TRUMP AND IMAGINARY SWEDES

1.
A couple of days ago, President Trump made headlines around the world when he suggested that there had been a terrorist attack in Sweden “last night.” This was a big surprise to many people, not the least people living in Sweden, since none of them had heard of an attack. As most of you now know, it was soon established that there had not been a terrorist attack, and that the US president had lied.

Many Swedish and international newspapers joined in to debunk Trump’s claim, and the Swedish government asked the US government for an official explanation. The only answer Trump seemed capable of offering was that he had been inspired by a recent story on “Tucker Carlson’s” show on Fox News. The show had interviewed a propagandist film-maker, Ami Horowitz, was in turn proven to have not only peddled falsehoods but to have cut-and-pasted interviews with Swedish police officers in such a way that it seemed that they were talking about immigrants when they in fact were not.

In response to continued pressure, Trump has insisted that things are really terrible in Sweden and that the news is trying to cover up the real truth about how horrible Sweden is.

It’s true that Sweden has let in a lot of immigrants over the past three decades. And it’s true that it’s often been hard for a country that previously had very few immigrants to deal with this influx, and that right-wing politicians have successfully riled up a lot of xenophobia. But the claims that Sweden has become crime-riddled war zone are incredibly, incredibly exaggerated. Stockholm is not “the rape capital of Europe” no matter how fanciful that claim strikes right-wingers. The increase of refugees has not led to a substantial increase in crime. There’s zero evidence to back up these claims.

Still, Trump won’t go back on his charges. Instead he’s doubled down, claiming to know Sweden better than Swedish scholars and journalists. Why?

2.
Many people expressed surprise at why Trump would invent a fake news story and, more specifically, why he would make up a story about a tiny country like Sweden. And why he won’t admit that he was wrong.

I am not at all surprised.

This story has been developing for years. Sweden plays as key role in US right-wing thought, going back decades. It has become especially important with the rise of the xenophobic, sexist “alt-right.”

Trump cannot take back his claims about Sweden because they play a key part of the narrative, the ideology that elected him president. This was not some accidental fuck-up (like so many other things Trump has done). This comes out of a long line of right-wing propaganda.

The “alt-right” is obsessed with Sweden.

Last summer, I started reading Breitbart News to find out what this “alt-right” movement was all about. Turns out, they’re really into printing fake news about Sweden.

All these fake news stories follow a very predictable narrative: Feminism has emasculated Swedish men, as a result they let in too many refugees and immigrants who they can’t prevent from raping their women. According to Breitbart News, this has turned Sweden into a “war zone” and has made Stockholm “the rape capital of Europe.”

A very good indicator of what’s going on is to read the “comment” section to these “news.” After every single one of these stories, literally hundreds of comments repeat the same mantras over and over: “rape capital,” “war zone” and stuff about how Sweden used to be strong “Vikings” (strange to see this mistaken stereotype of the brutal Viking as somehow a good model of masculinity) but now they are feminized.

With a little more googling, you will find that these stories are in wide, wide circulation among right-wing sites around the Net (and not just “alt-right” but just plain old “right” – is there any difference?). It seems, strangely, that the emasculated, feminine Swedish man is an incredibly important figure to the right-wing in this country.

Why?

3.
The answer isn’t all that difficult to figure out. A major aspect of the story – and one that the right itself feels OK repeating, even now that it’s been debunked – is that Sweden is an example of what happens when you let in too many refugees/immigrants. Thus it shows the US voters that we cannot allow immigrants into our country (even if the US situation is very different from Sweden’s).

If you believe, as the alt-right does, that immigrants – especially those from the Middle East – inevitably bring crime and, especially importantly, rape (because of both the visceral shock and symbolic charge of this act, in many ways replicating the kind of racist narrative that was in place in the South to promote lynchings of African-American men in the 20th century), then it stands to follow that Sweden MUST be experiencing incredible horrors since Sweden has had the most generous immigration policy.

But another subtext (maybe it’s not even a subtext, maybe it’s just a text?) which is hardly ever mentioned in articles about this incident has to do with gender. It’s feminism that has caused Swedish men to become feminine (one lie that is repeated over and over is that Swedish men sit down to pee). It’s well known that Swedish men take paternity leave when they have children (provided for by Swedish law) and take a much bigger role in child-rearing than most American men. And this is perhaps what’s really frightening about Swedish men? But this fear is occluded by stories about how Swedish men can’t have sex, pee sitting down and are “cuckolded” by savage refugees who force themselves on their wives and daughters.

In the story of Sweden, the rightwing mythology brings in a whole host of its favorite topics – left-wing Sweden, the dangers of immigrants, feminism, feminine men – in one absurd, sensational and incredibly consumable myth.

(An aside: Dagens Nyheter published a good account of how these myths are generated.)

4.
One of the more fascinating things I’ve read was when Breitbart News itself published a story saying that Trump had lied about Sweden. This was surprising in itself since this news site has been so invested in peddling the lie to begin with. But more fascinating is reading the comment section. Not surprisingly, the commentators who by the thousands have repeated the propaganda about Sweden refuse to accept the truth about this propaganda. Instead they repeat their brain-washed myths: rape capital, war zone, emasculated Swedes, used to be Vikings.

I don’t use “brain wash” lightly. Their responses – doubling down on their disproven myths – reminds me of people who have lived through dictatorships, for example the Soviet Union, and who have to deal with the fact that so much of what they’ve been taught was not facts but propaganda. They simply don’t want to accept these facts because they run counter to their fundamental narratives about life.

Frighteningly, here the brain-washed people are in charge of our country.

Frighteningly, they may very well be able to make their story the truth. They have the power and the money.

5.
The US has a long history of coming up with “imaginary Swedes.” Think of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, where a Jewish man named Seymor Levov is named “the Swede” because of his Nordic appearance and – paradoxically, but importantly – his all-AMERICAN identity, or the “the Swede” in Hemingway’s The Killers (both, notably, are killed). One might even go back to the stereotype of the “dumb Swede,” a racist insult in Minnesota, which lives on to this day (I was frequently called “dumb Swede” in school, even by teachers, who thought it was funny for some reason). For example, watch any movie by the Cohen Brothers. Or read Andy Warhol’s account of going to Sweden with his “superstars” and how they all went out and had surgery to look more Swedish (Swedishness as performance).

Ever since I came to the US as a teenager, I have heard about imaginary Swedes; I’ve even been cast in the role with some frequency. The other day, while I was having surgery on my head, my doctor started telling me about the high taxes in Sweden – how it had made Swedes lazy and dependent on the state (unmasculine and un-american). A while back, a (very good!) student of mine compared Swedes to “robots” because they had not interiority, individuality. Many times over the years, people have wondered why Swedes would make art since they’ve “never known any suffering.” Swedes are strangely both all-American and the anti-thesis of American.

Sweden has a strong mythical identity in the US: whether its Bernie Sanders waxing nostalgically about the welfare state or right-wingers claiming Swedish men are womanish morons. The truth of course is far more complex. But less effective for political propaganda. I’m just worried that the people now in charge will do their best to make their fantasies reality.