Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden!

Bernard Porter

Donald Trump’s reference to Sweden at his rally in Florida on 18 February had Stockholmers mildly amused at first.

We've got to keep our country safe … You look at what's happening in Germany, you look at what's happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden! They took in large numbers. They're having problems like they never thought possible. You look at what's happening in Brussels. You look at what's happening all over the world. Take a look at Nice. Take a look at Paris.

He didn’t explicitly say that Sweden was experiencing Islamic terrorism, but that was clearly implied. His reference to ‘last night’ was precise. Swedish journalists tried to find the incident he might have been referring to, but could come up with nothing more exciting than snow-blocked roads in the north, a car chase in Stockholm and a randy elk. No Islamicists were involved. It transpired that Trump had been misled by an item on Fox News – where else? – which had tried to link rising crime in Sweden with its generous asylum policy; but even that turned out to have been a distortion.

And then four days later there was a riot in Rinkeby, which Trump used to justify his claim retrospectively. A number of youths threw stones at police who were trying to arrest a suspected drug dealer, then attacked a couple of cars and smashed some shop windows. There, said Trump; despite the sneers of the fake press, I was essentially right. Nigel Farage leaped on the story too. The far-right Sverigedemokraterna were on hand to back them up. They even managed to get an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal: ‘Trump is right. Sweden’s embrace of refugees isn’t working.’ Apparently a Swedish government minister is about to submit a response to the paper.

I went for a walk around Rinkeby the other day, out of curiosity. It boasts good clean housing, superb public amenities and well-stocked shops. I saw no trace of last Tuesday evening’s mayhem. The people – I didn’t see a single white face – were friendly, and seemed surprised when I told them of the international interest their community was attracting.

Of course these were fleeting and superficial impressions, possibly influenced by my liberal prejudices. But objectively, too, it’s hard to find evidence for the far right’s claims. There’s no statistically significant connection between immigration and crime. The major cause of rioting, such as it is, appears to be youth unemployment in all communities; or else the machinations of the far right. Last year there were more than ninety arson attacks on asylum seeker housing. Far-rightists everywhere, Trump among them, try to blame immigrants for rape in Sweden, but there is no evidence for that either.

On the night of Trump’s made-up Islamicist atrocity, I went to hear Lars-Erik Larsson’s Förklädd Gud (‘God in Disguise’) at Folkoperan. A number of the performers were beggars, exiles and Roma from the streets of Stockholm. The performance was set in the context of Sweden’s enlightened refugee policy: a sign, the piece implied, of the ‘disguised God’ in all of us. The music is glorious and the whole occasion was very moving. It reminded me why I like living here.

But Sweden seems to be a mystery to Republicans in the US. The whole country appears counter-intuitive to them. It is relatively prosperous. Crime is low, and productivity high. The trains run on time. Sweden can afford to be generous to incomers, with a minimum of social disruption. But hardly anyone goes to church here; criminals are mollycoddled; young children are snatched from their mothers and sent to state-supported nursery schools; Sweden’s welfare provision ought to deter all enterprise; its trade unions are powerful; its working days are short and annual holiday allowances absurdly generous; no one carries guns; healthcare and higher education are free; taxes are high, certainly by US standards; and refugees continue to arrive. By many Americans’ economic, religious and penal criteria, all this should spell disaster.

‘What’s it like living in a communist country?’ my Swedish partner was once asked by an academic friend in Berkeley. Disbelief is the only way an ideological capitalist can make sense of Sweden, and must be the reason behind Trump’s assumption that, if Sweden is admitting all those Muslim refugees, the country must be suffering for it. On Trump’s worldview, there ought to be a jihadist massacre here. In other words, the wish, or the theory, or the prejudice, is father to the alternative fact.


  • 1 March 2017 at 3:18pm
    Bob Beck says:
    It was the same sort of thinking [sic] that led Pat Buchanan, back in 2003, to dub Canada "Soviet Canuckistan". He was experiencing a fit of pique at Canada's refusal to join the assault on Iraq, and presumably neither knew nor cared that Canada resembles the US far more closely than it does any other country.

    And, of course, Buchanan has now come to seem a sort of bizarro-world John the Baptist: a voice whining in the think-tanks, crying "prepare ye the way of the Donald".

    • 6 March 2017 at 3:24am
      FoolCount says: @ Bob Beck
      You are wrong. Pat Buchanan was always against the Iraq war and he certainly did not begrudge Canada its refusal to participate in it. He did call Canada "Soviet Canuckistan" but in entirely different context.

    • 6 March 2017 at 8:21pm
      Bob Beck says: @ FoolCount
      You're right that he was against the Iraq War. I suppose not even old Pat "Culture War" Buchanan can be wrong about everything.

      It's debatable though whether the context was entirely different, because his rationale was no more... well, rational than anything said by the neo-con warmongers in the run-up to the Iraq War (he retailed the phrase on MSNBC in Oct. 2002):

      "Referring to the country as "Soviet Canuckistan" in his MSNBC television show, Buchanan called for the US to ignore Canadas [sic] official protest against the deportation of a Canadian citizen to Syria.

      "(The Canadians) are the blame America first crowd. (They) have been defended by the United States, they pay nothing for defence. That place is a complete haven for international terrorists. We need lectures from some people, not from Soviet

      Another thing Canada was protesting was new, onerous restrictions applied to, and harassment of, Arab-Canadians trying to enter the US. So in context Buchanan was about as unhinged and mindlessly hostile as Trump.

      (Understand, I'm not nearly as touchy -- nor, I hope, as smug -- as some Canadians, so coming from Pat, I took all this as a compliment. That the White House is now occupied by someone he likely finds congenial is, of course, much less funny).

  • 1 March 2017 at 5:11pm
    IPFreely says:
    Trump probably believes that the riot in Sweden was reported because the fake media had ignored it until that point in time. He has been making a lot of noise about the attacks in Brussels, Paris, Berlin that were 'not even mentioned' in the press. But when the media respond by pointing out just how much coverage there has been of these events he takes their comments to be proof of his claim in the first place. He's Münchausen reborn. At a jamboree last week he claimed that the line waiting to get in "went back six blocks" and that the media would not report that. He lied about the waiting line but got it right about the reports. His supporters are in delirium about his presidential speech yesterday. "The leader of the free world"? Bush was bad enough but Trump?

  • 2 March 2017 at 12:57pm
    eogh says:
    Sweden often functions as a paragon of success or failure, for competing ideologies. For Trump and his ilk it is the "I told you so!" example of a liberal country that welcomes refugees and then suffers the consequences, the "system collapse". The facts (like those linked above) dispel these factious myths.

    However there are other myths, or exaggerations, that are often invoked by certain liberals who use Sweden as the perfect example of a happy marriage between capitalism and the welfare state. While these are not as divisive or delusional as those on the far right, they nonetheless peddle certain fantasies to support an ideology. Trump's lies must be denounced and revealed as a sham, but that does not mean one should whitewash the Swedish state.

    Sweden has recently suffered eight years of centre right government which saw swathes of privatisation and neo-liberal policy. This has weakened the welfare state considerably, and the current social democratic government has done little to reverse this. For example, despite opposition by the majority of the population, Sweden has a hugely privatised school system, and is the only country in the world that allows tax financed schools to hand over profits to private shareholders, to the detriment of education (starting in those nursery schools).

    Just as it would be wise for the Democrats in the US to focus on why they couldn't convince people to vote for them (or vote at all), it would be wise, in light of the growing far-right Swedish Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna), for the centre parties of Sweden to reflect on why they are losing support. White washing the country is to ignore a problem and to leave its solution open to racist populists who will happily fill that gap.

    • 2 March 2017 at 2:08pm
      Bernard Porter says: @ eogh
      Well put. I entirely agree. I don't mean to whitewash Sweden. Indeed, I've written critically about the country before, both on this blog (search 'Porter' and 'Sweden') and on my own. As a Labour supporter in the 1960s I used to regard it as my 'shining city on the hill', but having lived there on and off for 20 years now I'm getting discouraged by recent developments. 'Catching up with Thatcher', is how I used to put it; but in the area of education the Swedes have certainly outstripped us with their 'free' - for private profit but at the expense of the taxpayers - schools: see Still, some of the shine is still there.

  • 3 March 2017 at 12:29pm
    nechaev says:
    odd that any commentary about Sweden by a long-term observer fails to mention Malmø. The gangland violence there is the subject of almost constant newsreports here in Denmark: Drive-by shootings, assassinations, firebombings, etc. ,and has been for several years now. A lead article about Malmø in today's Berlingske Tidende (a leading right-of-center Copenhagen broadsheet) is headed " Here is the Chicago of Scandinavia: I feel unsafe here and have felt so for a long time" A week before we heard a lot about the policeman from Örebro and his controversial blog report . Perhaps all this is merely sensationalism played up by the Danish rightwing media? Or perhaps the reality of what is unfolding in Sweden is being deliberately downplayed for ideological reasons by the upholders of the Swedish status quo?

    • 3 March 2017 at 1:10pm
      Bernard Porter says: @ nechaev
      My original post was edited, with the result that a reference I did make to Malmo was left out. Again, the connexion between 'gangland violence' there and immigration is far from clear. Here's the relevant passage.

      'Of course it’s possible that I’m just a typical liberal naïf; and that behind the curtains of their smart little flats in Rinkeby, unbeknownst to me as I walked innocently around, chatting and buying exotic treats, some of the Muslims were making bomb-vests. It could be that the Swedish press is covering all this stuff up, for what Farage calls reasons of ‘political correctness’. Look at all that Scandi-Noir… And, lastly, Stockholm may not be as bad as Malmö – many refugees’ first port of call. An American journalist has just been dispatched there, paid by an alt-Right website, to find out. ( So far the city doesn’t seem to be living down to his expectations. ( Still, that probably won’t affect the Swedophobes.'

  • 3 March 2017 at 8:32pm
    Paulii says:
    Malmö is one of the more complicated cities in Sweden. On the one hand there are grenade attacks and murders. The number of homicide with guns has doubled since 2011, and the city experienced a total of 11 murders in 2016 compared to only 1-2 per annum a few years back. There has been a wave of grocery stores robberies. The city has the highest unemployment in Sweden, and would make a 25% deficit if it wasn’t for support from other parts of the country.

    On the other hand, most inhabitants seem remarkably relaxed, and claim media is giving the wrong image of the city. You often hear people say that crime is gang related and that it rarely affects common people. The women I know say they feel safe walking outside alone at any time. When the European Commission last year measured inhabitants’ perception of the quality of life in a few hundred European cities, Malmö was ranked higher than any other Swedish city, and 7th in the EU. My friends took me to a restaurant in the main no go zone at night (this would rarely happen in Stockholm), claiming that it wasn’t more dangerous than other parts of the city.

    I guess the satisfaction should be seen in the light of Malmö some 20 years ago was being considered a city in total decline. The shipyards closed, the city center died and the place was generally thought of as nothing but the home of alcoholics and drug addicts. Then came the university, the Calatrava designed landmark, the new rule allowing restaurants to serve alcohol late at night, and the bridge to the world… The place became the hangout of preference for Sweden’s young and hip crowd.

    But now I am worried about the development, particularly the increase in crime. But I am not from Malmö.

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