COPENHAGEN—On a Tuesday evening this summer, 600 people took their seats in a sold-out theater in Copenhagen. Their mood was electric. The applause and laughter came in generous portions—which was surprising, considering that they were there to see an American ex-diplomat giving, essentially, a PowerPoint presentation about the United States’ role in the world.
That Danes would give this kind of adoring treatment to a mid-level government official—and a former one at that—says something about America’s enduring role in the world at a time when the U.S. is attempting to limit its overseas commitments. In this case, it also says a lot about the object of this audience’s affection, the former U.S. ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford. These Danes were concerned about the future of American democracy and foreign relations, but, perhaps more than that, they were enamored of this particular representative of American values. And in 2017, for better or worse, the fate of those values is bound, at least in part, to the resilience of one American export—celebrity culture.
Indeed, Rufus Gifford’s route to a packed theater that Tuesday night in some ways resembles Donald Trump’s path to the presidency, though the former ambassador differs from the current U.S. president in almost every substantive way. Where Trump is famously nativist, Gifford is internationalist and cosmopolitan. Where Trump spent his adult life straining to transcend his outer-borough roots by conquering Manhattan, Gifford—who was born to a patrician New England family and arrived in Washington via Hollywood—is the archetypal insider. Trump has positioned himself as Obama’s opposite; Gifford raised $1 billion as finance director for Obama’s reelection campaign. What they have in common is improbable political clout launched by Twitter and reality TV.