americans much these days.
Assuming the GOP nominee doesn’t get elected, the Year of Trump is still sure to leave scars on America. Among them likely will be an insatiable appetite for scandal and drama in our politics.
Theater, not substance, has the spotlight this campaign season. Headlines focus on Hillary Clinton’s emails and Trump’s bragging about grabbing women’s genitals – on Paul Ryan’s fidgeting and Clinton’s smile. Debates are long on personal attacks and short on substance. Facts? They’re starting to seem irrelevant to many.
It’s almost trite to say: This is great for TV and bad for democracy.
Yet it wouldn’t be great TV unless we didn’t crave it on some level.
At the risk of sounding quaint and outdated, I think we Americans could learn a thing or two from Denmark’s taste in public figures. Yes, there are wackos in Scandinavia, too, those who want to ban Muslims from entering the country and whose nationalism should scare anyone with more than 70 years’ knowledge of world history. But, largely, they expect more civility from their politicians than we’ve come to. And their society – which has far less income inequality and much higher levels of trust – still functions as a cohesive unit. America is tearing at the seams. It’s not all Trump’s fault, surely, but the vitriol he encourages has made it difficult for Americans on the left and right – urban and rural, Muslim and Christian, gay and straight, black and white, recent immigrant and multigenerational immigrant – to see each other as equally human, to understand where the other is coming from even when there’s real disagreement. Without that, what makes us a nation besides a pledge and a flag?
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That Danes appreciate a candid, no-frills look into the life of an innocuous US ambassador is telling. They’re capable of showing interest in people who aren’t screaming for attention and trying to engineer their own plot twists. I hope that after the 2016 election has settled we Americans can say the same.
But like me, you may not finish the entire series. (It’s on Netflix and iTunes.)
There’s simply not enough tension to keep it moving.