In the first Democratic debate of last year's presidential race, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders declared from the podium that, "[W]e should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people." His comment was met with immediate applause, slight criticism from Hillary Clinton shortly thereafter, and a flood of online ink in the months that followed.
Since then, Sanders' overall idea seems to have stuck. The idea of a Scandinavian-style socialism solving America's health care and income inequality problems seems to have deeply resonated with some Americans. When people learn that I've lived in Sweden before, they often react with a mixture of jealousy and optimism as to what it must have been like, regardless of their political leanings. Conservatives might politely congratulate me on the experience and ask what it was like to learn the language, while liberals and progressives incredulously ask why I ever left. But neither camp seems to have a firm grasp of what Swedish society is actually like.
In this respect they are in powerful company, as U.S. President Donald Trump made clear when he announced at a campaign rally in Florida on Feb. 18:
"We've got to keep our country safe. You look at what's happening. 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."
By this point, several news agencies and at least one of Sweden's former prime ministers have established that nothing noteworthy had, in fact, occurred the night before in Sweden. Yet not all of Sweden's citizens and politicians responded to Trump's statement with derision. Mattias Karlsson, the leader of Sweden's third-largest political party, Sverigedemokraterna ("Swedish Democrats" in English), thanked the president for his comments. He told CNN:
"It was good. I’m very grateful to president Trump that he addressed this issue, It’s very important to us here. And I also understand the motive to why he did it. There’s a discussion right now about border control and refugees in the United States and I think Sweden is a good example to put forward as a bad example."
Joining many Americans, Karlsson charitably interpreted what Trump might have meant rather than analyzing the words themselves. The issue, according to Karlsson, wasn't any particular event but rather Sweden's failure to appropriately act on the ideals his party was built upon: nationalism and opposition to immigration.
In many ways, the Swedish Democrats' rise to power was similar to Trump's own in America. United primarily by the charisma of party chairman Jimmie Akesson, the Swedish Democrats ran their 2014 electoral campaign on a "Sweden First" platform that harshly criticized the country's immigration policies and staunchly rejected multiculturalism. Their agenda was hardly surprising: Until the 1990s, the party's official motto was Bevara Sverige Svenskt, or "Keep Sweden Swedish." But their success in the 2014 elections was. Prior to 2002, the Swedish Democrats had never garnered more than 2 percent of the vote. Twelve years later, they raked in nearly 14 percent. The leap, unprecedented in Swedish politics, catapulted them into power as the third-largest party in Parliament.
Like Trump, however, the Swedish Democrats have had trouble finding friends among those already in power. So far, all of Sweden's other parties have refused to cooperate with the Swedish Democrats, leaving a minority coalition government to rule the Riksdag. The party has also been repeatedly accused of racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and affiliation with fascist organizations.
Karlsson's remarks may have marked the Swedish Democrats' first public endorsement of Trump's actions, but they are by no means the party's first foray into the U.S. president's world. Last year, Tobias Andersson — the leader of the Swedish Democrats' Young Swedes wing — wrote two articles for Breitbart News, formerly run by Trump's current chief strategist, Steve Bannon. One accused the archbishop of the Church of Sweden of "colluding with Islamists to cover up radical Islamic barbarity." The other claimed that, "Many male immigrants, when faced with our liberal lifestyle and beautiful women, are unable to control themselves." Aware that few Americans are truly familiar with life in Sweden, the Swedish Democrats have taken it upon themselves to provide their own account of Swedish society, beset on all sides by mass immigration and violent Muslims.
Many different sources, including the country of Sweden's official Twitter account, have been quick to rebuff the party's attempts to draw links between immigration and crime in Sweden. According to Brottsforebyggande Radet, the government agency tasked with organizing and analyzing Swedish crime statistics, "offenses against individual persons" may have risen from 2014 to 2015 — the year in which immigration to Sweden reached its peak — but they were still roughly on par with figures in 2005. This statistic, and many others like it, has already been widely reported. But one that has yet to receive much attention is that hate crimes against Muslims in Sweden nearly doubled between 2008 and 2015.
In many ways, the political opinions that likely turned Swedish voters to Sverigedemokraterna are analogous to those driving support for Trump himself: A fear of the effects of unchecked globalization, the vilification of Islam as the cause of terrorism, nationalist sentiments, and a desire to make it more difficult for immigrants to enter one's home country. Both are easily categorized within the larger Western trend toward more right-wing, isolationist policies. In this sense, Trump's success in 2016 becomes more explainable as a part of a larger global trend. If ideas such as his could take root within the Democratically socialist shores of Scandinavia, they could certainly gain traction here as well.
One major difference is the way that the Swedish parliamentary system works, as opposed to the American "first-past-the-post" method of electing a president. The Swedish system has greatly limited Sverigedemokraterna's ability to steer the direction of their country toward the right-wing ideals they hold dear. Where Trump made headlines by signing a flurry of executive orders, most of which require time to process before their true effectiveness can be gauged, SD's inability to cooperate with other parties has limited their impact to a Tea Party-style governmental crisis over budgetary disputes. This may explain their sudden warming to President Trump, whom they may see as a powerful ally in shaping opinions both foreign and domestic when it comes to their view of isolationist immigration policy.
For now, at least, Sweden remains a country that American progressives are in admiration of. When I tell people who voted for Bernie Sanders that I learned Swedish, at least in part through a government funded program that provides all immigrants with free Swedish lessons, they are visibly excited. In 2016, in the hope of attracting more and better teachers for the program, 40,000,000 Swedish krona was added in funding. Despite this, the opinion of many Swedes I met that learned I had taken part in the program amounted to, "Isn't it terrible and ineffective?" While it is true that many who pass through the program may have difficulty holding an in-depth conversation in Swedish, it is also true that the program is primarily designed to provide students with enough language skills to function in daily life. Lessons on how to ask for directions, rent an apartment, or negotiate a salary are mainstays of the program.
Akesson and Karlsson pointed to a Feb. 20 riot in the Stockholm neighborhood of Rinkeby, a lower income suburb known to have a higher concentration of immigrants, as evidence to support their link between immigration and crime in Sweden — even though no one was seriously injured and there was no confirmation that anyone involved in the riot was an immigrant.
The ultimate effect of immigration on Sweden is impossible to definitively state. It is quite simply too early to determine what its long-term impact will be. For now, however, it seems clear that American politics have begun to more closely resemble those in Sweden, just not in the way Bernie Sanders would want.