As an American with dual citizenship in Latvia, which is a member of NATO and the European Union, I take exception to the ramblings of President Donald Trump on his European trip. Everything he said was geared to his dwindling audience in the U.S., particularly the evangelicals.
For instance, I did not know that the biggest “existentialist threat” facing Latvia’s young democracy is “radical Muslim Islamists” based in Yemen and other such desert places.
I was under the impression that it was our neighbor Russia (which invaded Latvia twice and caused me and my family to seek freedom in the U.S.) and its ongoing efforts to cripple our economy. The Russian government hates Latvians so much that it refers to the Latvian language, one of the oldest in Europe, as “sobachi yazik” — dogs’ language, that is, barking. Small wonder that one of the newly freed Latvians’ first purchases in 1991 was 70,000 3M reflective road signs only in Latvian. Before then, road signs were bilingual, with Russian on top and Latvian on the bottom.
Many Russians also feel President Vladimir Putin is the real threat. In fact, I sold one of my Latvian farms to a Russian. Given the size of the purchase, he got a green card and permanent residency, which allows him to travel throughout the “bureaucracy-choked” (as Trump put it) European Union freely. More notably, the next time you are at your favorite bar, ask for a shot of Stolichnaya vodka. The owners of “Stoli” were so concerned by the threat of Putin taking over their company that they packed up and left Moscow and moved to Latvia, where we are deathly afraid of “radical Yemeni Muslims.”
Elsewhere in Europe, the existentialist threat was seen differently. OK, Trump got a nice welcome in Poland, but one of the reasons for Brexit, the British leaving the E.U., was the influx of Poles — and Latvians — who took jobs the British didn’t want to do. But now the Brits are rethinking — the existentialist threats that the Poles and we Latvians represent is less than the fear of the loss of London being Europe’s banking center. And yes, the mayor of London is a Muslim.
The riots at the G-20 summit in Hamburg were more about the threat of climate change than the threat of radical Muslims. Germany is home to 5 million German Turks; France has 5 million French Algerians, and Western Europeans care little about religion. In France, 11 percent of people attend church and in Germany, 13 percent. Religion is a nonissue. It gets worse (or better, depending on your point of view) in the Scandinavian countries, where only 3 percent of the population goes to church. Not surprisingly, in the first United Nations World Happiness Report in 2012, Denmark was first in happiness, Finland second, Norway third and Sweden seventh. In essence, the Scandinavians said all religions are existentialist threats to happiness.
OK, I have a personal fondness for Sweden. A cousin of mine, Laila Freivalds, was foreign minister from 2003 to 2006, and a Swedish conglomerate started the first “non-fake-news” newspaper, Diena, in Latvia. Its first publisher, Arvils Ašeradens, now deputy prime minister, was threatened by the Russian mafia in Latvia for exposing mafia activities. His response was to run the following message (loosely translated) on the front page masthead: “We don’t do puff pieces on gangsters.” I feared for his life, but he has survived and spent two weeks in the Twin Cities last Christmas. The U.S. faces a similar situation from Trump now: Anything but a puff piece is considered “fake news.”
Clearly, Trump’s European speech was only written to appeal to his U.S. evangelical base, not to Europeans who don’t have the paranoia about Muslims that Trump has instilled in U.S. evangelicals. I became quite skeptical of evangelicals when I lived in the Shenandoah Valley for six years, 40 miles from Lynchburg, Va., where Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church is headquartered. One Sunday morning on the Fox channel, Jerry Falwell said this: “Giving to my church is like buying a timeshare in heaven.”
John Freivalds lives in Orono.