The people of Sweden could hardly have known how big a role their country of 10 million people would play in the evolution of Donald Trump’s presidency when he formally announced his candidacy in June of 2015. But from his false claims of Swedish ancestry to hide his German forebears, to comments about terrorist attacks in Sweden that never took place, to his supposed concern for the treatment of rapper A$AP Rocky, Trump has leveraged both American ignorance about Sweden and a romantic notion of how Sweden supposedly used to be to score both personal and political points.
To understand Trump’s engagement in the ASAP Rocky case, it is important to note how often he tries to shift Americans’ focus to Europe in an effort to justify U.S. policies on everything from gun control to immigration. In an April 2019 speech to the National Rifle Association, for example, Trump argued that the 2015 terrorist attacks at the Bataclan theater in Paris were proof that gun control does not work. He did so despite the fact that the 130 people killed in the attacks were as many gun homicides as France sees in an average year, and that even if France had the equivalent of a Bataclan attack every month, it would still have an annual per capita gun homicide rate lower than the U.S.
Or there was the time that Trump attacked London Mayor Sadiq Khan and highlighted knife crime in London as evidence of the failure of both British immigration policy and gun control. Again, the facts weren’t on Trump’s side. According to numbers from the London and New York police, the cities — which have almost identical populations — had exactly the same numbers of stabbings (76) in 2018, while New York had over 10 times as many gun homicides as London (161 versus 15) and twice as many homicides overall. (New York, notably, actually has one of the lowest homicide rates among all major U.S. cities, and is considered a success story in lowering violent crime.)
This brings us back to ASAP Rocky.
Trump’s public statements on the ASAP Rocky case — the rapper has been charged with assault and faces a maximum of two years in prison — have made international headlines. Trump volunteered to cover ASAP Rocky’s bail, though Sweden doesn’t have a bail system, and publicly asked Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven to intervene on the rapper’s behalf. Löfven refused to interfere in an ongoing criminal investigation, as is appropriate for the head of state to do.
Trump then even wrote that Sweden had “let down” the African American community because “I watched the tapes of ASAP Rocky, and he was being followed and harassed by troublemakers,” in reference to the alleged victim who was cleared of charges. He later added that the country needed to “focus on its real crime problem” — a thinly-veiled reference to immigrants and to the victim in the case, an immigrant from Afghanistan who arrived in Sweden in 2015, which did not escape the attention of either Swedes or Americans.
Trump’s supposed concern for the treatment of one rapper accused of a crime in Sweden rings hollow given the lack of any apparent concern on his part for the treatment of most African Americans accused of crimes in the United States, let alone for a U.S. legal system that has proved to be discriminatory against African Americans or for the multiple deaths of African Americans at the hands of American police. It assuredly rings more hollow given his repeated excoriations of the African American football players who knelt for the American national anthem to protest those deaths.
And there is more than a tinge of irony in hearing a president who has repeatedly tried to score political points by accusing noncitizens of profligately committing crimes in the U.S. from the very inception of his political campaign suddenly take up the defense of a noncitizen accused of committing a crime in Sweden. But that is likely the point: To get U.S. citizens to think about what is happening in Sweden and not what is happening in the U.S.
In large part, Trump’s efforts at influencing the ASAP Rocky case have been met with bemusement and indignation in Sweden, where Trump has historically low approval ratings for a sitting U.S. president; they certainly haven’t changed the course of the criminal justice system. Trump’s tweets however, have led to a great deal more media attention for the case, which is linked to a number of other issues currently in the news in both Sweden and the U.S. — namely policing, immigration and crime.
Trump’s supposed concern for ASAP Rocky fits neatly into his established pattern of weaponizing crime in Europe for domestic political gain, even if the stories he tells don’t fit the facts. If there are lots of gun-related homicides in the United States, he talks about stabbings in London. If he is trying to implement a ban on Muslims entering the United States, he talks about how Muslim immigrants are ruining Europe. If he wants to loosen gun control laws, he talks about how terrorists in Paris could have been stopped by gun-carrying rock fans. If he’s facing accusations of racism at home, he talks about the treatment of African American suspects in Sweden.
The effectiveness of Trump’s weaponization of crime in Europe with his base rests upon two key factors. First, a lack of knowledge on the part of his audience: Knowing that Sweden doesn’t have a system of bail, that the U.S. has more stabbings per capita than the U.K., or that France has a minuscule number of gun deaths compared to the U.S. would nullify Trump’s misleading statements before they spread. And, second, it relies upon accepting the mythology of a previously peaceful and homogenous Europe destroyed by immigration, which ignores Europe’s own bloody — and modern — history of ethnic cleansing and genocide, and the massive contribution of immigrants and religious minorities to European (and American) history.
Trump’s interest in ASAP Rocky isn’t about ASAP Rocky or justice in Sweden; it is about politics at home. It always was.