Presidential elections in the United States invariably attract a lot of foreign attention. This is confusing to many Americans, who rarely follow other countries’ elections. Why should foreigners care how you vote? One big reason is that American politics is just more entertaining than politics in most European countries: You have primary elections and midterm elections, which provide for off-season excitement that would overwhelm my Swedish compatriots. And you have attack ads. I’m not saying that your insanely divided political climate is necessarily healthier than ours, but it sure is flashier!
I have followed every American presidential election campaign since 2004, when I was 13 years old. Unlike most teenagers from the north of Sweden (the heartland of the Swedish left), I always rooted for the GOP. Until 2016, that is.
I’m not going to rehash all the reasons the orange man is bad. Instead, I’m going to tell you a strange story of the unexpected transatlantic appeal of Donald Trump.
Four years ago, Sweden was in the midst of something of a conservative revival, with support for the conservative-Euroskeptic Sweden Democrats party having doubled in less than four years. Columnists, myself included, in Sweden’s conservative media sites took on the challenge to educate this movement—to provide facts to bolster new converts and arguments to attract even more. With every column about the EU, Brexit, immigration, or foreign aid, we were self-consciously hoping to build something—a newer, fresher, more accountable, more vibrant version of European democracy.
In the month leading up to the U.S. presidential election in 2016, I wrote a series of columns critically examining Donald Trump and making the case that Swedish conservatives ought not to support him. Suddenly, the tide turned.
I was accused—seriously and repeatedly from multiple sources—of being a paid agent of everyone from George Soros to the CIA, Hillary Clinton, the globalists, the Swedish Social Democratic Party, and of course the Rothschilds.
Such stories have become commonplace in America. But this was in Sweden! The people accusing me of being paid by the Clinton campaign were ordinary Swedes, who for some reason had become so infatuated with Donald Trump that even levelheaded criticism of him from someone they knew to be a like-minded political writer enraged them.
These people had no reason at all to be invested in Donald Trump. They were not former factory workers in the Rust Belt whose jobs had been outsourced to China. They were not border state inhabitants worried about the inflow of illegal immigrants and cartel violence. They were not pro-life Christians willing to overlook anything for the chance to see Roe v. Wade overturned.
In fact, and as I tried to point out to them, Trump’s “America First” agenda would be directly harmful to Sweden. Our economy is highly dependent on exports, and the United States is one of our biggest trading partners. Trump’s tariffs would hurt Swedish businesses and workers. His isolationism would make way for Russia’s influence on the global stage, and throughout history a powerful Russia has never meant good things for Sweden.
None of this mattered. Trump’s cult of personality somehow enthralled people who couldn’t even theoretically gain from his election. There was something else about him—who could say what?—that appealed to people below the level of reason.
Like so many conservative American publications, the one I wrote for catered ever more to the alt-right and surrendered to jingoistic, conspiratorial nationalism. Whether it followed its readers or the other way around I’m not quite sure, but either way I was left behind. Originally I was only a simple agent working for the globalists, but some readers accused me of being a secret transgender Jew. Go figure.
I quit writing when my editor stopped publishing pieces of mine he feared would anger Sweden’s Trumpists. For me, this was sad, but my story was only one part of a larger tragedy in Sweden.
The Sweden Democrats (who are very unlike American Democrats) have long had a zero-tolerance policy about any form of racism or ethnic nationalism. While the party was once the refuge of wingnuts and bigots, a decade-long reform of the party, including a purge of extremist members, has elevated it to the status of a serious contributor to Swedish politics. In the last election, the party received almost 18 percent of the vote. Yet after Trump won the nomination and later the election, many of party’s conservative cheerleaders in the alternative media looked across the ocean to the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos for inspiration. They began to copy everything from Trump’s red MAGA hats to his rhetoric.
Trump becoming the global symbol of border control was always going to be a problem for Swedish conservatives. Europe has its fair share or more of migration-related problems, and countries like Sweden have by any measure welcomed more asylum seekers than we could realistically seek to assimilate into our society (though the situation is not quite as dire as is sometimes claimed). For years, the Sweden Democrats and its supporters, myself included, had worked hard to disassociate legitimate concerns about our immigration levels from racism, only to see our policies suddenly and inseparably associated with Donald Trump—of whom only 10 percent of the Swedish electorate approves.
The election of Trump may have strengthened the far-right in Europe, but just like in the United States, this happened at the expense of mainstream conservatives who wanted reasonable policy reforms. The rise of the far-right in Europe hasn’t at all damaged the far-left. Meanwhile, the rightward lurch has not helped the party’s electoral position. It’s probably not a coincidence that a steep, positive polling trend broke just as Trump emerged as a serious candidate.
The idea that we could somehow win in Sweden by following Trump’s lead was, of course, always ridiculous. In the first place, Trump was only able to win due to the uniquely American Electoral College; it’s pretty much the exact opposite of Sweden’s proportional multi-party system in which a party simply can’t win without forming a coalition. Using inflammatory language against your opponents before the election only ensures that they will refuse to cooperate with you after the election, leaving you out of power.
But such practical realities have not deterred the party’s media surrogates, of course. The inability of the Sweden Democrats to gain and hold power and the consequent policy results don’t seem to be a significant part of their calculus.
The party’s leadership has held its ground reasonably well so far, going to admirable lengths during the 2018 elections to force out a number of its MPs who had become too cozy with the alt-right. However, should Trump be re-elected, I don’t know for how long the lines can hold.
This same pattern has repeated itself not only across Europe, but across the world. Sensibly or not, American politics drives the internal and ideological politics in scores of countries, in much the same manner as American fashions and movies and music drive global tastes. American conservatives gave the alt-right hope in 2016, and the worldwide right followed it like lemmings off a cliff. If Trump is re-elected, even narrowly, his image will be strengthened and more politicians—in the United States and around the world—will be convinced to follow his path. At that point, the rest of us might as well pack up and, as David French so eloquently put it, head for St. Helena.
This would be tragic not only for non-American conservatives, but for America as well. It’s no secret that American primacy depends on a system of alliances from Tokyo to Warsaw. If, due to the catastrophic leadership of a Republican president, the international Reaganite-Thatcherite movement is debased and discredited, America will have lost its most enthusiastic and loyal friends abroad.
Conversely, a Trump loss just might pour the necessary amount of cold water on the alt-right wildfire that is sweeping across the continents. If he is soundly defeated, he might even serve as a cautionary tale to conservatives around the world.
The American-led international system enriched the United States while creating a period of global peace and economic growth unrivaled in human history. For decades, American conservatives made it their mission to defend this system from internal and external threats. If they abandon this mission by re-electing Trump, allied movements around the world might not survive.