Trump Says, 'Look What's Happening In Sweden.' Sweden Asks, 'Wait, What?'

Feb 19, 2017
Originally published on February 20, 2017 12:09 pm

In the span of a single sentence, President Trump managed to flummox a nation.

"We've got to keep our country safe," Trump said at a campaign-style rally Saturday in Melbourne, Fla. "You look at what's happening in Germany, you look at what's happening last night in Sweden — Sweden, who would believe this?"

Swedes, in turn, answered Trump's question with a question of their own: "Wait — what?"

On Friday night — the night in question — a few things did, in fact, happen in Sweden. A Stockholm newspaper helpfully laid out a few of them:

  • Technical problems threatened to derail a performance by singer Owe Thörnqvist.
  • Harsh weather in the north of the country shut down a road.
  • A high-speed chase in Stockholm ended with the driver under arrest.

Aftonbladet listed a few more, to be sure — the trouble is, none of those events fits what Trump implied by including Sweden in a list of places that had recently suffered terrorist attacks.

"Sweden — they took in large numbers," Trump continued Saturday. "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."

Trump later tweeted that — as some had theorized — he was inspired by a Fox News segment on immigration and crime in Sweden, which aired on Friday but did not mention any specific atrocity that day.

The reaction

Shortly afterward Trump got a definitive response from Sweden — literally, as The Guardian points out, since one of Sweden's official Twitter accounts is controlled by a different Swede each week.

"No. Nothing has happened here in Sweden," tweeted Emma, the school librarian running the account this week.

Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt's answer was a bit more blunt: "Sweden? Terror attack? What has he been smoking?"

Naturally, the rest of the Internet was quick to let loose its seemingly never-ending store of snark and mockery. By Sunday, #SwedenIncident was trending on Twitter, as many tweeters the world over helpfully suggested ideas to jog the Swedes' memories of just what exactly happened Friday night.

What the president says he was talking about

Some quickly began theorizing about what Trump may have been referring to.

The Guardian, for instance, suggested Trump may have confused Sweden with the Pakistani town of Sehwan, where just days ago a suicide bomber brutally killed dozens of worshippers at a Sufi shrine.

Others, like The New York Daily News, posit that Trump was referring to an interview with filmmaker Ami Horowitz that aired Friday night on Fox News.

Trump's tweet on Sunday — that he was referencing "a story that was broadcast on Fox News concerning immigrants and Sweden" — fits with this explanation.

Regardless of how it came about, the incident calls attention to a telling aspect of American political life, as Martin Gelin, U.S. correspondent for the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, tells NPR: Sweden can be a kind of Rorschach test in American politics, which inspires different reactions depending on where one's beliefs fall on the political spectrum.

"The left really admires Sweden, and the far right views Sweden as a nightmare," Gelin says.

Recalling his own experiences while reporting in the U.S., Gelin notes that the different opinions he saw between progressives and conservatives were usually tied to the issues they're most concerned about.

"Conservatives, especially from the far right, know that Sweden has welcomed more refugees than almost any other country in Europe, especially in proportion to how small the country is. Many of them have heard erroneous or heavily exaggerated stories about increases in crime and arson and things like that.

"But on the left, you have the completely opposite view of Sweden as a progressive paradise, especially among Bernie Sanders supporters. I've heard a lot of people talking about Sweden as the country that they wanted to emulate."

As The New York Times reports, citing the Swedish Migration Agency, the country "processed 81,000 asylum seekers in 2014, 163,000 in 2015 and 29,000 last year, with another 25,000 to 45,000 expected this year."

The most recent terrorist attack in Sweden, according to The Associated Press, happened in 2010, when an Iraqi-born Swede carried out a suicide bombing, injuring two people and killing only himself.

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During his campaign rally in Florida on Saturday, President Trump seemed to reference a major incident in Sweden, but there was no such event. The internet found the comment confusing and amusing. Swedes are simply baffled. NPR's Camila Domonoske reports.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: At his campaign rally on Saturday, President Trump was promising to keep America safe when he listed off a series of places, including sites of devastating terror attacks, like Brussels, Nice and Paris. But he also said this.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You look at what's happening last night in Sweden - Sweden, who would believe this? - Sweden.

DOMONOSKE: It turns out Swedish people had trouble believing that. Jonas Ekman, a reporter at the Swedish newspaper Aftenbladet, sums up the big stories in Sweden on Friday.

JONAS EKMAN: We had a man who set himself on fire, and we had some car chases. There's still a lot of snow, some problems with traffic.

DOMONOSKE: There was also a technical mishap at a singing competition and a belated report about an amorous moose.

EKMAN: Yeah, that's - the story actually occurred in autumn. A moose got attracted to a wooden moose and started making love in a small town.

DOMONOSKE: But nothing remotely resembling a terrorist incident. Catarina Axelsson is a press officer at the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She says the Swedish government has no idea what Trump was referencing.

CATARINA AXELSSON: I'm sorry, but there is nothing. We do not know. We would like to understand as well.

DOMONOSKE: Late today, Trump tweeted that he was referencing a story on Fox News. That was probably a Friday night segment with a filmmaker, who argued that there's an immigrant-fueled rise in crime in Sweden. To be clear, that segment discussed trends over time, which are disputed, and did not suggest that anything happened that day. But it invoked an idea that has gained purchase in some quarters.

MARTIN GELIN: Six, seven years or so, there's been a recurring narrative about Muslim immigrants in Sweden causing crime.

DOMONOSKE: Martin Gelin is a Swedish reporter based in New York, who covered the Trump campaign. He says he's had Trump supporters say they feel sorry for him when he says he's from Sweden, a place he says they view as a nightmare.

GELIN: They know that Sweden has welcomed more refugees than almost any other country in Europe, especially in proportion to how small the country is. And they have heard about this - some, you know, erroneous or heavily exaggerated stories about the increase in crime.

DOMONOSKE: It's a sharp contrast to the other big response he says he receives.

GELIN: On the left, you have completely opposite view of Sweden as a progressive paradise.

DOMONOSKE: Whether they're living in a paradise or a nightmare, Swedes were definitely in a state of confusion after Trump's remarks. Camila Domonoske, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.