Politics & Policy

A Swedish Gaffe That Wasn’t

A police officer watches over newly arrived migrants outside Malmo, Sweden, November 2015. (Reuters photo: Johan Nilsson)
The world guffawed when it thought Donald Trump was hallucinating about Sweden. But he wasn’t really wrong.

Late-night television hosts got another gift from President Trump over the weekend, but it turns out the incident wasn’t so much comedy gold as it was an illustration of everything that is wrong about the colloquy between Trump and his critics on immigration and refugees.

On Monday evening, Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers made a meal out of the latest Donald Trump gaffe. Trump was lambasted for saying that there had been a terror attack in Sweden on Friday night. Since there had been no such attack, it prompted the usual avalanche of mockery in the president’s direction. But while Trump’s vague language and willingness to fabricate facts to suit his talking points often justifies the brickbats thrown in his way, in this case there were two problems with the hilarity: Trump didn’t actually claim there had been a terror attack, and the facts about Sweden actually do back up his claim about a surge in violence by Muslim immigrants in Europe.

During the course of his campaign-style rally in South Carolina on Saturday, Trump said:

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.

Given the context, in which he appeared to be referencing violence in Belgium, France, and Germany, it sounded as if Trump was saying there had been an attack the previous evening in Sweden. Except he wasn’t. In typical imprecise Trumpian fashion, he was actually referring to a segment broadcast on Fox News in which Tucker Carlson interviewed filmmaker Ami Horowitz about a video he had made about Sweden, which had been originally posted on YouTube in December.

Trump’s fan base may not care, but we still live in a world in which the words uttered by the leader of the planet’s sole superpower are a matter of great import. There’s a reason why presidents shouldn’t make offhand remarks about what’s going on in other countries. A more diligent commander-in-chief would first listen to information and advice from his staff and the intelligence community. Although we are getting used to government by tweet, there is a serious problem with Trump’s reliance on cable news channels as his sole source of information before he starts shooting off his mouth.

But as much as we should be appalled by the slapdash manner in which the leader of the free world spouts off about what he saw on television in his typical ordinary-guy manner, in this case Trump wasn’t playing the fabulist.

As much as we should be appalled by the slapdash manner in which the leader of the free world spouts off about what he saw on television in his typical ordinary-guy manner, in this case Trump wasn’t playing the fabulist.

Horowitz is something of a film provocateur, and he may not have the prestige of a mainstream liberal documentarian, but he isn’t a liar. His short deals with the fact that a massive infusion of Muslim immigrants from the Middle East has created problems for Swedish society. Despite claims made by Trump’s detractors, sexual violence has spiked in the Scandinavian country, and the immigrant population bears a good deal of the responsibility. The culture clash between liberal Swedish society and the misogyny of some of the immigrants, combined with the creation of no-go zones there, bears all the signs of the same serious problems that have arisen in France and Germany, where it is no longer possible to pretend that nothing is wrong.

Horowitz interviews two police officers, and although now — after their countrymen rose up as one to defend Sweden’s honor against the perceived insult from Trump — they claim their remarks were taken out of context, it’s hard to argue that their part of the film is anything but confirmation that the police know what they’re up against, and that the pressure to underreport or to cover up the problem in a country where welcoming strangers is a matter of civic faith is immense.

The best commentary in the film comes from journalist Annika Hernroth-Rothstein, a talented and intrepid writer who has been forthright about the way Sweden’s immigration policies have facilitated a frightening rise in anti-Semitism as well as violence. Hernroth-Rothstein is no racist or xenophobe, but a truth-telling conservative in a country where — as Horowitz’s film makes clear — there is a consensus that welcoming even problematic immigrant groups is more important than avoiding the possible consequences. Say what you like about Trump, but as someone who has been following Hernroth-Rothstein’s work for years, I know she has a better handle on what is going on in her own country than comedians such as Colbert and Meyers.

It is all well and good to mock a president who is so imprecise in his remarks and who often plays fast and loose with the truth. But the willingness to use this particular incident to bang that particular drum betrays the problem with the way we’re discussing immigration and refugees. What has happened in Europe, as the infusion of large populations of immigrants from the Middle East who are not being assimilated have created new problems of violence and the potential for terror, is undeniable. For a number of reasons, not least because the U.S. has not done what Germany and Sweden did and simply opened the gates to mass immigration from these places, similar conditions have not been replicated in America. Nor does it necessarily follow that noting these facts means one is racist or prejudiced against Muslims or opposed to letting in properly vetted refugees and immigrants.

But as long as we’re arguing in shorthand and without a command of all the issues, as is the case with Trump, or merely engaging in partisan mockery or, worse, virtue signaling rather than acknowledging painful facts about what is going on in Europe, as is the case with his critics, then the conversation about immigration will remain a dialogue of the deaf.


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