Donald Trump was right: “Look at what’s happening last night in Sweden.”
The American president’s Sweden reference last year, which followed reports of immigrant violence, unleashed a tsunami of mockery and memes.
Asking his question a day after Sunday’s election evokes much the same response. To recap, the duo of centrist political groups that have dominated Swedish politics for decades took a licking but still form the two biggest blocs. The anti-immigrant, populist Sweden Democrats finished third with about 18 percent of the vote. That’s about 5 percentage points better than their last showing, but well below many predictions.
After all the breathless coverage of Sweden’s “lurch to the right,” the third-place finish by the populist party proves the country is far from a fascist revolution, holds the typical “told you so” argument that circulated Monday.
For a caste of tweet-happy, if obscure, academics, the result offers further confirmation of the media’s — and in particular those of the English-language persuasion — tendency to hype and overstate the influence of the far right.
“This is a rebuke to the international media,” concluded Stockholm University journalism professor Christian Christensen, accusing journalists via Twitter of peddling “clickbait.”
The real story on Sunday, he and others suggested, was the kingmaker role smaller moderate parties might play and what kind of coalition could emerge.
Well, that might be true if you live in Sweden. But the brutal truth is that the rest of us don’t really care.
There’s a simple explanation for why no foreign correspondent worth his or her salt knew little — if anything — about Sweden’s liberal or center parties before Sunday: They don’t really matter.
What makes Sweden relevant to the outside the world (aside from Ikea, Pippi Longstocking and Stieg Larsson) is not its famous stability, but its potential, as Trump noted, to descend into chaos. And more specifically, what that outcome could mean for the rest of us.
So even if the Sweden Democrats didn’t perform quite as well as some feared, the party’s rise is still the story. In what has become a familiar pattern with populist movements across Europe, the SD’s tactics left the establishment parties running scared. The entire campaign revolved around the populist agenda, including (even if not exclusively) the hot button issue of migration.
As so often happens in Europe, centrist parties reacted by trying to ape the populists’ rhetoric, albeit with a kinder, gentler face. Even if that tactic saved the mainstream parties from an even worse showing (which is debatable), it failed to stem the bleeding.
That’s why the accusations of media hype ring so hollow. If Europe’s recent history is any indication, the SD’s showing bodes ill for Sweden’s political trajectory.
In Germany’s national election in 2013, the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party failed to make it into parliament by a whisker. Many left the AfD for dead. In the summer of 2015, it had yet to recover and was still lingering in the low single digits in the polls. Then the refugee crisis hit. According to some recent polls, the AfD is now Germany’s second largest party after Angela Merkel’s center-right bloc.
Similarly, Austria’s Freedom Party nearly imploded in the early 2000s, only to roar back in last year’s election with its tried and true anti-immigration message. It now governs alongside the center right.
So even if Sweden’s centrist parties are holding on by their fingernails, there can be no question that the SD has completely upended the political landscape.
In other words, even boring, civilized Sweden isn’t immune to the pressures created by mass migration.
Or, as Trump famously put it: “Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden.”