Text: Dianna Korshøj & Simon Mæng Tjørnehøj
To Rufus Gifford, Denmark is Hygge, Jantelov, Work/life balance, Values, Tradition, Community and Smørrebrød and Snaps. Now he has returned to America and closed a great chapter in his life called: The American Ambassador in Denmark, but not without taking a little bit of Denmark along with him.
Can you name any of our American ambassadors? If you can, the name was probably Rufus Gifford. In the past four years, the name Rufus Gifford has spread throughout Denmark. He had always been one of the men behind THE MAN, and had no experience with diplomacy, so for him, a small country like Denmark didn’t seem too overwhelming. He has always been fond of the Danish representatives in meetings: they were never the loudest voice, but always respectful. But the question is: who is this Rufus Gifford, and why is it that so few of us have ever heard about the role of the ambassador until now? When Rufus first came to Denmark he saw it as his job to find out what the Danes knew about his title. What he found out was that most Danes knew very little about it, so he took it upon himself to enlighten us. Some say that he merged the best of American politics with the Danish: Danish values served with a public charismatic front figure. If that is true or not is up for you to decide.
We bring you some of his viewpoints, served with what felt like an unfiltered, laid back attitude and a Carlsberg in his hand.
The magic of politics
Rufus never imagined being in the spotlight, but as an ambassador he needed to be there – the embodiment of The American Dream saw something more than “just” a staffer:
“’When the president of the United States asks you to do something, you do it!’ is the official answer to the question, but the truth is that I never dreamed of being an ambassador. It was not a job that I looked for – It was a different role for me, so I had always been a staffer. I describe myself as the pale sweaty guy backstage, making sure everything ran on time. And I loved to be a staffer – It was fantastic! When you are ambassador you are kind of the front man and… It was just different. I had to get my head around it – but it felt fantastic! To be honest: I would have said yes to whatever he had asked of met it just felt like the right thing for me.”
Rufus thinks highly of the now former President of the United States, Barack Obama, and his election to the Oval Office goes to show how far one could get in the US.
“I believe in him! I think we need more of that. I believed in what we as a country did when we elected Barack Obama. We talked a lot about The American Dream – whether it is real anymore or not, and it’s a fair debate to have, but I think it is impossible to say that The American Dream was not real when he was president. Because Barack Obama is the walking embodiment of The American Dream, I just love that! That is just his story – let alone his politics – and there is just something magical that for me, so yeah! If President Obama wanted me to be anything, I would have said yes.”
Traveling from America to Denmark is a big change and it might be easy to conclude that your own country is the best, but after living in Denmark for a few years, Rufus might have shed some light to how our two cultures can learn from each other:
“Considering the state that America is in right now, I don’t think I’m in any position to give any advice right now about what another country should do politically.”
“That being said – there are things which are uniquely American – They are not uniquely American, but yet they are… this is essentially the spirit that everything from putting a man on the moon to creating Facebook, and that is this idea that anything is possible. That if you tell us no, then we are twice as likely to do it – try to achieve it, and I think that spirit is exciting and perhaps worth exploring for some Danes. The truth is that Jantelov at its heart does make what I just said more challenging, but I also think that the Americans can learn something about the mentality of the society that Denmark has created. You do have something very special here that also allowed you to create some of the most innovative and interesting businesses in the world. I don’t believe that Jantelov and innovative success have to be mutually exclusive.”
The two-tiered Jantelov
PERSONAL: “I think there is sort of personal Jantelov and then there is some sort of professional Jantelov. When you think of your personal life – how you view yourself often in relation to others, there is something kind of lovely about how the Danes think about themselves in relations to their neighbor: “I’m no better than you are, I don’t look down on you for being different”. And I love that! And I actually wish that Americans had more of that kind of humility. I think maybe we wouldn’t have elected Donald Trump as president if we valued personal humility a little bit more.”
PROFESSIONAL: “The professional side of Jantelov is different. I think there is every reason to be proud of something you have done that is special, and I think that if you do excel at something – I think that is something to be proud of! That doesn’t mean that you are necessary better than everybody else, but it could mean that you created something to be proud of – And I DO think that you can separate the two somehow.”
“If the Danish culture all of a sudden lost Jantelov, you wouldn’t be Danish – You wouldn’t be Scandinavian. So all of a sudden you become Southern European? Where this kind of patriarchal society – it’s just not Danish! It is who you are – I just think it’s a matter of adapting to modern life and embracing Jantelov to a certain extent and making it modern!
He states if the Danish culture suddenly lost Jantelov we wouldn’t be Danish – It’s a matter of embracing Jantelov to a certain extent and making it modern. Perhaps the two-tiered view is something worth considering
The royal family – a bizarre constellation
Maybe you can draw some parallels between Denmark and America and although you could argue that both countries have democracy, Denmark has, like England, a monarchy simultaneously. Americans don’t get it, he says, but maybe they appreciate the concept that they are not the ones who have to pay for it after all:
“What I think is interesting about the royals is that they have to adjust to modern world as well, understanding that the traditional role of a prince or a princess will have to change. If you look at Frederik and Mary, you look at the role they have within the Danish culture and look at what they give back to the Danish culture and the Danish society, I think it is actually quite profound. They are constants – positive representatives from your country abroad. As well as dealing with important issues like women and girls’ rights in Africa and maybe climate change and innovation.”
Adjusting to the presence of a royal family can take a while.
“That being said, the idea when I first came to your country with the royal family, it seemed bizarre to an American. We don’t get it, but I think we understand and appreciate the concept – of course we are not Danish taxpayers, so we don’t pay for any of it, which I understand HAS to be the debate in the democracy, but I think there is value.”
As he suggests, a fickle debate between taxes and the royal family appear from time to time, but no changes are made. In a globalized society where Western democracy could seem like a modern crusade, how can something as old-fashioned as a monarchy still survive?
“What I think is fascinating about the royal family is that everyone is equal here for the most part. And then you have the royals, which is the most hierarchical institution. So, it’s interesting how those two sorts of worlds have kind of managed to work together up until this point. But it’s up to them I think, to continue to keep their role modern and relevant, and then it is up to the Danish people to decide if it is good enough for them.”
The SU issue
In Denmark, we have government funded schools and universities and as if that’s not enough, students are paid during their education. It may seem like utopia compared to American students who spend most of their lives playing back student loans:
“You are without a doubt privileged! I think that it is a wonderful, wonderful gift. I’m not the one to tell you where to spend the government budget, but all I want to say to the Danish students is just to understand that it is special and take advantage of it and don’t squander that opportunity – your country is investing enough in the desire to educate you and want to spend the money to do it. That is really, really exciting!”
He advices Danish students to think about how to justify the help they receive from the government.
“Do I think you are spoiled? Sure! But you know… fight for what you believe is right. You have to fight for it in a way that meets the ideal behind the purpose of it; it’s fighting for the value that was the original intent for the head behind the money. And I think sometimes it gets conflated: “we just want more money” or “we just want to have that financial flexibility” – I don’t think that’s a good argument for the government. I think that a good argument is: “you’re actually investing right now in the future of the country, and if we have more financial stability as students, we can do more to give back to society” – I think that is the way you have to pitch it.”
He stresses the positive aspects of bringing about change through peaceful, democratic processes.
“Listen; this is a time, from a government perspective, where no one is getting more money – pretty much everybody is getting less, so you have to make tough choices. You gotta fight for it! Peaceful demonstrations are a wonderful, wonderful part of democracy! And they matter! Politicians listen. And if you can find a way to organize enough people to support your viewpoint, I say, go after it! And I think that that is democracy at its best.”
He also states that although he and many Danes are petrified about Trump being the American president, we all should have confidence in the government and the power of the people. Trump may want to introduce radical legislations, but Rufus is confident that he will never be able to force it through in full extent. As Rufus puts it:
“The head of state is in charge of passing legislations, whereas the president is elected as the moral leader of the country – I will be the first to say, the fact that we elected Donald Trump to be the moral leader of the country is alarming!”
What does the future bring?
Rufus’ employment in the Danish embassy ended in January, but even though he doesn’t need to be here anymore, he enjoyed visiting and continues giving lectures. He is appreciative and fond of the experiences and knowledge he has been granted during his stay:
“I don’t think that I would have considered a political career had it not been for my time in Denmark. My time in Denmark and the work that we did here inspired me and it made me wanna continue to do it. It seemed to be the right decision for me. I thought a lot of what that meant – how do I continue to do some of the work that we have done here in Denmark? Considering Trump is president and all that, I think that running for office is the way. I am excited about it – nervous as hell! But excited. It’s a new chapter, and it is another exciting one!”
We have met some students at a lecture with Rufus and asked them how come they had prioritized spending their evening listening to him:
Julie Bruun Jensen
“I think that he is a great person! It has been exciting to hear his opinion towards what happens in America, but also about his experiences here in Denmark. It is great that his opinions are so different to those of Donald Trump because they collaborate better with the Danish mindset, and I think it would be great if some of those values could be adapted into the American value system.”
Line Krogh Brusgaard
“I first noticed Rufus after returning from America. I thought it was great to see someone who represented the same image of Americans that I have. The Americans I have come to know have primarily been Rufus-like people, so his values are not surprising to me. I think, however, it is great that he wants to show Danes those values in an American, because I think that many people are getting their stereotype-American confirmed with the Trump-government. Rufus gives Danes an insight: that Americans are more than those stereotypes people think they are – it gives me hope that the Americans overall are willing to change.”