Donald Trump’s lies about “events” in Sweden should have made it so easy for the Swedish prime minister, Stefan Lofven. In effect the American President put Lofven five yards out in front of an open goal, with the ball at his feet and the whole world screaming at him to shoot. But Lofven won’t. Instead he’s juggling with the ball and has surreptitiously slipped out a hand mirror to check out just how cool he looks in the floodlights of the global media.
He’s not going to shoot – that would be way too easy. He’ll just tease him and make Trump look slightly silly. That’ll show him. Instead of taking on Trump’s lies and hyperbole, Lofven will just settle for looking cool, detached and clever.
Trump was addressing a rally in Florida on Saturday when he listed European countries that have been targeted recently by terrorists. “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,” he said.
There had been no terrorist attack in Sweden on Friday night – as gleefully pointed out by Swedes on social media. Trump has since claimed that his comments were sparked by a Fox News documentary about Sweden on Friday night. The country’s response was underwhelming: “We’ve noted the tweet in which Donald Trump states that he was talking about a package on Fox News. There’s not so much more to say right now,“ Foreign Ministry press spokesperson Catarina Axelsson told the TT news agency on Monday.
This laconic, non-confrontational response is quintessentially Swedish – almost infuriatingly so. An American president has lied outrageously about one of its European allies, an ally which is almost diametrically opposed, politically, to Trump’s fear-spiked right-wing populism. An ally which sits in the northern buffer zone between continental Europe and Russia. Trump’s outburst should have triggered an international crisis for his renegade one-month-old administration. Trump should by now be having to fend off global condemnation for his lies.
But that would have required Sweden’s prime minister, Lofven, to respond in a direct and forceful fashion – and that is just not the Swedish way.
Some observers have suggested that Sweden might be fearful of antagonising an ally of Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, whose fighter jets have buzzed the Scandinavian country’s borders occasionally over the last decade. That analysis overlooks two fundamental characteristics of Swedish civic and political life. First, confrontation is not acceptable. Swedes deal in consensus, not conflict. Deals are done, compromises sought and voices are rarely raised. To make a fuss internationally about Trump’s boorish behaviour would betray that central tenet of Swedish life.
The second characteristic is understatement or, as the Swedes call it ‘lagom’, which is defined as “enough, sufficient, adequate, just right”. Mostly, that’s an admirable principle for civic and political life. Nothing is done to excess. But it’s not the approach that is required now.
When the Swedes should be hammering the ball into the back of Trump’s net, they’re making mildly witty remarks about his behaviour, trying to prove to everyone else that they’re just too sophisticated to become drawn into Trump’s yobbish view of international politics. And they’re blowing a rich opportunity to strike a blow right to the heart of Trump’s infant presidency.