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When Populists Have a Point

Many knee-jerk criticisms misconstrued Donald Trump’s comments about ‘last night in Sweden.’ The Scandinavian country has its own set of problems related to immigration and crime.

James Kirchick
February 24, 2017

Let us first dispense with the obligatorily reproachful throat clearing: Donald Trump was foolish and irresponsible to imply at a Florida pep rally that a terrorist attack had occurred in Sweden the previous evening. “Look at what’s happening last night in Sweden,” he vaguely bellowed, the assumption that he was referring to some specific act of violence buttressed a few, rambling sentences later by his registering “Brussels,” “Nice,” and “Paris” in the same catalog of places where unspecified bad things are “happening.” Trump’s use of two words in particular—“last night”—lent credence to the fear that he had invented a terrorist attack out of whole cloth, the better to justify his draconian immigration proposals.

As the Twitter snarkery poured forth—hashtag #lastnightinsweden appended to all manner of posts alongside mention of banal activities and photographs of the verdant (yet uneventful) Swedish countryside—it soon became clear that Trump’s critics were behaving in bad faith. By “happening last night in Sweden,” Trump did not mean any specific event but rather was marking reference to a segment on the Fox News channel about rising crime related to that country’s generous intake of third world, predominantly Muslim immigrants. “Sweden. Who would believe this? Sweden. They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible,” Trump had said, in his typical stream-of-consciousness style.

Of course, one shouldn’t shoot from the hip like this as President of the United States, because the entire world literally hangs upon your every utterance. Wars could erupt over misinterpreted statements or tweets. This is precisely the reason foreign policy analysts like myself got so bent out of shape over each and every Trump outburst that his supporters invariably explained away as mere “hyperbole” or “humor” (when not defending the man’s verbal diarrhea as “refreshing”). The vernacular of a reality television show star is quite different, to say the least, than that expected from the leader of the free world.

Trump’s later clarification about his comments did nothing to assuage critics, however, who simply doubled-down on their sanctimony. His complaints about immigration, they said, had about as much validity as his anger over a non-existent terrorist attack. For you see Sweden is a social democratic paradise and any insinuation that there might be serious problems related to mass Muslim immigration—clearly, in retrospect, what Trump was referring to when he said, “They took in large numbers”—is a sign of ignorance, racism, or worse. As if on cue, less than 48 hours after Trump’s comments, riots erupted in Rinkeby, an immigrant ghetto north of Stockholm where disturbances in 2013 made international headlines. “By and large, integration has been a success story there, save for incidents such as Monday night’s, which have taken place in highly segregated neighborhoods,” read a story in The Washington Post, emblematic of a mainstream media predisposition to treat as isolated these all-too-frequent events. That bit of evasion had nothing on the (since-deleted) tweet from fabulist former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who blamed the riots on Trump.

The entwined issues of Muslim immigration and integration in Sweden are more complicated than either multiculturalist Europhiles or alarmist anti-Muslim demagogues would have us believe. The knee-jerk reaction to Trump is instructive, neatly encapsulating how the former group unwittingly emboldens the latter.

The experience of immigration to Sweden, which peaked two years ago at the height of the European migrant crisis, is not the wholly positive picture painted by media and political elites. Sweden is the most generous nation in the world when it comes to refugee absorption, taking in far more people per capita than any other on Earth. That the country’s admirable desire to help would exceed its ability to do so, however, finally dawned in November of 2015, when the left-wing deputy prime minister tearfully announced that her government could no longer process any more refugees due to a simple lack of resources. Two months later, Sweden announced it would have to deport some 80,000 people.

It is not just the numbers of people that have overwhelmed Sweden but also, for lack of a better word, the type. About 22 percent of Sweden’s population is composed of foreign-born and second-generation immigrants. Yet according to a new book by Tino Sanandaji, a Swedish economist of Kurdish Iranian origin, 53 percent of the people in Sweden with long prison terms and 54 percent of the unemployed hail from this demographic. Furthermore, 71 percent of cases of child poverty exist in households of a foreign background and 76 percent of gang members are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. According to Swedish journalist Tove Lifvendahl, “A parallel society is emerging where the state’s monopoly on law and order is being challenged.” In other words, Rinkeby is a “no go zone,” which, according to the great and the good, don’t exist. And lest there be any confusion, the foreign-born inhabitants of these neighborhoods are not Finns.

“This type of criminality has become part of everyday life,” a local politician of Turkish descent recently wrote of the violence in Rinkeby. “The police don’t have control over the area. That’s not fake news.”

Talking honestly about such facts is very much a taboo in Swedish society; there’s even a term—åsiktskorridor, meaning “opinion corridor”—to describe the self-imposed code of silence adopted by the press and political elite. “When Swedish media reported that the overwhelming number of suspects in [the 2015 mass sexual assaults in Cologne] were migrants, it was a break with established guidelines: Unlike in Germany, media in Sweden only rarely report the ethnicity of suspected or even convicted criminals,” writes the Swedish journalist Paulina Neuding. She reports of a chill in Swedish society, with fewer women visiting community pools and other public venues due to a spate of sexual assaults by migrant males. Conspicuously missing from the strident defenses of Sweden’s multiculturalist experiment is any perspective from the Jews of Malmö, those few who are left, anyway.

The hesitation to address these issues honestly—and to instead sneer and ridicule like so many have done in response to Trump—is one of the main reasons why an anti-immigrant party with neo-Nazi roots, the Sweden Democrats, has surged to become the country’s second most popular. When, until very recently, there is only one political party willing to limit immigration—a view supported by a sizeable portion, if not plurality, of the Swedish public—it should come as no surprise that said political party would benefit from this abdication by mainstream politicians. Nor is the gap between public and elite attitudes on immigration just a Swedish phenomenon; according to a recent survey conducted by Chatham House, majorities in 8 of 10 European countries oppose all immigration from Muslim countries, the same position Donald Trump enunciated during his successful campaign.

A confused editorial in The Guardian aptly demonstrates the disconnect. While acknowledging that there “has been an uptick in violent crime” in Sweden and fretful over how “a European social democratic country…remind[s] us of American levels of violence and insecurity,” the paper scolds “the ill-informed and bigoted, including President Trump and some of his advisers,” for thinking that Sweden is “too Muslim.” If you think this is too crude and uncharitable a description of immigration skeptics, The Guardian assures you it’s in fact “too subtle.” Trump’s comments, the paper smugly concluded, inspired an “invigorating surge of patriotism” among Swedes, observable as a distinctly northern European form of Lutheran self-righteousness.

It’s true that the problems stemming from immigration in a place like Sweden are less about Islam per se than the vast economic and cultural gulfs separating the native and non-native populations. Whatever their cause, the existence of serious and festering problems related to immigration is something that too many people in positions of responsibility would rather ignore.

The point liberals should be making, but aren’t, because they’re too busy defending a mythical Scandinavian social democratic utopia, is that the United States faces nothing like the difficulties Europe has with mass immigration from the Muslim world, and so Trump’s hysterical ravings are utterly irrelevant to his job as President of the United States. To begin with, the U.S. is geographically situated between two oceans, unlike Europe, whose southern periphery abuts the Middle East and North Africa. There is no prospect, then, of a mass migratory wave reaching America as the EU experienced. Furthermore, America does a much better job at integrating immigrants, Muslim or otherwise, not least because, again unlike Europe, ours is a creedal nation where civic belongingness is based not upon blood and soil nationalism but adherence to a set of universal ideals. Finally, the dynamic U.S. economy encourages immigrants to work at a higher labor force participation rate than native-born Americans, in contrast to stagnant and overregulated Europe, where a far higher proportion of immigrants live on the dole. For all these reasons, there are no immigrant Muslim ghettos in the United States as there are in France, Belgium, or Sweden.

Arguing over Sweden, a country the vast majority of Americans know absolutely nothing about other than its propensity for producing cheesy music, is something we’re predisposed to do for different ideological reasons: Liberals, because they idealize Scandinavia as superior to their own country; conservatives, because of a similar reductionism that sees Europe overrun by Muslim hordes.

What’s less excusable here are the Europeans, who should know full well of the problems their societies are facing with respect to mass immigration, but would rather mock and belittle a buffoonish American president than concede that he, however confusingly reasoned or bluntly expressed, has a point.

James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.