'When a US president speaks about Sweden, the fallout can last a long time'

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'When a US president speaks about Sweden, the fallout can last a long time'
Photo: Sofia Runarsdotter

In an extract from his new book Good Sweden, Bad Sweden, The Local's Paul Rapacioli explains how Donald Trump wasn't the first US president to malign Sweden.


Most people don't know much about Sweden. But what they think they know is extraordinarily positive. This one-dimensional 'Good Sweden' reputation, constructed around qualities such as technological prowess, democratic design and concern for the environment has been a great help to Swedish trade and tourism and diplomacy in the last fifty years.

Now that reputation is being challenged by an alternative story about Sweden. It is a negative tale of collapse and crisis rooted in Sweden's decision to allow large numbers of immigrants to settle in the country in recent years. The 'Bad Sweden' story is based on the undeniable fact of challenges in a fast-changing Swedish society but it only works when it is stripped of context or injected with a serum of falsehood and exaggeration.

This extract from Paul Rapacioli's new book, Good Sweden, Bad Sweden, shows how President Trump's reference to 'what happened last night in Sweden' was a remarkable rerun of another US president's statement about the country more than fifty years earlier. 


On the morning of February 19th 2017 Sweden awoke to the sound of frenzied tweeting. Leading the dawn chorus was a tweet from Sweden's former prime minister, and more recently foreign minister, Carl Bildt: 'Sweden? Terror attack? What has he been smoking? Questions abound.' It accompanied a picture of the US president, Donald Trump, and a link to an article suggesting that he had referred to a non-existent terror attack in Sweden the previous night.

Speaking at a rally in Florida about his plans to implement stricter immigration rules in the US, President Trump had rattled off a series of examples from Europe:

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.

With the Sweden reference sitting pertly in the middle of a passage about places where terror attacks had recently taken place, people assumed that Trump was imagining a similar incident in Sweden and were baffled. 

But Sweden's ambassador to the United States at the time was not surprised by Trump's statement. Two weeks earlier, Björn Lyrvall had attended the annual Red Cross Ball at the president's exclusive Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida.

'We were in a VIP area with a few other ambassadors on the way into the event and I was introduced to President Trump and Melania,' Lyrvall told me.

'The very first thing Trump said to me was, 'Sweden – you have your problems with immigration, don't you?' This immediate connection with immigration problems was obviously in his mind, even then.'

The Swedish embassy in Washington played it by the book. The ambassador declined many requests to appear on American news shows and instead submitted a formal request to the US State Department to clarify Trump's statement. 

Shortly afterwards Trump clarified that he was in fact referring to an interview with an American documentary maker called Ami Horowitz that he had seen on Fox TV the previous evening. In his 2016 documentary, 'Stockholm Syndrome', Horowitz argued that Sweden was covering up immigration-related problems and the Fox News show 'Tucker Carlson Tonight' gave Horowitz plenty of space to describe the '…absolute surge in both gun violence and rape in Sweden...rapes at music zones cops won’t enter because it’s too dangerous... There’s no assimilation at all… social unrest... terrorism...'

As Horowitz spoke, the show's host, Tucker Carlson, shook his head in despair at the folly of the Swedes. 'Right,' he said. 'Because the most important thing is to feel virtuous, I guess.'

But many of the claims in the broadcast and in Horowitz's 10-minute documentary were promptly disputed by Swedish experts. For example, the 'absolute surge in gun violence' meant that the overall rate of deadly violence in Sweden is still about 1 per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 5 per 100,000 in the US – hardly something for Fox News hosts to worry about. And contrary to the film's claim that the police avoid certain 'vulnerable areas', these are the places where the police have strengthened their presence most, however challenging it may be to conduct their work there.

The Swedish embassy's only public response was a terse tweet in response to Trump's own clarification: 'We look forward to informing the US administration about Swedish immigration and integration policies.'

That tweet was retweeted over 70,000 times and liked 150,000 times. By the summer of 2017 it had been seen by 12.5 million people. That's just as well, because when a sitting US president makes a casual comment about Sweden, the fallout can last a long, long time. 


"Scary… Funny…" (SVT)

For politicians and commentators around the world, Sweden is either a model modern society or a state in collapse.

In this new book, The Local's co-founder Paul Rapacioli explains why this small country in the north prompts such extreme reactions - and what that means for Sweden's fortunes.

Sweden and suicide

You probably know that Sweden has a reputation for its high suicide rate. What you may not know is that Sweden doesn't have a high suicide rate and that this particular myth originated from another American president.

The story was recorded by academic Frederick Hale in his 2003 article for the Swedish-American Historical Quarterly. In July 1960, as Hale explained, Dwight D Eisenhower was nearing the end of his eight-year Republican presidency and attempted to use his broad popularity to bolster the presidential campaign of his vice president, Richard Nixon. Nixon's opponent was John F. Kennedy and the election had been billed as the choice between freedom and state socialism. Convinced that his policies supporting the former path had led to unprecedented American wealth, Eisenhower was keen to discredit the opposing ideology. His method was to verbally attack a certain small European nation which for the previous twenty years had been celebrated as a socialist utopia, a successful middle way between the capitalism of the west and the communism of the Soviet bloc.

In fact, 'Sweden: The Middle Way' was the name of the book that sparked these reputational good times. Written in 1936 by an American journalist called Marquis Childs, it described how the country had discovered an economic model that blended a cooperative approach to labour relations with effective state intervention to create a buoyant economy that delivered the means to tackle social problems. The book influenced the thinking of an earlier American president, Franklin Roosevelt, who declared himself '…a good deal interested in the cooperative development in countries abroad, especially Sweden. In Sweden, for example, you have a royal family and a Socialist Government and a capitalist system, all working happily side by side.'

This was precisely the opposite of the message Eisenhower wanted to give to the American people twenty-four years later. Sweden's economic reputation had certainly not gone unchallenged in that time, and by the end of Eisenhower's presidency conservative commentators had added a moral element into their criticism of the country. The fuel for this was a high profile 1955 article in Time magazine headlined 'Sin and Sweden' in which writer Joe David Brown made the case that the country was a nest of depravity. 'Whatever the cause, sexual moral standards in Sweden today are jolting to an outsider,' he wrote. Brown was appalled to discover that in 1950s Sweden unwed mothers were not stigmatised by society and noted that one such slattern was recently a candidate for the role of Lucia, part of the traditional Swedish Christmas celebrations in which a young woman leads a dawn candlelit procession. 

The article, which coincided with the release of several Swedish films pushing against the boundaries of sexuality in cinema, sparked an international debate and embedded the notion of Swedish sexual liberty in the world's consciousness. 

All of which gave President Eisenhower plenty to work with when he stood up on the morning of July 27th 1960 at a breakfast for 600 Republicans in Chicago and declared that welfare excess was the path to ruin:

Only in the last few weeks, I have been reading quite an article on the experiment of almost complete paternalism in a friendly European country. This country has a tremendous record for socialistic operation… and the record shows that their rate of suicide has gone up almost unbelievably and I think they were almost the lowest nation in the world for that. Now, they have more than twice our rate. Drunkenness has gone up. Lack of ambition is discernible on all sides.

He didn't mention Sweden by name but everyone present knew which country he was talking about – as did the Swedish politicians who learned of the president's off-the-cuff remarks the following day. Frederick Hale noted that Eisenhower got his facts wrong and his comments were largely dismissed as 'uninformed and springing from ideological considerations.' The suicide rate in Sweden had been high long before the Social Democrats came to power and had in fact fallen since the 1930s. So if anything, the safety net of socialism had reduced the number of suicides in Sweden.

In a remarkable precursor to the social media reaction to President Trump's comments more than five decades later, Swedish politicians and commentators deployed wry humour in response Eisenhower's statement. As Hale wrote, prime minister Tage Erlander pointed out that 'juvenile delinquency, misuse of alcohol, and the other difficulties cited are international problems – and the United States itself is a relevant example of this.' Meanwhile, Defence Minister Sven Andersson told the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter that 'Sweden's consolation lay in the fact that the American president's term in the White House was nearly finished.' And an editor in rival publication Svenska Dagbladet wrote that '…Swedes must be forgiven if we entertain a quiet hope that he consult a reference book appropriate for heads of state in very large countries.'

Anyone who doubts that a false statement from an American president can live long in international mythology should note that even in 2017 the notion persists that Sweden has a high suicide rate. This is despite the fact that, at 12.7 deaths per 100,000 people, it is significantly below the European average of 14.1 deaths per 100,000 people and barely above the US rate of 12.6.

Two years after his comments to the Republican gathering, Eisenhower visited Sweden and graciously apologised for his misrepresentation of the nation: 

Before anyone gets the chance to ask, I want to make clear that the remark I made about Sweden in Chicago some years ago was based on what I had then recently read in an American magazine. Since then, I have had many friends who have returned from Sweden and who have told me that I was wrong. I apologise for my error.


Neither Trump nor Eisenhower had any interest in harming Sweden or the Swedes, but they were both perfectly happy to sacrifice a chunk of goodwill from a small Nordic country on the altar of domestic politics. In 1960 and then again in 2017 Sweden was used by the most powerful man in the world as a vivid symbol of a particular way of life, a set of values that ran contrary to his own. When Eisenhower made his comments Sweden was a paragon of functioning socialism and had enjoyed uninterrupted growth since the war. It would have been tricky for the president to use the economic facts to argue that the Swedish model was failing, but by implying that 'even Sweden' was beset by drunkenness, lack of ambition and loose morals, he had a convenient emotional tool for associating that model with failure. 

Today, what Sweden represents is more complex. In many people's minds the notion of a socialist paradise remains but this is no longer the pre-eminent association. This is partly down to the decline of socialism: since 1993 government spending as a percentage of Sweden's GDP has declined from 70% to 50%, while the country has aggressively opened up traditionally public sectors such as healthcare and education to private organisations. But it is also because Sweden in 2017 stands for much more than an economic model.


"Scary… Funny…" (SVT)

For politicians and commentators around the world, Sweden is either a model modern society or a state in collapse.

In this new book, The Local's co-founder Paul Rapacioli explains why this small country in the north prompts such extreme reactions - and what that means for Sweden's fortunes.

Nothing so provocative as success

Compared to the 1950s we have a lot more data for comparing countries and barely a month goes by without some new international ranking capturing the media's attention. Gender equality, gay rights, happiness, language skills, openness, transparency, democracy – when it comes to progressive values, Sweden is a world champion. But there are harder qualities too where Sweden is considered to excel, such as IT connectedness, financial technology, biotechnology, safety and healthcare. These rankings, ranging from rigorous economic indicators to vague surveys, matter because they get people talking and as such they are building blocks of a country's reputation. Indeed, if any country's reputation could be said to have benefited from the ranking frenzy of recent years, then it is Sweden's. 

As if to lay to rest once and for all the notion of Sweden as a socialist paradise, the American business magazine Forbes ranked Sweden the number one country in the world for business in 2017. With 139 countries in its index, Forbes gave Sweden particularly high marks for personal freedom, monetary freedom, corruption (lack of, naturally) and technology.

The European Commission's rigorous regional 'Innovation Scoreboard' for 2017 backed up the Forbes ranking. With scores for a wide range of variables, such as lifelong learning, international scientific co-publications, research and development expenditures, trademark applications and sales of new-to-market/firm innovations, Sweden came top for the second year in a row while Stockholm was rated the most innovative region in the European Union.

In the 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index produced by Transparency International, Sweden came fourth, where countries nearer the top of the table exhibit 'higher degrees of press freedom, access to information about public expenditure, stronger standards of integrity for public officials, and independent judicial systems'. Sweden also took fourth place – for the eighth year running – on the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report. This ranking measures the gap between the genders in areas such as public sector roles, educational attainment and political empowerment.

In 2015 the Financial Times reported that Stockholm is second only to Silicon Valley for the per capita number of billion-dollar tech companies – 'unicorns' – that have been born in the city, a measure that led the city to be dubbed 'the Unicorn Factory'. Meanwhile, as a percentage of gross national income, Sweden is the world's most generous provider of overseas development assistance, committing 1.41% of its gross national income – double the United Nations' stated target for developed countries. 

Such consistent high performance must contribute to a generally positive international reputation. Luckily, there's an index for that, and indeed Sweden's reputation is strong. In an annual survey of country reputations produced by the Reputation Institute – an international consultancy – Sweden has been in the top three since the research began in 2012, peaking at number one in 2016. The 2017 study ranked 55 countries and interviewed 39,000 consumers.


Sweden's positive reputation is valuable and is vital for the country's commercial and political influence around the world. Part of Sweden's reputation stems from uncontroversial and not particularly unique skill sets such as technology and innovation. But what really differentiates Sweden's reputation from that of other countries is the country's relatively extreme progressive values. These values are certainly not universal, which makes Sweden's reputation a tempting target. Meanwhile, the general ignorance about Sweden and its limited reach as a small nation make it vulnerable in the event of an attack. 

That wouldn't be a problem if there weren't people out there who would seek to use Sweden as a tool to attack those progressive values. As we saw with Eisenhower, there have been such people out there in the past and there are today. Trump's statement made him the most visible but there are many others. They are not necessarily formally connected but they are all pulling in the same direction. 

Most importantly, they have all understood that to undermine the values that Sweden represents, they need to show that Sweden is failing. And in a post-truth, social media-driven society, who cares about the facts?

This is an extract from the new book by The Local's Paul Rapacioli, published by Volante.


"Scary… Funny…" (SVT)

For politicians and commentators around the world, Sweden is either a model modern society or a state in collapse.

In this new book, The Local's co-founder Paul Rapacioli explains why this small country in the north prompts such extreme reactions - and what that means for Sweden's fortunes.


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