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“Last Night in Sweden”

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America‘s left and right have embraced Scandinavia; one as a socialist role model, the other as a cautionary tale about immigration. Neither is quite right.

© REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

In September 2016, weeks before the US presidential election, two of Donald Trump’s strongest supporters in Congress, Senator Tom Cotton from Arkansas and Representative Mike Pompeo from Kansas, made a curious case for the Republican nominee in The Wall Street Journal. The two members of Congress had just been on a fact-finding mission to Scandinavia, where they had discovered an ideal model for Trump’s anti-immigration populism: Norway. According to Cotton and Pompeo, Norway had “succeeded” in reducing asylum seekers by 95 percent—first by welcoming an anti-immigration party into government, and then by building a border fence and deporting migrants who didn’t qualify for protection. This is exactly what the US should do, the Congressmen implied, by voting for Trump.[1]

For American politicians of any stripe to take an interest in Nordic countries is unusual. For two of the most conservative members of Congress to do so is extraordinary. With their small, relatively homogenous populations and famously lavish welfare states, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark have tended to be regarded as quaint anomalies, nations that have very little in common with the United States. And because of their peripheral geography and complicated relations with the European Union, they rarely figure in the high politics of US relations with Berlin and Brussels. In Washington circles, you are more likely to hear about Swedish furniture and Danish cuisine than either country’s politics.

But 2016 was hardly a conventional election year, and Senator Cotton and Congressman Pompeo were not alone in their sudden interest in Scandinavia. In fact, both in the period leading up to the election and during the first months of Trump’s presidency, these countries came up repeatedly in US political debate – on both the right and the left. For both camps, the fascination tended to be based on some extravagant misperceptions. But the interest was undeniable, revealing in the process as much about the current, deeply polarized situation in the US as about the critical issues facing the Nordic countries.

Utopia or Dystopia?

Two episodes in particular bring the contradictions in America’s fascination with Scandinavia strikingly into view. The first involves Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator and presidential candidate who narrowly lost the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton. In the early months of the campaign, Sanders was an anomaly: he was rising in the polls despite being a left-wing populist and self-described “democratic socialist.”

In October 2015, in the first debate between the Democratic candidates, Sanders was asked if American voters were ready to elect a socialist president. Sanders responded by extolling the virtues of Scandinavia, Denmark in particular. We should “look to countries like Denmark,” he said, for a model of socialist government – a country where socialism was enlightened and prosperous and middle class. Who could argue with that? And as the campaign wore on Sanders kept coming back to this theme. His vision of democratic socialism, he suggested, was manifested in the Danish system.

This raised some eyebrows in American media. Okay, maybe Denmark was rich. Denmark had this great welfare state. But could a tiny, very homogenous parliamentary democracy – a country with a population smaller than the state of Wisconsin’s – be a model for the United States?

What’s more interesting, though, is how Sanders’ infatuation played out in Denmark itself. It turns out the Danes didn’t think of themselves as socialists at all. In fact, many Danes were perplexed by Sanders’s campaign theme, which they felt gave a seriously misleading view of their own country. By the early months of 2016, Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen – who belonged to the country’s center-right Liberal Party – felt compelled to clear up the misunderstanding. In public comments, Rasmussen said, in effect, ‘Look, I’m sorry, but Sanders’ whole conceit is wrong.’ And in a speech at Harvard, he explained, “We’re a market economy.”

Though his Liberal Party was a minority government, Rasmussen had a point. I recently spent a month in Denmark researching a long article on Danish politics for The New York Review of Books, and one of the most striking findings was the extent to which the country had shifted away from traditional social democracy. The Social Democrats, once dominant, had just lost an election, and their support had eroded over the previous fifteen years (during which they had been in power for only four). Denmark was increasingly defined by the center-right Liberal Party – as well as the Danish People’s Party, the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, euroskeptic party. The two have formed coalitions and alliances.

Starting with the 2001 Danish General election – which took place two months after the September 11 attacks in the US – Denmark has been a pioneer of the populist, anti-migrant agenda. This was years ahead of its neighbors, not only in Scandinavia but in the rest of Europe as well, with the possible exception of Austria. Indeed, in late 2015 and early 2016, at the very moment Sanders was mythologizing the Danish system, the Danes were gaining notoriety for greeting the European migration crisis with the most restrictive asylum laws in Europe.

In my New York Review article, I suggested that the Danish approach was a strategic trade-off, one that had important moral and political implications for other European countries. For one thing, though the Social Democrats had lost much popularity, the ascendant populists were ardent defenders of their pensions and health system. Thus Denmark had successfully shored up the strongest part of its social state, including very generous benefits, ultra low inequality, and far-reaching social cohesion – for those lucky enough to have Danish citizenship.

But this had come increasingly at the expense of some of the country’s core social democratic principles – with policies that might over time make its own society increasingly intolerant. As I concluded:

“In limiting the kind of social turmoil now playing out in Germany, Sweden, and France, the Danes may yet come through the current crisis a more stable, united, and open society than any of their neighbors. But they may also have shown that this openness extends no farther than the Danish frontier.”[2]

My analysis generated some interesting reactions. A columnist for The Washington Post, citing the dramatic political shift I described, suggested that the Danish political system was a better model for Donald Trump than Bernie Sanders.[3] Indeed, though it seems to have been overlooked by Senator Cotton and Congressman Pompeo in their 2016 visit to Scandinavia, Denmark was far ahead of the Norway both in its willingness to engage with right-wing populism and in its strict controls on migrants and asylum seekers.

But as The Washington Post also noted, Denmark’s appeal to the Trump movement might go well beyond the immigration question. Voter surveys at the time were showing that Trump supporters, people who often came from the white working class, were worried about an influx of foreigners and others taking their jobs. But like their counterparts on the left, they were also concerned about health care and benefits. So aspects of Scandinavia could appeal to voters on the populist right as much as on the left.

Concocted Fiction

Donald Trump appears to have been even less aware of what was happening in Denmark than were Senator Cotton, Congressman Pompeo, or Bernie Sanders. Yet Trump did take an interest in another part of Scandinavia. The second revealing example of America’s Scandinavian fixation concerns Trump’s infamous “last night in Sweden” comments during the early weeks of his presidency.

Trump’s interest in Sweden actually dates to well before his presidential run. For years, he’d sometimes claimed that his family has Swedish, rather than German, ancestry – an entirely concocted fiction. But this was nothing compared to the extravagant story that surfaced during a Trump rally in Florida on February 18.

Speaking to his core supporters at the rally, Trump implied that there had just been a terrorist attack in Sweden. “Look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this!” he said. He was vague on the details. But he made clear that the incident was the direct result of an influx of Syrian refugees. “They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible.” (He mentioned Germany too, but suggested that the attack had occurred in Sweden.)

Of course, there was no attack. On Twitter, Carl Bildt, the former Swedish Prime Minister, exclaimed, “Sweden? Terror attack? What has he been smoking?” Soon it became clear where these puzzling remarks came from: Fox News had just shown excerpts of a shrill ten-minute film about Syrian immigrant ghettos in Sweden, one that painted a lurid view of a social welfare state run amok with immigrant riots, chaos, violence in the streets, and virulent Islamic extremism.

It later turned out that a lot of this short film had been doctored. Several of the Swedes interviewed in it, including two members of the Swedish police, disavowed the way their words had been edited and distorted. A larger mystery, however, was why Fox News was devoting time on one of its major talk shows to a film about the suburbs of Stockholm. The right-wing network was not known for giving significant airtime to European politics or even to foreign affairs in general. Why Sweden?

There was a deeper background to the story. Just as the Bernie Sanders left had long been enamored of an idealized Denmark, the alt-right and even mainstream conservative forces that supported Trump had long been obsessed with a dark vision of Sweden. Months earlier, in their Wall Street Journal article praising Norway, for example, Senator Cotton and Congressman Pompeo had contrasted the Norwegian “success” story with the “failures” of Sweden, which had ostracized its own populist party while taking in hundreds of thousands of young, poor, Muslim men, leading to social and political “upheaval.” In fact, well before the 2016 election, this view of Sweden had been a staple of right-wing American media. Consider these headlines from Breitbart News, the nationalist, anti-immigrant news site run by Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist:

“Warring Migrant Tribes, Grenade Attacks, Authorities that Don’t Give a Damn…What is Going on in Sweden?”
“Malmo Crime Skyrocketing Due to Uncontrolled Immigration, No Go Zones”
“Sweden Offers Extra Trains and Free Tickets to Attract More Muslim Migrants”

In the Breitbart archives it is possible to find dozens of such articles, going back for several years, attention that seems entirely out of proportion with the level of interest in Swedish politics in the US. The themes that come up again and again are remarkably similar to those in the Fox News video: “socialist” Sweden, with its open-door immigration policy and overgenerous welfare state, has turned into a nightmarish land of gang violence, Muslim extremism, and immigrant neighborhoods so blighted and dangerous that ordinary Swedes – and even the Swedish police – are afraid to enter.

So how do we assess these claims? It is true that Sweden took in extraordinary numbers of Syrians and Afghans in the first ten months of 2015. It is also true that Sweden’s big cities are far more segregated than cities in other Scandinavian countries, with non-European immigrants concentrated in rough suburbs – a situation much more like France, say, than Norway or Denmark.

Yet Sweden’s economic performance would seem a glaring refutation of Trump’s arguments about the threat of refugees: while absorbing more asylum seekers per capita than any other Western nation – including even Germany – Sweden has enjoyed growth rates that most Western countries can only dream of. In 2015, the Swedish economy grew by more than 4 percent; last year, the figure was 3.3 percent. These are precisely the kind of growth figures Trump has promised to bring to the US.

Life Imitates Art

As in the case of Bernie Sanders and Denmark, however, the “last night in Sweden” controversy was also complicated by reactions within Sweden itself. On February 22, four days after Trump’s comments, The Wall Street Journal published a response by Jimmie Åkesson and Mattias Karlsson, the leaders of the far-right Sweden Democrats, the populist party that has recently grown to become one of the larger parties in Sweden. In stark contrast to the ridicule with which Trump’s comments were greeted in the American press, the title of the Swedish Democrats’ article was “Trump is Right: Sweden’s Embrace of Refugees Isn’t Working.”[4] According to Åkesson and Karlsson: “Mr. Trump did not exaggerate Sweden’s current problems. If anything, he understated them.” They noted car burnings and riots in several suburbs, and referred to gang violence and Swedish jihadists being recruited by the Islamic state. In essence, the Sweden Democrats painted a picture of Sweden that was very similar to what was being described in Breitbart and on Fox News.

Clearly aimed at some of the same audience, the Wall Street Journal article was interesting for several reasons. Unlike other European countries, whose right-wing parties have been wary of supporting Trump, it suggested a readiness by the Sweden Democrats to show their affinity with the new American populist right. And hatred of the Swedish social democrats is something that the two groups share. For both Trump supporters and the Swedish far right, the current Swedish system is crucially important, because it is such a strong brand, an advertisement for so many things they are both against. In a sense, Trump and his alt-right supporters need a tolerant, immigrant-loving, multicultural Sweden to fail, to prove the soundness of their own political views.

Paradoxically, however, at the time of Trump’s comments and the Sweden Democrats’ response, Sweden was undergoing dramatic political change – change that made much of the right-wing parody of Sweden out of date. Already in November 2015, the Swedish government, led by the Social Democrats, had acknowledged that the migration crisis had put the country under tremendous pressure, and actually suspended the open door policy. At the same time, longtime taboos in the Swedish media about discussing immigration were breaking down, and more critical voices were beginning to be heard.

I spent several weeks in Sweden during the US presidential campaign and saw this process unfolding. I visited several parts of the country, including suburbs of Gothenberg and Stockholm as well as small towns in central Sweden. The country does face urban social problems that Norway and Denmark do not. On the other hand, the problem of violent “no-go” suburbs seemed grossly exaggerated. I also discovered that few Swedish journalists had actually visited these immigrant neighborhoods.

Still, it was alarming to observe the growing popularity of the Sweden Democrats, which, unlike their counterparts in Denmark and Norway, had for years been shunned by the other conservative parties. But this was changing too. In February 2017, even as Trump was making his comments, the center-right moderate party was breaking years of isolation to initiate its first dialogue with the Sweden Democrats. Contrary to what Trump’s supporters had suggested, this accommodation of the Swedish far right resulted in a dramatic decline in support for the Moderates, and led to the Moderate Party leader’s resignation this fall. Nor has this opening to the Sweden Democrats in the political system resulted in more stability in Sweden. In recent months, there has been a notable rise in activity from Sweden’s neo-nazi far right, including a march in September in Gothenberg that was eerily reminiscent – if less violent – than what had taken place in the United States a month earlier, when White Supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. It seems possible that for Sweden, increased normalization of its anti-immigration populists could give new energy to more unsavory movements further to the right.

This rapidly evolving Sweden, then, might turn out to have much in common with the US. Indeed, as both the Sanders and Trump examples suggest, Americans may be missing the most important lessons the Scandinavian countries can give them. The irony is that, just as US politicians have become fixated on the Nordic countries, whether as a socialist paradise or a socialist nightmare, each of the countries themselves, in different ways, is becoming less and less “Scandinavian” in the sense we assume.

To the contrary, the most pressing concerns in Scandinavia may not be so different from those that have been driving the extraordinary political upheaval taking place in the US: How do we confront the growing fear that our jobs, our health, and our welfare are being undercut? How do we address immigration? Should the new populists themselves – who are ruthlessly exploiting these issues – be accommodated and tamed or, as many now think, shunned and pilloried? Will the closure of our borders bring greater social cohesion or destroy our underlying value system? Sweden, Denmark, and Norway suggest some interesting answers. But they may not be the ones we think.

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1. Tom Cotton and Mike Pompeo, “What We Learned in Scandinavia About Migrants,” The Wall Street Journal, September 26, 2016.
2. Hugh Eakin, “Liberal, Harsh Denmark,” The New York Review of Books, March 10, 2016.
3. Charles Lane, “Trump Wants to Make America More Like Denmark,” The Washington Post, March 2, 2016.
4. The Wall Street Journal, February 22, 2017.