What Donald Trump understands about Sweden

President Donald Trump during a campaign rally Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017, in Melbourne, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

One of the most successful European premierships of the last decade can be claimed by Sweden’s Fredrik Reinfeldt. Elected in 2006 and again in 2010, the center-right Reinfeldt did everything he wasn’t supposed to do, implementing tax credits, slashing income and corporate taxes, axing the irksome wealth and inheritance taxes. Thanks in part to these liberalizing reforms, Sweden was able to weather the 2008 economic crash with notable resilience.

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It’s a record to boast about, and in 2014 the Swedish people showed their appreciation for Reinfeldt…by tossing him out of office.

It seems perplexing, almost ungrateful, but there’s a reason Reinfeldt lost, one that by now should sound all too familiar: a populist party called the Sweden Democrats (SDs) played spoiler, more than doubling their vote share from the previous election. Their pickup was catapulted off of a platform of fury at the political establishment and a perception that Reinfeldt was too loosey-goosey on immigration. Sweden, the SDs warned during their campaign, was crumbling; instead of being known for its Scandinavian welfare state, it was now notorious as “top in the world for reported rape,” thanks to an influx of Muslim immigrants.

The portrayal of Sweden as dystopia reemerged this week thanks to two other populists of note, Donald Trump, who obliquely cited a dire event that had supposedly occurred there, and Trump’s transatlantic chum Nigel Farage, who later conferred on Sweden the honor of rape capital of Europe.

The first of those assertions was easily disproven. The second, Farage’s, is a bit less dubious, though he still hits a couple snags. Sweden’s reported rapes did jump 13 percent in 2016 over the previous year, though this is more because of an unanticipated dip in 2015; compared to 2014, they remained level. Sweden’s rape rate is the highest in Europe—points to Farage there—but this is in part due to Stockholm’s unorthodox method of recording statistics, under which, as one sociologist explained it to the BBC, “when a woman comes to the police and she says my husband or my fiancé raped me almost every day during the last year, the police have to record each of these events, which might be more than 300 events.” Overall, the commission rate of major crimes in Sweden is about the same as it was in 2005, which is to say very low.

Sweden has, however, absorbed a wave of immigrants from Muslim countries over the last decade-plus, many of them Iraqis fleeing the post-Saddam Hussein madhouse. And that’s the larger reality at work here, one recognized by the Sweden Democrats and perhaps by Trump himself, as dishonest as he’s been. Your country doesn’t need to be launched into an altitudinous rape spike to be roiled by fury over immigration, as Trump’s own election here in the United States demonstrates.

Western nations are presently in the midst of a backlash, one less about hardheaded crime statistics than greater ideas, nationhood and culture and sovereignty, concepts that continually elude the bean counters. Europeans and Americans alike are thirsting to reclaim their national identity, emblazon their borders, restore home powers, and, seemingly above all, protect their homelands from Muslim migrants who they view as too risky to assimilate. Immigration isn’t the cause of this revolt, but it is its most visible manifestation, and has thus become a marquee election issue, exploited by soapbox artists like Trump.

This is why the Sweden Democrats advanced in 2014; it’s why anti-Muslim spitfire Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom may very well win next month’s election in the Netherlands, and why Marine Le Pen is so ideally positioned to make a run at the French presidency. American liberals peer at Europe and tremble with embarrassment over Trump’s refugee executive order, but a Chatham House poll finds 55 percent of Europeans would go even further and cease immigration from Muslim countries entirely.

This is our trajectory right now, in America and Scandinavia. Bash Donald Trump for his dissembling, yes, but recognize too that his political reality is increasingly melding with our own, and the reasons have nothing to do with the stats.

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