Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden!
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.