The Staggering Irony of Donald Trump's Fascination with Norway
From characterizing Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers to questioning the authenticity of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate to all but saluting white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, President Donald Trump has never tried to mask his racism. The United States’ birther-in-chief recently lived up to his reputation for bigotry when, according to Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and others, he denounced Haiti, El Salvador and several African nations as “sh*thole countries," wondering why the U.S. doesn't invite immigrants from Norway instead.
Norwegians were less than flattered; in fact, they've said "thanks but no thanks" to the president's immigration offer. But while his motivations were clearly racial (Norway is one of the whitest countries in the world), Trump has endorsed a country whose public policies align with those of Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA); in short, everything the modern-day Republican Party despises. More remarkable still, this isn't the first time the president has praised a country with socialist leanings.
During a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in May 2017, Trump praised Australia for having “much better health care” than the U.S., and it didn’t take long for Sanders to point out that Australia has the type of government-operated universal health care system Republicans bitterly oppose. But Trump doesn’t understand health care delivery in Australia any more than he understands why Norway has a comparatively higher standard of living.
In her condemnation of Trump’s “sh*thole countries” comment, Oslo-born journalist Martine Aurdal points out that the U.S. attracted about 800,000 Norwegian immigrants in the late 19th century and early 20th century, her great-grandfather among them. Norway's poor fled their country's economic conditions, but times have changed. With its robust social safety net, Norway has emerged as one of the world’s most prosperous countries.
Sanders has had high praise for the economic policies of Norway and other Scandinavian nations, and with good reason. When it comes to health care, overall working conditions, education, life expectancy and upward mobility, Norway’s democratic socialism puts U.S. governance to shame.
Even with the gains and reforms of the Affordable Care Act, 28.1 million Americans lacked health insurance in 2017 (down from 48.6 million in 2010). Like much of the developed world, Norway enjoys universal health care; its coverage ranked third best in Europe in 2015 by the Euro Health Consumer Index and the 11th best in the world by the World Health Organization in 2000.
Medical bankruptcy, common in the U.S., is unheard of in Norway. According to WHO, life expectancy in the U.S. was 79.3 in 2015; in Norway, it was 81.8. Meanwhile, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world per capita—707 for every 100,000 people, compared to only 75 per 100,000 in Norway. And thanks to strong government-operated rehabilitation programs in the Norwegian prison system, Norway has a recidivism rate of 20 percent against 76.6 percent in the U.S., where mass incarceration and the failed war on drugs have only encouraged the growth of prison gangs.
Republicans detest labor unions, but in Norway, 52 percent of workers were unionized in 2016 compared to 10 percent in the U.S. That 10 percent includes government jobs; among private-sector workers, unionization was only 6.4 percent last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The reality is that for most Norwegians, the U.S.—with its medical bankruptcies, mass incarceration, prison-industrial complex, rampant homelessness, student debt and lower life expectancy—represents a major step down. Aurdal, explaining why many Norwegians felt insulted rather than flattered by Trump’s remarks, wrote, “Today, Norway is one of the richest countries in the world, and we will not give up our cradle-to-grave welfare. ... Instead of trying to import our whiteness, the U.S. president should try letting some of our ideals in.”
Wealth inequality in the U.S. is appalling. According to a 2017 study by Pew Research that compared wealth distribution in the U.S. to 11 countries across Western Europe, roughly 80 percent of the population in Norway and Denmark qualify as middle class compared to just 59 percent in the U.S. According to Pew, 26 percent of U.S. residents are living in poverty as opposed to 14 percent of Norway’s population.
Writing for the Nation in 2016, American journalist Ann Jones (who had lived in Norway) painted a bleak picture of life in the U.S., describing it as a country where “there are not enough shelters for the homeless. Most people are either overworked or hurting for jobs; the housing is overpriced, the hospitals crowded and understaffed, the schools largely segregated and not so good.”
Drawing from her own personal experiences in Scandinavia, Jones agreed with Sanders’ assertion that the U.S. should “look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people,” and that we should strive to be a "society where all people do well, not just a handful of billionaires.”
Norway is not a successful country because its people are fair-skinned; Norway is successful because, unlike the U.S., it doesn’t have an economy of the 1 percent, by the 1 percent and for the 1 percent. If President Trump and his fellow Republicans understood that, we might not be in the dire straits we are in today.