“Is this what my tax money is going to?”: Complicating the Trump Administration’s Fascination with Norway
This piece originally appeared on my blog on January 17, 2020. We wrote it in June 2019.
Before I left Norway last June, Brianne Jaquette and I worked on a piece that looked at the administration’s numerous references to Norway over the past few years. Just this past week, Mike Pompeo stated, “We just want Iran to behave more like a normal country, to be like Norway.” In this piece, Brianne and I argue that using Norway is a referent is much more sinister than just playing on the idea that Norway is “white.” It plays on Norwegian policies as well. For more on this, see Sindre Bangstad’s recent article “Far-Right Media Ecology in Norway.”
On June 21, Donald Trump tweeted a video that manipulated a Time magazine cover from October 2018. The original cover has campaign signs moving towards the top of the page with dates ranging from 2024–2044, and the article headline reads, “How Trumpism Outlasts Trump.” In Trump’s video, the camera moves past similar campaign signs that are dated every four years towards a 2048 sign with Trump standing over it. When the camera reaches the sign, the dates tick up exponentially before reading “Trump 4EVA.”
Trump’s trolling of the media for “jokes” he made recently about serving more than two terms as president is nothing out of the ordinary. It’s a continuation of tactics used throughout his campaign and presidency. Along with the images, the choice of music in the video stands out. The music is Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” part of the incidental music Grieg composed for Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Grieg, born in Bergen, Norway, is one of Norway’s most famous composers and helped to establish the country’s national identity in the nineteenth century.
While the video’s use of Grieg’s music might be purely coincidental, it is another link between Trump and Norway. During Trump’s presidency, Norway has become a touchstone for discussions around immigration. In January 2018, Trump disparaged Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations by referring to them as “shithole countries” and proclaimed, “We should have more people from places like Norway.” The preference for Norwegian immigrants over others has been repeated again and again, and not just by Trump. On June 20, the New York Times published an article entitled, “‘These People Aren’t Coming From Norway:’ Refugees in a Minnesota City Face a Backlash.” Speaking about Somlaian immigrants in Minnesota, the quote in the headline is from Kim Crockett, vice president of the Center for the American Experiment, a conservative think tank.
Because these statements are often contrasting Norway with countries with majority Black populations, it is not hard to interpret this use of Norway as a desire to have more White immigrants. When many Americans picture Norwegians, they imagine tall, blond, White descendants of Vikings. This can cause confusion when Americans are confronted by Norwegians who are not White. For example, Samuel Subbey, a Norwegian who spent time on a fellowship in the US, explains how Americans had trouble understanding him as someone who was both Norwegian and Black. The view of Norway by Americans as lily White misunderstands the current multicultural reality of the country.
The demographic changes in Norway are directly linked to its history of emigration and immigration. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, more than a quarter of Norway’s population left the country. Many of those who left moved to the US. However, the Norway of the twenty-first century is very different from the Norway of the past. Thanks in large part to the discovery of oil in the North Sea, Norway is a prosperous country that provides a generous social safety net to its citizens. Very few Norwegians currently immigrate to the US, and in fact, Norway has become a country that many seek to immigrate to. This reversal of the immigration stream in Norway has caused vast changes to the country — changes that Norway is currently grappling with.
The recent trends of immigration to Norway began in the 1960s. Currently, Norway, a country of only 5.3 million people, has a population of 944,402 immigrants and Norwegian-born children of immigrant parents as of March 2019. That is nearly 1/5 of the entire nation. A look at the demographic data from 2018 shows that two of the top ten countries with immigrants to Norway are African (Somalia and Eritrea), two are Middle Eastern (Syria and Iraq), one is South Asian (Pakistan) and three of the top five are European (Sweden, Poland, and Lithuania), accounting for a large number of immigrants. Citizens of these countries immigrate to Norway for a variety of reasons ranging from labor to asylum seekers.
With a diversifying population, Norway has also seen a rise of racist and anti-immigrant sentiment. These anti-immigrant ideas have been echoed in the last few years by the government’s controversial policies towards asylum seekers. These policies might be more akin to our current administration’s practices on the southern border than many would imagine given Americans perceptions of peaceful, egalitarian Norway. Because of the 2015 refugee crisis, Norway erected a wall at the border crossing with Russia to limit the number of mostly Syrian refugees entering Norway. Many along the border did not take the fence very seriously, but others found that the building of a wall to keep out asylum seekers sent a troubling message.
More recently, the conservative government has actively sought to deport some asylum seekers, in defiance of pleas by Amnesty International and against the United Nations’ rights for refugees. Anna Shea, Amnesty International’s Refugee and Migrant Rights advisor, chronicles how in 2017 the Norwegian government denied an Afghan couple’s request for asylum. Hadi (first names only are used in the report for protection) had been kidnapped and beaten in Afghanistan. The couple came to Norway in 2015 seeking asylum. Upon their return to Afghanistan, Hadi was murdered, and his wife Sadeqa and their children live in constant fear for their own lives.
One of the most recent examples of the asylum seekers being returned to Afghanistan by the Norwegian government came to a head in the early morning of June 15, 2019. Police in Trondheim entered the home of Atefa Rezaie and her three children — Yasin (22), Taibeh (20) and Ehsan (16) Abbasi — forcibly deporting them to Afghanistan, a nation where the children have never been. The family came to Norway in 2012, and the government has denied their residency permits, leading to countless judicial proceedings. Norwegian authorities deemed Atefa safe to travel to Kabul, despite a medical condition; she became unconscious mid-flight and was returned to Norway during a layover in Istanbul. The children were sent on to Kabul, where upon arrival, Afghan officials refused to accept the Abbasi children because they arrived without their mother and in large part due to the efforts of Shukria Barakzai, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Norway.
The rhetoric underneath the surface of actions like those listed above is explored by Karpe, a rap duo from Oslo. During the 2015 refugee crisis, one half of Karpe, Magdi, whose has an Egyptian father and a Norwegian mother, followed online comment sections under newspaper articles about the crisis. He, as Øyvind Holen puts it, became “frightened and angry at the xenophobia, islamaphobia, and racism that permeates public discourse in the popular genre.” In the song that resulted from this experience, “Lett å være rebell i kjellerleiligheten din,” each of Magdi’s lines express the race-based fears of the commenters about Norway’s supposed invasion by non-whites and non-ethinic Norwegians. After every line in the first verse, a question arises, “Er det dette skattepenga mine går til?” (“Is this what my tax money is going to?”) This question, coupled with Magdi’s lyrics, embody the feeling of many who are not welcoming to foreigners and point out how hostile these feelings are.
While one can rightfully argue about the issue of scale — the cases in Norway do not involve thousands of migrant children, for example — one can also see that the ideas and practices highlighted above are eerily similar to ones we are currently hearing and seeing in the United States. White conservatives in the US might point to these examples and say they are evidence of sound immigration policy adding to Norway’s prosperity and standard of living, a sharper eye reveals, though, who is causing the issues at hand and who is trying to make peaceful lives for themselves and their families.
This article could have been about the successes of a more multicultural Norway and the social democratic welfare state; there are plenty of success stories to share. But, in our current global moment, with white nationalism on the rise, it is more significant to point out how these racist and anti-immigrant expressions and policies are ruining lives and poisoning us all. It is only when we have a sense of the worldwide scale of these issues that we can combat them — not only as Americans but as global citizens who want to see a more equitable world for everyone.