I grew up in Trumpland. In a rural corner of the US East coast a few hours from New York City, the perfect spot to raise kids in the countryside or to take a vacation. It is the definition of picturesque: small towns and farms situated among rolling old mountains, a landscape dappled with lakes, forests and fields. In many ways, it reminds me of Sweden and the parallels go further than the scenery. In both places, conservative populism is no longer fringe politics and has increasingly broad support.
That ‘othering’ we despise in Trump is alive and well right here within our own neighborhoods in Stockholm.Stockholm University
Donald Trump won the election by taking votes outside the traditional populist base of rural white men. Of the college graduates who voted in the election, 42% cast their ballot for Trump as did 58% of whites overall, 42% of women, and 50% of suburbanites. This picture hardly fits the stereotype generally held about Trump supporters before the election.
Sweden has its own trumpland. Sweden’s Democrats is the third largest party in the current Parliament, having won almost 13% of the overall vote in the last election. While rural unemployed men make up the bulk of SD supporters, some men and women in middle class suburban Stockholm and elsewhere are shifting from center-right to SD. National polls last year put SD at a 22-28% favorable rating, which might be an underestimation given the failure of past research to pick up support on the right. SD support at this level essentially would wipe out the possibility of a center-left government in 2018 and would shift Sweden further right, similar to trends elsewhere in Europe.
Trump’s supporters have embraced an anti-intellectual and anti-establishment worldview. Many expect him to address what they see as economic unfairness against the white working/middle class. They seek to reassert their white masculinist privilege at a time they are losing ground in a country that is tacking heavily toward a majority of minorities by 2050. They want change so much that many embraced Trump’s bigotry and fear politics. In this environment, the ‘othering’ Trump uses against minorities and immigrants becomes easy and pervasive. Similarly, SD supporters have been quoted as calling SD the only political party that speaks the ‘truth,’ a truth based on ‘othering’ and fear. They have criticized the spending on immigrants saying those funds would be put to better use creating jobs for Swedish youth. That ‘othering’ we despise in Trump is alive and well right here within our own neighborhoods in Stockholm.
The growing trend toward nativism and protecting ‘our’ own is a knee-jerk response to stalled promises of policy agendas that never were about broad inclusion. In both countries, the positioning of conservative parties has made the liberal parties reactionary at best, unable to push forward policies that would address people’s economic concerns, further giving the conservatives the ammunition of fear of the ‘other’ (often Muslim immigrant) as a political tool. And so on.
I don’t blame Trump supporters, though I did at first. They have little idea about the gravity of the situation they have instigated. Further, the many complications with a complicit media, social media echo chambers that circulate propaganda and jingoism as news, and a general population unable to think critically have exacerbated the situation. I agree that the status quo has to change, but retrenchment into neo-liberal policies is not the answer and will be disastrous, whether in the US, in Sweden or elsewhere in Europe. It’s the 21st century and we should be able to meet our challenges with empathy, respect and creativity. Is it really so difficult to try something new?
In gearing up for the 2018 national elections in Sweden, we need to remember that people tend to vote based on their emotions, no matter how much reasoned, informed debate you offer them. Electing Trump was not so much because people understand the very few actual policies he almost proposed, but because they liked the insinuation of slash and burn change. We need to keep that in mind for how we approach the messaging around policies in Sweden and in Europe more generally. We especially need to engage a broad spectrum of the electorate, to cultivate responses that work to take care of more people for the long term, and to move the public debate away from the problems caused by a spike in immigration to a debate about unity and practical steps going forward.
As we watch European countries one by one struggle with the nationalist question, we need to consider that Trump is another wake-up call, the most serious one yet. We haven’t got much time left to answer it.
Dr. Susan T. Jackson is a Researcher at Stockholm University and an Associate Senior Researcher with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
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