Extinguishing Donald Trump’s Swedish Immigration 'Fire'

They have problems. But they also have solutions.
Policemen and a group of migrants stand on the platform at the Swedish end of the bridge between Sweden and Denmark in Malmo,
Policemen and a group of migrants stand on the platform at the Swedish end of the bridge between Sweden and Denmark in Malmo, Sweden, on November 12, 2015.

As a former intelligence officer, I am a major advocate of the maxim, “facts matter.”  As such, I often find myself cringing when listening to President Trump wax philosophically – and creatively – on any number of issues.  The most recent example of this are the president’s comments about Sweden, made during a rally before supporters held in Melbourne, Florida this pastSaturday

“Here’s the bottom line,” the president said.  “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,” Trump said. “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.”

The president then transitioned into the heart of his message, which dealt with his controversial executive order on immigration.  “We’ve allowed thousands and thousands of people into our country, and there was no way to vet those people,” he said. “There was no documentation. There was no nothing. So we’re going to keep our country safe.”

The media – in the United States, Sweden and elsewhere – immediately criticized the president’s words, ascribing meaning and intent in an effort to undermine the message and the man, building on a foundation of negative press regarding Trump’s stalled immigration order banning persons from seven Muslim countries from entering the United States for ninety days while a plan for implementing the president’s vision for “extreme vetting” could be formulated and implemented.

“The comments appeared to refer to recent terror attacks in Germany and elsewhere, but no such attack has occurred in Sweden,” wrote Eric Bradner, of CNN. “Trump’s remark is the latest misplaced reference to a terrorist attack or incident by those in his White House. Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway inaccurately referred to a ‘Bowling Green massacre’ that never took place, and White House press secretary Sean Spicer referred to an attack in Atlanta, later clarifying that he meant to refer to Orlando.”

Steve Benen, of MSNBC, had a similar take on Trump’s Swedish reference.  “Kellyanne Conway recently made repeated references to a ‘massacre’ at Bowling Green that never actually happened. Sean Spicer similarly pointed several times to a terrorist attack in Atlanta that didn’t occur. So perhaps it was inevitable that Donald Trump, fresh off his bizarre claims about U.S. murder rates that exist only in his imagination, would point to a Swedish incident with no basis in reality.”

I actually believe Donald Trump did America, and the world, a favor in bringing up the issue of Swedish immigration.

The British press was no less damning in its reporting.  “Donald Trump appeared to invent an attack on Sweden during a rally in Florida,” wrote The Telegraph, while the Guardian reported that, “Donald Trump appeared to invent a terrorist attack in Sweden during a campaign-style rally in Florida on Saturday.” 

Even the Swedes jumped on the bandwagon, with Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom posting on Twitter an excerpt from Trump’s speech, noting that democracy and diplomacy “require us to respect science, facts and the media.”  Former Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt likewise tweeted, “Sweden? Terror attack? What has he been smoking? Questions abound.”

The problem with the bulk of the reporting on Trump’s comments was that it was, simply put, wrong.  Even the New York Times – no friend of Donald Trump – was compelled to admit that, “Mr. Trump did not state, per se, that a terrorist attack had taken place in Sweden. But the context of his remarks – he mentioned Sweden right after he chastised Germany, a destination for refugees and asylum seekers fleeing war and deprivation – suggested that he thought it might have.”

If there was any doubt as to what President Trump was actually thinking (vice what reporters thought he was thinking), it was quickly put to rest by the president himself, who tweeted Sunday that, “My statement as to what’s happening in Sweden was in reference to a story that was broadcast on @FoxNews concerning immigrants & Sweden.” He followed that tweet with another on Monday, noting that, “Give the public a break - The FAKE NEWS media is trying to say that large scale immigration in Sweden is working out just beautifully. NOT!”

The president, it seems, was watching an episode of Tucker Carlson’s evening news program, where Mr. Carlson interviewed a controversial right-wing Jewish documentary filmmaker, Ami Horowitz, who had finished a project on Sweden’s immigration policy.  Mr. Horowitz is a noted Islamophobe whose film seeks to label Sweden as a nation whose pro-immigration policies coddle Islamic terrorism.  His appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show was part and parcel of a trend of reporting by Fox News sympathetic to President Trump and his policies, and as such it should be a surprise to no one that Mr. Trump had been tuned in and watching as Carlson interviewed Horowitz.

That President Trump gets some of his information from watching prime time news shows should neither shock nor surprise Americans who are similarly empowered by such information sources; after all, what is good for the goose should be good for the gander.  That the president chooses to publicly comment on this information without first vetting it – or, in the president’s own parlance, “extreme vetting” it – with the resources uniquely available to him, such as the State Department, the National Security Council, etc., is, at the very least, disturbing.  

The president, whether he realizes it or not, speaks on behalf of an entire country, and not just that segment of society that supports him and his policies.  Even if Mr. Trump is personally sympathetic to the selective and self-serving reporting of Mr. Horowitz and Fox News, he should be assiduous in making sure that, as president, his words leave little open to suggestion by being as precise in fact and context as possible. The fact, however, that President Trump is, and was, not doing so should not come as a surprise to either the public or the media; he consistently campaigned in this fashion during his successful run for the White House, and his actions and words, in transition and during the first three weeks in office, have demonstrated little if any trend away from sustaining that behavior. 

That President Trump and the media are currently engaged in a much publicized feud over their respective veracity is well known to all; neither side does itself any service by engaging in actions that only reinforces the talking points of the other side.  President Trump should be far more precise and accurate in his facts and commentary, period.  The media should likewise limit its reporting to those facts that the president has publicly committed to; Mr. Trump provides more than enough ammunition for fact-based reporters to stay gainfully employed without sinking to the artifice of discerning (i.e., manufacturing) “suggestion” and “intent” behind what the president says.  To behave otherwise is to demean the status and value of the Fourth Estate to the American people. 

An enemy of the truth is, by extension, an enemy of the American people.  Both the president and the media should heed that simple fact, since their future credibility hangs on their perceived adherence to the same.  A viable democracy such as the United States requires fact-based debate, discussion and dialogue in order to sustain and further societal growth and health – a static society is a dying society.  It is in America’s interest to keep evolving as a nation, seeking new solutions to old problems, and to do so in a manner which encourages the frank and open participation by all citizens, whether others agree with them or not.

In this light, I actually believe Donald Trump did America, and the world, a favor in bringing up the issue of Swedish immigration. The inability of the American (and international) media to help facilitate a responsible debate on the subject by reporting on perceived “suggestion” or “intent” behind the president’s words, vice the actual words themselves, however, has created a situation where the American people can’t see the forest for the trees. 

It’s not that I agree with the president’s immigration policy – I don’t.  My wife and her family are immigrants (she is a naturalized citizen, her father a green card-carrying permanent resident), and our ability to interact with our extended family abroad is dependent on the freedom of movement between the United States and her native Republic of Georgia.  The Georgian Republic is, today, an ally of the United States, its population deeply Christian in religious orientation and as such largely immune to the limitations on immigration proposed by the president.

While I do not share Ami Horowitz’s sweeping denunciation of Sweden’s experience with Muslim immigrants, I do have an opinion on the issue based upon first-hand experience.

It isn’t the impact of the president’s proposed policy on a personal level that prompts my opposition, but rather the fact that families like my own will be adversely impacted simply because of geography or religion.  America has the ability and resources to deal with the issue of immigration with the precision of a surgeon, excising those who are shown to represent a threat to American security while allowing entry to those who don’t; in contrast, Trump’s proposed policy represents a hammer-like approach.  We can, and should, do better.

The best solutions, however, come only once a problem has been properly defined, and here the problem revolves around both the practical methodologies involved in any vetting of immigrants, extreme or otherwise, and the public perception of the impact upon society that any surge of immigration might have.  While I do not share Ami Horowitz’s sweeping denunciation of Sweden’s experience with Muslim immigrants, I do have an opinion on the issue based upon first-hand experience.  In late 2007 I had the opportunity to attend a week-long advanced firefighting academy in Sweden, followed by a 72-hour operational “ride along” with Swedish firefighters in the city of Malmo, Sweden’s 3rd largest city with a population of 300,00 – 20 percent of whom are Muslim immigrants. 

I spent a decade in the fire service, and had the opportunity to interact with firefighters from across the United States and around the world.  I’ve always viewed the fire service as the true barometer of a society; politicians can sweep inconvenient facts under the rug, while a population can coast through life, deaf, dumb and blind about the real problems that exist out of sight, out of mind.  Not so the firefighter (or, for that case, the police officer and emergency medical services.)

These first responders know the truth (sometimes ugly) about the state of affairs in a given community.  Is there a heroin problem?  Ask the firefighter – he or she will be able to draw a map showing precisely where they respond to calls of that nature.  Firefighters know the parts of town that have been hit by unemployment, where medical insurance is non-existent, or where immigrant communities (both legal and otherwise) reside.

If you spend some time in a firehouse, as I have, you get a very accurate readout of the pulse of the society they serve.  I was a Bernie Sanders supporter during the last election, but by September 2016 I was telling my friends that Donald Trump was going to win, not because I wanted him to, but because that was the feeling I was getting from the firehouses in the parts of America largely ignored by mainstream politicians – the rust belt of the northeast and Midwest America where support for Trump was directly related to the ills of society firefighters knew existed, and which were not being adequately addressed by the political powers that be.

I never met a society more open-minded and tolerant of outsiders than the Swedes.  In Malmo, I was driven around the city by a succession of fire chiefs who proudly displayed the work being done by their municipality to receive and care for the large immigrant policy – primarily Muslim – that called the city home.  The front-line firefighters that I met and worked with shared the pride in their city, and Sweden’s policy of openness and inclusiveness, shown by their command, but balanced it with a healthy dose of skepticism born of first-hand experience with the ugly side of the immigrant experience. 

I personally witnessed the reality of entire neighborhoods in the city where firefighters and police were not welcomed with open arms.  While not absolute “no go” zones (the Malmo firefighters, after all, responded to calls in these areas), these neighborhoods were “slow go” zones, meaning firefighters entered with caution.  Arson incidents in these immigrant neighborhoods were rampant – I responded to two during my stay, one of which was a school targeted for simply being secular.  The firefighters I rode with told of being pelted with rocks while responding to other emergency calls just a week before I arrived, and many times prior.  The firefighters spoke of the need for increased outreach to the immigrant community, including trying to recruit immigrants into the emergency response force, but noted that these efforts were stymied by the close-knit nature of many immigrant neighborhoods which made meaningful integration into Swedish society very difficult.

My experience with the firefighters of Malmo in no way validates the reporting of Ami Horowitz, Fox News or any media outlet seeking to paint Sweden as a seething cauldron of Islamic fundamentalism operating in the heart of Europe.  What it does do, however, is underscore the reality that when a society undertakes to open its doors to large-scale immigration, there exists the potential for the kind of disruptive, sometimes violent experiences that occurred – and continue to occur – in Malmo – and throughout Sweden as a whole.  Rather than being dismissive of the Swedish experience, however, America would do well to reach out to the Swedes for their lessons learned, so that America can proactively address the problems and solutions already identified and acted on by the Swedes.

“Sweden,” President Trump said. “Who would believe this? Sweden. They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible.”  But they also have solutions – just ask the firefighters of Malmo.  I did, and my eyes were opened. Let’s hope the president will, too, especially on the eve of the rollout of his newly revamped immigration policy.