Trump-eting Sweden

“Take a look at what happened in Sweden,” President Trump exclaimed during his speech to CPAC last Friday. “They understand I’m right. The people there understand I’m right.” He was referring to the debate–now entering its second week–surrounding his comments about the destructive impact of refugee migration to the Scandinavian nation. His defenders praised him for having dared to call out what others deny by highlighting Sweden’s struggles. But his commentary on the subject is hardly groundbreaking. Throughout the past years, western political figures on both left and right have reacted to Sweden’s policies with concern. That includes former President Obama, who in 2015 sent an envoy to the southern city of Malmö to address growing anti-Semitism amid rising tensions. It also includes Sweden’s government and media establishment which, since the peak of asylum seekers in 2015, has undergone one of the most abrupt transformations of policy and public conversation in the country’s modern history, curbing the levels of immigration and better allowing for public discussion of refugee migration and the challenges it brings. 

No, the novelty of Trump’s statements this past week lies not in its commentary on Europe, but rather in its intended message to domestic audiences. Sweden, he implied, serves as a warning to Americans—a harbinger of things to come should the US fail to embrace his reforms. It is in this assertion that the President’s statements falter. 

To begin with, the volumes in question diverge dramatically between the two nations. In 2015, 163,000 people arrived in Sweden to seek asylum, equaling roughly 1.6% of the country’s overall population. This record setting number pushed Sweden’s reception infrastructure past a critical threshold: shelters reached their capacity, after which migration agencies were unable to account for and direct migrant children, and law enforcement admitted they could no longer monitor the movements of foreigners in the country. Even after drastic reductions in immigration, Sweden’s government is still struggling to find housing, as well as hospital and school space for natives and new arrivals alike. In contrast, the United States accepted just under 70,000 refugees in 2015 (the latest figures available). During the final years of his administration, President Obama advocated taking in 110,000 refugees annually by 2017, with at least 10,000 of them being from Syria. Even that aspirational number—deemed excessive by opponents—would have amounted to less than 0.05% of the total U.S. population, and is less than half of what our admissions infrastructure had withstood during the 1980s. 

But relative numbers aren’t the only difference. The bulk of recent refugee migration to Sweden results from spontaneous flows of people at their borders or those already within the country. This means that Sweden has less control over the refugee population it receives. Asylum seekers will be dominated by those physically or financially positioned make the northward journey, and that leads—among other things—to an overrepresentation of young men. Alternately, the U.S. has typically managed its humanitarian admissions abroad, allowing for a more selective and often equitable process. 
While variations in the relative size and composition of refugee immigration ought dissuade leaders from making crude comparisons between Sweden and the U.S., so too ought the obligations each society observes toward newcomers. Sweden’s liberal asylum policies coexisted uneasily with its own egalitarian ideals and imperatives toward social equality. Bringing refugees and their families to minimum standard of living in Sweden is challenging and costly, and this is exacerbated by refugees’ shockingly low levels of employment. In contrast, while refugees do draw a disproportionate amount of public welfare funds during their initial years in the U.S., their move into the workforce tends to come quicker than what is often seen in Western Europe. The Migration Policy Institute reports that newly arrived refugee women in the U.S. tend to match employment rates of the native born within six months of arrival; refugee men surpass those rates.  

And then there are the intangibles. As Mattias Karlsson of the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats party remarked during a 2013 debate, “the United States is a country of immigrants. Sweden isn’t.” This is felt acutely at the cultural level. An American identity based on ideals and civic commitments is more easily embraced by a diverse population. Swedish identity, on the other hand, remains a nebulous and elusive target for the country’s immigrants who struggle to belong when belonging seems to consist, not only in political ideals, but also in language, religion, and even ethnicity. 

Unsurprisingly, outcomes for immigrants differ between Sweden and the U.S.—especially for Muslim populations. Segregation and alienation remain a reality for many of Europe’s Muslims, and countries as small as Belgium or Sweden are thought to be the source for nearly twice the total number of ISIS fighters than come from the entire U.S. Further, surveys taken by the Pew Research Center throughout the past decade indicate broad success for Muslim Americans, with roughly 80% saying they are satisfied with their lives and consider their communities attractive places to live, as large a percentage as the general population achieving a middle-class income, and fewer than 10% reporting that they have closed social circles.

International comparisons of refugee policy thus require sensitivity to the differences occurring in different places, and citizens have the right to expect such nuance from their leaders.

Bannon, Evola, and the New York Times

Conjecture and supposition tend to dog public figures who avoid the press. But the recent attention paid to Trump’s Chief Strategist Steve Bannon is uncanny. Bannon’s reluctance to speak with media—combined with a steady stream of commentary on him from anonymous associates and friends—is fueling speculation about his agenda and ideology. Adding to the frenzy are reports of Bannon’s eccentric reading habits that are forcing journalists and lay readers to explore bizarre and enigmatic literatures few have experience interpreting. Most recently, New York Times writer Jason Horowitz highlighted Bannon’s reference to an esoteric ultraconservative with complicated ties to Italian fascism and Nazi Germany named Julius Evola. In this and similar instances, hyperbole about Bannon flourishes, all while potential for real insights about his thinking goes unnoticed.

Let’s focus on Julius Evola. He is a figure who today is “referenced more than read” according to John Morgan, editor and director at Arktos Media—the press responsible for most recent English-language translations of Evola’s work. That seems true of both of the Italian thinker’s avid followers, as well as of Bannon. We have only one piece of evidence suggesting that Bannon knows of Evola. During a 2014 speech he gave to a group assembled at the Vatican, he was discussing Vladimir Putin (in unfavorable terms) and moved to describe the Russian president’s alleged ideological adviser, Alexander Dugin, as a figure “who hearkens back to Julius Evola and different writers of the early 20th century who are really the supporters of what’s called the traditionalist movement, which really eventually metastasized into Italian fascism.”

That’s it. In no way does the comment suggests that Bannon is deeply read in the Italian thinker’s works. Instead, Bannon’s suggestion that Evola and like-minded thinkers established an ideological foundation on which WWII fascism grew shows that he knows little about Evola or the history of fascism. The absence of substantive reference to Evola in Bannon’s statements has not tempered commentary, however. Evola’s writing includes unmistakable racism, and contemporary white nationalists and mainstream journalists alike therefore look to him as a possible indication of racism within Bannon. True to form, the Italian thinker’s concept of race was arcane and inconsistent, declaring—in contrast with National Socialists—that race might be differentiated in an individual’s body, soul, and spirit. His thinking repelled prominent racists and anti-Semites during the fascist era: Guido Landra, racial theorist under Mussolini, claimed Evola’s concept of race would “certainly be of exclusive benefit to the Jew,” and documents on Evola prepared by Heinrich Hilmer’s S.S. staff labeled him a “pseudoscientist” with the potential to cause “ideological entanglements” in the Third Reich. Nonetheless, his references to Aryanism, contempt for Africans and Jews, and fetishizing of segregation drew him the adoration of future generations of fascist sympathizers.

So too did Evola’s hatred for Christianity. He regarded the Levantine religion as a perverting force in Europe—one that undermined entrenched masculinist ideals and promoted an embryonic form of liberal egalitarianism at the expense of traditional hierarchy. To regain past European virtues, Evola advocated a return to pre-Christian Indo-European paganism while also showing sympathy for Islam and Buddhism. His anti-Christianism resonated, not only German Nazism, but also neo-paganist strains in the contemporary far right. But his adoption by such forces was limited: he regarded fascism, National Socialism, and nationalism at large as sentimental populism—movements for the masses inadequate to forge the hierarchical society he coveted.

Is this the stuff of Bannonism? Hardly. Bannon famously identifies himself as an economic nationalist and a populist striving to undo elitism. Born to an Irish Catholic family, his worldview also involves fighting on behalf of a “Judeo-Christian west” opposite radical Islam. More intrigue surrounds his attitudes toward race and Judaism: In legal proceedings following Bannon’s trail for domestic abuse and battery, his former wife accused him of making anti-Semitic statements in private. But there are no serious indications that he partakes of the theorized racism or anti-Semitism one finds in Evola. On the contrary, Bannon spent part of his speech to the Vatican assembly urging European nationalist parties to drop their racialized agendas in favor of a culturally and religiously based nationalism.

Linking Bannon to Evola’s most sensational thinking requires a great deal of strain, and we shouldn’t be surprised that recent journalistic attempts to do so unravel into games of six-degrees-of-separation. But what is most unfortunate about this commentary is that, while pursuing elusive silver-bullet ammunition, it pays scant attention to actual lessons that can be learned from Bannon’s dilettantish interest in Evola. For in the obscure Italian thinker’s concept of history we find replication of a theme common to other authors who Bannon is known to read and recommend.

In a recent Politico article, Eliana Johnson and Eli Stokols explore Bannon’s purported admiration for writers William Strauss, Neil Howe, Nassim Taleb, Curtis Yarvin, and Michael Anton. These authors share, in the words of the Politico journalists, “the view that technocrats have put Western civilization on a downward trajectory and that only a shock to the system can reverse its decline.” And if that is the feature uniting Bannon’s reading and informing his agenda, it is most likely to have also drawn him to Evola. Evola referenced a wide body of religious traditions to argue that western society is decaying, and claimed that the rise of liberal modernity aligns with what Hinduism calls the Kali Yuga, or the dark age—the final in a four-age time cycle where spirituality is replaced with materialism and the structures and hierarchies that previously ordered societies disintegrate into a leveled (or egalitarian) social chaos. Evola would eventually embrace the fatalism inherent in this concept of history, anticipating that nothing could stop the destruction of the Kali Yuga and that its full realization could bring a fiery end to liberalism and reset the time cycle to a golden age. Earlier in his life, however, Evola believed that societies could rally against the cycle through will and industry; he supported fascism with the hope that its militaristic ideals and aesthetics signaled a retreat from liberal values, and that it might someday be imbued with spiritual content, returning society to virtue and righteousness.

That sounds more like the Bannon we are coming to know. Far from introducing new perspectives, his reference to Evola adds to existing impressions. It provides additional indication that Bannon operates with an apocalyptic vision for western society and a will toward radical change. One wonders, in that case, whether his activism is that of the older Evola—a fatalistic, anti-activism–or that of the younger; a man raging, with reckless optimism, against time.