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.
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.
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