Working Papers in
Urban Language &
Trump, existential threats and
the banality of evil – Or why
sociolinguists should (re)read
Tommaso M. Milani
(University of Gothenburg, Umeå University,
and University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg)
Trump, existential threats and the banality of evil –
Or why sociolinguists should (re)read Hannah Arendt
Tommaso M. Milani
University of Gothenburg, Umeå University,
and University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
The aim of this paper is to offer a theoretical and empirical contribution to current
sociolinguistic discussions about “existential threats”, and their discursive construction in
everyday life. Theoretically, the paper argues for the importance of (re-)purposing some of the
ideas of Hannah Arendt, a key political scientist, who, however, has remained somewhat
neglected in sociolinguistic inquiry. Empirically such theoretical insights will be applied to
shed light on a set of text trajectories that begin with Donald Trump’s famous statement: “You
look at what happened last night in Sweden” at a rally in Florida in 2017, and ends with a
video circulated by the Swedish Moderate Party – Nya Moderaterna – in the context of the
2018 general elections campaign.
Ultimately, the argument I make in this paper is that Trump and the members of Nya
Moderaterna in Sweden are terrifyingly normal. Their rhetoric might not be truthful, but links
into a ‘truthiness’ built of elements that sound true, and, through a web of discursive devices
and intertextual links, creates the dystopian illusion of a truthful and coherent account of
society. As Arendt would say, each of these discursive elements is like a spore in a growing
fungus that might not have much depth, but is spreading quickly into the very centre of the
political debate in Sweden.
Over the last few years, there has been increasing interest in the topic of
(in)securitisation in a variety of disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities.
Within the study of language in society, the notion of “existential threat” has emerged
as a productive conceptual entry point through which to understand processes of
(in)securitisation in everyday life (see in particular Rampton, Charalambous and
Charalambous 2014; Rampton 2018). Against this backdrop, the aim of this paper is
to offer a theoretical and empirical contribution to current sociolinguistic discussions
about “existential threats”, and how these are discursively constructed in everyday
life. Theoretically, the paper argues for the importance of (re-)purposing some of the
ideas of Hannah Arendt, a key political scientist, who, however, has remain somewhat
neglected in sociolinguistic inquiry (see Wodak 2015 for an exception). Empirically
such theoretical insights will be applied to shed light on a set of text trajectories that
begin with Donald Trump’s rather famous statement: “You look at what happened
last night in Sweden” at a rally in Florida in 2017, and ends with a video circulated by
the Swedish Moderate Party – Nya Moderaterna – in the context of the 2018 general
More specifically, I draw upon Arendt’s concept of “the banality of evil” (1963) in
order to analyse the intertextual, spatial and temporal connections between Trump’s
question about an alleged terrorist attack in Sweden and an increased shift to the right
in a mainstream Swedish political party. Through an analysis of a corpus of online
media data, I illustrate how totalitarian propaganda is not relegated to the past.
Elements of it are a reality in the present, and are deeply linked to issues of
integration and migration.
Ultimately, the argument I make in this paper is that Trump and the members of Nya
Moderaterna in Sweden are terrifyingly normal. Their rhetoric might not be truthful,
but links into a “truthiness” built of elements that sound true, and, through a web of
discursive devices and intertextual links, creates the dystopian illusion of a truthful
and coherent account of society. As Arendt (2007) would say, each of these discursive
elements is like a spore in a growing fungus that might not have much depth, but is
spreading quickly into the very centre of the political debate in Sweden, a country that
has been resisting a shift to the right for a long time.
What has Arendt to do with Trump?
It is something of a truism that Trump is pervasive in everyday life. You switch on the
TV and he is there, you log onto Twitter, and someone has tweeted something that has
to do with Trump. However, my interest in Trump has to do with a tendency that I
observed within a group of well-educated, socially critical Facebook friends. They (or
better we) seem comfortable to articulate a particular discourse of accommodation
and rationalisation in response to the rise of figures such as Donald Trump. Perhaps
because it is hard to sustain volcanic levels of outrage every day on a platform that is
after all designed to serve as entertainment, this discourse constructs our latter-day
would-be autocrats as somehow outside of society. Perhaps because we fail to
apprehend the coherence of Trumpism and its related formations, we explain Trump
with the help of exceptionalising or lampooning discourses. And so he is described as
crazy, as a monster, as merely incredibly stupid. We seem to be guarding against
appreciating the extent to which he may be a coherent, and even familiar, part of what
it means to be a human being; someone we recognise as one of us (see however the
contributors to Wodak and Krzyzanowski 2017). Please do not think that I am a
Trump supporter; I am not, quite the contrary, but I argue that we should take his
rhetoric very seriously. This entails not treating him as if he were a temporary
aberrance, an exception in contemporary politics.
In order to understand Trump and its connections I would argue that we have much to
gain from a (re-)engagement with a theorist who has been influential in the social
sciences and humanities, but has been somewhat overlooked in the study of language
in society: Hannah Arendt. In this paper, I demonstrate how Arendt’s ideas may help
us make sense of what is happening in our times. They are also particularly apt in the
pursuit of a theoretically informed reflection that does not fall into the trap of
Among Arendt’s most important works is Eichmann in Jerusalem – A Report on the
Banality of Evil (1963), which is a collection of articles that Arendt wrote for the New
Yorker magazine in 1961-1962 to report on the trial of Nazi official Adolf Eichmann
in Israel. Arendt’s reflections on the trial generated a heated and polarised debate. Her
work was especially challenging to received senses of the correct attribution of
culpability to perpetrators and victims under a totalitarian regime, as well as to the
broader problem of the possibility of judgment and justice after the shoah.
I read Arendt’s famous elaboration of the supposed banality of the evil of Adolf
Eichmann as displayed at his trial in Jerusalem against her earlier and more
theoretically dense account of the origins of totalitarianism. Let us first consider this
“banality”. In her report on Eichmann’s trial, she provocatively concluded that there
was nothing monstrous or exceptional in the behaviour of the master logistician of the
The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the
many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and
terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral
standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the
atrocities put together, for it implied […] that this new type of criminal […]
commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him
to know or to feel that he is doing wrong (1963: 276, emphasis added)
This is a point that she expanded and clarified later in a letter to a detractor –
Gershom Scholem – who found her normalisation of Eichmann unacceptable:
It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never ‘radical’, that it is only extreme, and
that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and
lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the
surface. It is ‘thought-defying’, as I said, because thought tries to reach some
depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is
frustrated because there is nothing. That is its ‘banality’. (Arendt 2007: 471;
When Arendt argues that evil is never “radical” – i.e. rooted – she is opposing a
particular history of thought in the philosophical tradition that views evil as intrinsic
to human nature. Critics of Arendt such as Scholem read this as potentially excusing
Eichmann, or at least downplaying his responsibility for his actions. Others have
countered that Arendt is making a much subtler point: it is not that Eichmann is not
absolutely involved in evil; but the pursuit of this evil is not the result of some innate
impulse; it has “become institutionalized, depersonalized and mundane” as Simon
Swift (2008: 133) points out in a critical exegesis of Arendt’s thought.
With some historical distance, it is possible for us to appreciate Arendt’s (1963)
description of Eichmann as a mediocre petit bourgeois whose primary concern was to
make a career. His lack of intellectual depth was evidenced in the shallowness of his
language, which, as Arendt says, was ridden with clichés. The fact that he was not a
driving ideologue of Nazi Germany does not, however, make him any less culpable:
by virtue of being part of it he kept the machinery working smoothly.
If we agree with Arendt that evil is not rooted in human nature, but instead grows on
the surface, fungus-like in its institutionalised mundanity, then we also recognise that
its danger lies in its potential to have tremendous social impact without people
consciously driving a particular ideology. This raises the important question: Can we
use Arendt’s model as a diagnostic tool? Is there an Eichmann lurking in your home?
Is there an Eichmann among us? Can we as critical sociolinguists trace, expose and
ultimately break up what Arendt calls the “crystallised structure” of totalitarian ideas,
before it is too late?
I argue that a form of banal totalitarianism is spreading like a fungus, sneakily
scattering its spores within the very fabric of democracy, potentially moulding it from
within. And so, unlike Ruth Wodak, John Richardson and others, who have published
important work on far-right parties and movements (Wodak 2015; Richardson 2017),
I will focus in this paper on the political mainstream. This mainstream is for the
purposes of my argument represented by the Moderate Party of Sweden, a political
formation that has historically been part of the “centre” coalition in Swedish politics
with large numbers of middle and upper class voters. And because of my focus on
“mainstream”, in this paper, I consistently avoid using the notion of “populism”,
because no matter how we define it we reproduce a problematic distinction between
“the masses”, on the one hand, and an “elite”, on the other. Instead, I believe that
“banal totalitarianism” captures the fungal structure of evil, its fragmentation,
dispersion (across social configurations) and interconnectedness. I will give you a
glimpse of such fragmentation, dispersion and interconnectedness by focusing on a
specific trajectory of scale jumps, over very recent history, through which discourses
spread quickly in 2017 from Sweden to the USA, through a brief diversion to the UK,
and then back again to Sweden.
You look at what’s happening…
The first example I want to focus on is a speech delivered by Donald Trump at a rally
in Florida on 18th February 2017. Trump criticised European policy on refugees,
offering a list of places that had been hit by terrorists:
Trump: 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 like they’re having
problems they’d 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…we’ve allowed thousands and thousands of
people into our country, and there was no way to vet those people. There
was no documentation, there was no nothing. So we are going to keep our
This is a textbook example of what other discourse analysts have identified as one of
Trump’s favourite rhetorical strategies: repetition (see the contributors to Wodak and
Krzyzanowski 2017). As Barbara Johnstone has pointed out, repetition is a powerful
rhetorical device because it creates “rhetorical presence” through “the linguistic
foregrounding of an idea which can serve to make it persuasive even without logical
support” and “make[s] things believable by forcing them into the affective field of the
hearer and keeping them there” (1987: 208). The gist of Trump’s speech is that
Europe’s accepting of refugees leads to a decrease safety, and that therefore this is
something that should not be allowed to happen in the United States (“we are going to
keep our country safe’). While the references to Paris, Nice and Germany point to
factual events – the terrorist attacks of November 2015, July 2016, and December
2016, respectively – “what happened in Sweden last night” is not immediately
identifiable. Had anything happened in Sweden the night before? Actually, no, as we
shall shortly see.
In response to Trump, Swedish government spokesperson Catarina Axelsson told the
local news agency TT that Sweden would demand an explanation from the Trump
administration. Less diplomatically, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt,
Figure 1. Sweden? Terror attack? What has he been smoking? Questions abound
(Carl Bildt 18 February 2017)
Quite interestingly, in addressing the masses in Florida, Trump never explicitly used
the words “terror attacks”, but the textual association of Sweden with Nice, Paris, and
Germany, where actual terror attacks had happened, warranted Bildt’s uptake of
Trump’s speech. Of course we could simply dismiss Trump’s statement as risible
because it is based on a lie, possibly as a result of smoking marijuana, as Carl Bildt’s
question insinuates. Doing so, however, would distract us from the “crystallisation” of
banal totalitarianism, and its spreading like a fungus, which as Arendt points out,
strongly relies on the repetition, circulation and naturalisation of lies:
What distinguishes the totalitarian leaders and dictators is rather the simple-
minded single-minded purposefulness with which they choose those elements
from existing ideologies which are best fitted to become the fundaments of
another, entirely fictitious world. (Arendt 1968: 362; emphasis added)
What I am calling banal totalitarianism involves the careful selection of elements for
their discursive force in a new fiction. So why did Trump choose to represent Sweden
as playing such an important part in his fictitious world? Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a
White House spokesperson, later explained that Trump did not mean to suggest that a
particular attack had happened the night before, but rather was talking about crime in
general in Sweden (see Chan 2017). This was followed by Trump’s own clarification
on his favourite social media platform – Twitter:
Figure 2. My statement as to what’s happening in Sweden was in reference to a story
that was broadcast on @FoxNews concerning immigrants & Sweden. (Donald Trump
17 February 2017)
The manufacturing of truthiness
The reference is to an interview conducted by the Fox News host Tucker Carlson with
the filmmaker Ami Horowitz on Fox Channel. During that time, Ami Horowitz was
interviewed several times on Fox News, inter alia by the British-American economic
journalist Stuart Varney because of a reportage that Horowitz had done in Sweden
(see Appendix 1 for a transcript of the whole interview). This media exchange serves
as a textbook example of Labov and Waletzky’s (1997) model of the narrative
structure of storytelling, this time co-constructed between the interviewer and
interviewee. We have an Abstract in which Fox News host Stuart Varney gives a
summary of the story. This is followed by an Orientation, which Labov and Waletzy
describe as serving “to orient the listener to person, place, time, and behavioral
situation”, in this case, crime and supposed “no-go zones” in Sweden. Observe in
particular how “person, time, and behavioral situation” are presented as genuine
through two discursive strategies: (1) Through prima facie experience – Ami
Horowitz went there, saw with his own eyes, experienced them personally, and (2)
through reference to what an authoritative institution says: “the police said…” Like in
all good stories there is also a Complication, that is, the presentation of a problem
culminating in a crisis: the events initiated in the orientation somehow go wrong. Ami
Horowitz was actually there and was attacked. But there is Resolution: Ami Horowitz
gets away and can tell the story on TV. The story concludes with a Coda, which
returns audiences to the studio, drawing them back out of the world of the story into
the world of the storytelling event.
Unlike in the Labov and Waletzky’s structure, Evaluation, that is, the appraisal of the
narrated event, does not follow directly after complication, but happens throughout
the interview: (1) the newsworthiness of the story is built on incredulity (“no go zones
in Sweden?”; “I didn’t know…”; “I heard about them; the truth is that I actually
didn’t believe they are real”; “you are kidding?”; “We have not heard of it”; “Why are
we not getting the full story?”); (2) a negative evaluation is offered of the events in
Sweden: an impending doomsday is hinted at, and the spread of crime from “no go
zones” to the cities is described as happening inevitably and like a virus; (3) there are
strategies to intensify the sense of danger such as the visual representation of a
burning car; (4) there are also blaming strategies: the Swedish state is trying to “cover
up” the situation, and they are also “desperately covering up the ethnicity” of the
people involved; (5) there are patronising strategies – “Swedes are nice people”,
where nice is actually not a positive quality, but is a euphemism for naivety; (6) there
is evaluation through historical references: “The Swedes are not Vikings – the
Vikings are gone”, which implies then that things would be better if the Swedes
behaved more like Vikings; and finally (7) there is the moral crowning of the
narrator/hero: Ami is a “brave man and good man”. A compelling narrative has thus
been constructed. While the world it creates is entirely fictitious, the elements of the
fiction do however come from discourses that have a greater degree of reliability.
First of all, crime has increased in Sweden over the last twenty years, but not to the
degree that Tucker and Horowitz want their audience to believe. It should be
mentioned that Swedish statistics are “inflated” because all reported events are
recorded as crimes even if some of them are found not to have constituted criminal
offences after they are investigated. Moreover, while several offences of the same
kind against a single victim will be counted in some countries as a single crime, they
are counted separately in Swedish statistics. As the police authority is at pains to
explain on their official statistics website, increases in crimes such as rape are due to
two factors: (1) an increase in the proportion of events that are actually reported,
which may actually indicate an improvement in social mores around sexual violence;
and (2) shifting definitions in Swedish legislation of what is considered rape, to
broaden the category in the interests of greater protection for victims.
The second ‘truth’ in the fiction is about race: while Swedish institutions are not
trying to “cover up ethnicity”, it is true that it is illegal in Sweden to collect
information about ethnicity, race and/or minority status when reporting crime
statistics. This policy was instituted in order to avoid the drawing of facile causal
relations between behaviour and race/ethnicity. So while the decision aimed to protect
racial, ethnic and linguistic minorities from potential attacks aimed at them, the new
narrative cancels out these intentions.
The third ‘truth’ element, which cannot be seen in the transcript in Appendix 1 but is
reproduced in Figure 3 below, is the footage of a burning car showed during the
interview in order to visually represent unrest in Sweden. While the car was clearly
burning, it was not burning in Sweden. It is ‘real’ enough; it has just been placed in a
new context. I will return to the burning car in the context of another video that will
be presented below.
Figure 3. A burning car. In Sweden?
This kind of highly selective recontextualisation is also at the heart of my fourth
point, which is how the process of visual editing constructs the narrative that lies
behind Horowitz’s vision of Sweden. To understand how this works, let us consider a
very short extract from the documentary that Ami Horowitz made about migrants in
Horowitz: The Government gives enough to the immigrants?
Speaker 1: Yeah, everything is enough. There’s good work here.
Horowitz: Yeah, life is good better
Speaker 1: Yes, life is good better here
Speaker 2: They give me a lot, they give me a house, room, clothes, my school
Horowitz: All these things the Government pays for
The brief sequence of interactions between Horowitz and his interviewees creates the
image of migrants/refugees as exploiting the Swedish welfare system. The very
choice of a sequence of interviews, instead of a voice-over narration that may merely
assert a particular interpretation, is important to highlight here, as it creates the
illusion that the viewer has direct access to visual truth. In this way, the ideological
manufacturing of the video is obscured. Put simply, it is as if audiences were told:
look, meet these refugees! Hear what they say, and you can make up your own mind,
I am not influencing you, you can hear and see for yourself, can’t you?
There is one element, however, that disturbs Horowitz’s attempt at building a
coherent picture of the refugees, where the attempted narrative slips. In response to
the question whether the Government gives enough to migrants, the first interviewee
replies that life is better in Sweden because of work. It emerges here how migrants are
not leeching on the welfare system, but they are actually contributing to the Swedish
economy. This moment is but a fleeting incoherence. Viewers are quickly rushed to
the another interviewee who lists goods and benefits which the Swedish state seems to
be dispensing freely, in return for what is implied is to be a mixture of aggression and
The issue of the editing of the video was raised by the policemen who had been
interviewed by Horowitz. In the liberal daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter, they
distanced themselves from the way in which their answers have been used in the
We don’t stand behind it. It shocked us. He has edited the answers. We were
answering completely different questions in the interview. This is bad journalism.
Horowitz replied in an interview with Radio Sweden that: “As we say in America,
CYA (cover your ass), they have to cover their butts” (Radio Sweden 2017). At this
juncture, it is legitimate to ask ourselves: Did Ami Horowitz invent the “no go zones”
in Sweden? Interestingly, he did not. If one traces the textual history of the word in
relation to Sweden, one can see that the discourse originated with a report published
by the Swedish police at the end of 2014 about what they called “vulnerable areas”
(utsatta områden). Linguistically, it is important to observe that in Swedish utsatta is
a participle adjective that means “exposed”. In this context, it highlights how certain
neighbourhoods have been “exposed” to increased violence, criminality etc. Unlike
the expression “no go” that indicates a spatial characteristic of the area, the participle
form utsatta highlights that these neighbourhoods are the targets, rather than the
agents, of an action, process or phenomenon. The report was followed by an
influential op-ed article in the conservative national daily Svenska Dagbladet entitled
55 “no-go” zones in Sweden (Gudmunsson 2014). While it is true that the expression
“no-go” is indeed used in article, it should also be noted that it is put in scare quotes
to indicate the author’s distance from it, not only because it is an English expression
in an otherwise Swedish text, but also because, as the columnist cautioned
It is worth remembering that many so-called segregated areas haven’t lapsed into
lawlessness, and the greatest majority of people who live in segregation are
victims, rather than perpetrators. (Gudmunsson 2014).
This op-ed, however, took on a life of its own, circulating in the Western media and
portraying Sweden as a country in disarray. In an interview on Fox News in January
2015, a few weeks after the op-ed’s publication, Steve Emerson, a self-described
“expert on Islamist terrorism”, described parts of Europe as “totally Muslim where
non-Muslims just simply don’t go in” (see Sanchez 2015). According to Emerson,
these areas included parts of France, parts of London and the whole of Birmingham,
as well as parts of Germany and Sweden. He stated: “You basically have zones where
Shariah courts were set up, where Muslim density is very intense, where the police
don’t go in, and where it’s basically a separate country almost, a country within a
country” (see Mackey 2015).
Then UK Prime Minister David Cameron said he choked on his porridge when he
heard the claim, saying that Emerson “is clearly a complete idiot” (Holehouse 2015)
Here we can see once again how easy it is to dismiss these people as idiots. But, as I
will show you in the next section, by 2018 the “no go zone” rhetoric has become
institutionalised and normalised in Sweden where “No go zones” entered the
discourse of the Moderate Party’s electoral campaign in 2018.
No go zones: from Sweden to the USA and back again
For contextual purposes, it should be clarified that the Moderate Party of Sweden is
not a historically far-right wing party like for example the ones studied by Ruth
Wodak (2015) in her latest book The Politics of Fear. The Moderate Party of Sweden
has over the past twenty years been a solidly liberal, if by Swedish standards
conservative, political formation that supports free markets, personal freedom, EU
membership, and same-sex unions. The Moderate Party was in power between 2006
and 2014, and its leader Fredrik Reinfeldt gave a powerful speech on 16 August 2014
in the wake of the increase of asylum seekers in the country in which he appealed to
the Swedish people to “open their hearts”:
Show openness. Show tolerance when it is said that “there will be so many”, “it
will be trying”, “it will be difficult”. Show tolerance and show that you remember
we’ve done it before. We have seen people who have come from distress, and
escaped oppression, who have entered our society, learned the Swedish language,
found work, and now help to build a better and a free Sweden. (Reinfelt 2014)
By the end of 2017, however, the party rhetoric had shifted quite radically. During a
party conference in preparation for the parliamentary elections in 2018, the Moderate
Party, led by Ulf Kristersson, suggested: (1) introducing quotas for the maximum
number refugees that the EU should accept; (2) abolishing the possibility of applying
for asylum from within the EU; and (3) introducing a Swedish language and culture
test. Thus, within a period of only three years, the party moved from viewing migrants
and refugees as hard working, potentially Swedish speaking to considering the same
people a burden that needs to be coercively tested for its commitment to Swedish
linguistic and cultural assimilation.
Two Moderate Party slogans that appeared in the linguistic landscape of Stockholm in
2018 are contiguous with this rhetorical shift:
Figure 4. In Stockholm there shall only be go zones
Figure 5. The cops should be included
In the first slogan, the Swedish modal verb ska both marks futurity, and is the
equivalent of the English word ‘ought’, implying a strong level of commitment to
duty on the part of the speaker/writer. Obviously the slogan builds on the
presupposition that there are indeed some neighborhoods that are off-limit, i.e. the
idea that “no-go” zones actually do exist, and that the Moderate Party promises to
change this situation in the future. The second slogan is also interesting in its many
layers of references. On the level of content, it plays with a well-known slogan of the
Moderate Party’s archenemy – the Social Democrats: alla ska med (“everyone should
be included”). Yet it twists the Social Democratic plea for inclusion by replacing alla
“everyone” with “ayna”, a derogatory slang word for the police. The word comes
from the Turkish expression aynasiz, which means “those without mirror”, and refers
to the police lacking honour and consequently being ashamed of looking at
themselves in the mirror. Why Turkish? Ayna is one of the most well-known words in
the Swedish contemporary urban vernacular known as “Rinkeby Swedish” (see
Stroud 2004; Jonsson 2007; Milani 2010). And Rinkeby is one of the supposed “no go
zones” in Horowitz’s documentary. As a large body of scholarly work has
demonstrated (see e.g. Milani and Jonsson 2012), Rinkeby Swedish is spoken by
adolescents from many ethnic backgrounds, including some who identify, and are
viewed by others, as “ethnic Swedes”. Research has also demonstrated that usage of
Rinkeby Swedish is not limited to Swedish urban suburbs, but occurs in interactions
between adolescents across many social contexts. That being said, Rinkeby Swedish
continues to be associated by politicians and other commentators with “ethnic
otherness” – i.e. it’s “their” language – and to violence and urban segregation.
Against this backdrop, it is interesting to note that the slogan does not explicitly or
overtly refer to “no-go zones”. It suggests a place the police cannot go but ought to,
while invoking Rinkeby Swedish; this reference functions as a metapragmatic cue that
indexes Rinkeby both as place and as ‘deviant’ language variety. Language therefore
works here as a marker of authenticity – the “hood”, to use a parallel American
expression. However, such authenticity is paradoxically appropriated by a mainstream
political party in order to argue for increased police presence. So, on the one hand, as
some commentators have pointed out (Shakir 2018), the usage of “ayna” makes it
sound like the Moderate Party is “down with the kids”. But this is in bad faith,
especially considering that the party wants to introduce a Swedish language test for
both permanent residence permits and naturalisation. It is also in bad faith if we read
both slogans together. On the one hand, the police should be included, but, on the
other hand, the Moderate Party does not trust the Swedish police’s repeated
statements that there are no “no-go zones” in Sweden.
Once again, it is worth repeating Arendt’s words about the sheer purposefulness with
which elements from existing ideologies fitted together to become the fundaments of
another, entirely fictitious world. To form a new coherence, anything that does not fit
must be brushed aside. We can see this practice in action in the way that the Moderate
Party presents Sweden’s second largest city – Gothenburg – in a video originally
released in September 2017, but which went viral on social media in the context of
the general elections in 2018 (see Appendix 2 for a full transcript and translation of
While in the TV interview on Fox News Horowitz and Tucker co-constructed a
particular story, here we have an interesting example of a contemporary tale that is
told within a particular moral, historical, and political framing. The historical frame is
a useful starting point. The formulaic expression det var en gång, which is the
Swedish equivalent of “once upon time”, orients the tale temporally around a
mythical time in which Gothenburg was a “proud” city with a specific “character”.
Observe in particular the strategy of exceptionalism: “Nowhere else could one find
such a great atmosphere”, followed by the cautioning “Not because life was easy”.
Here the mythical incipit is corroborated visually by birds-eye views of the city,
which give away to a more realistic portrayal of the city’s working-class character
linked to the fishing and heavy industries – both Volvo and SKF headquarters and
assembly lines are based in Gothenburg. Of course, the mythical image of working-
class bliss erases the very long tradition of Trade Union struggle based in
Gothenburg, much of it against the Moderate Party and everything associated with it.
In fact, the municipality of Gothenburg has had one of the longest left-wing rules in
Sweden. Either way, myth reaches its climax at the time when “nothing felt
impossible” “but that was a long time ago”.
It is at this point the tale switches to the reality of the present: “people are shot dead”,
“cars are set on fire”, “cities have developed within the city”, and the “city is being
torn apart”, followed by the question “How did the front side of Sweden become a lair
for jihadis and criminal gangs?”, which is more of a rhetorical question than a genuine
request for information. It is quite obvious that the implied answer here is:
“immigration” not least because the linguistic message is coupled with the visual
representation of a burning car, which has become the icon of “no go zones”.
Figure 6. The burning car
In a context like Swedish mainstream politics where direct references to religion are
frowned upon, it is noteworthy that Islam is overtly thematised here in the mention of
jihad. In terms of narrative structure, the rhetorical question builds up to the climax of
the section about the present. “Enough is enough” marks a shift to inspiring
descriptions of what will be seen in the future if the Moderate Party has its way: more
employment, a reduced reliance on benefits, more police, more construction, less red
tape for industry. How this change will be achieved is left to the audiences to
speculate. Considering the party’s neoliberal inclination, one can only assume that
they will promote competition on the free market, lower taxes, and outsourcing.
However, there is also an implied dimension to the solution that is altogether more
sinister. The future is so bright in the video, well… it is “blonde”. Consider the visual
association of fair-haired kids with the message about a future city in which “young
families put down roots, and students stay on after graduation”, a future furthermore
“where we are one city again”. In a text where (1) the main assumption is that
immigration has led to fragmentation, and (2) fair-haired kids are visually represented
as the embodied “reproductive futurity” (Edelman 20014) of young families, it is not
completely unfounded to infer that “the future where we are one city again” and “the
best days that are yet to come” are those which do not feature any immigrants in it,
and yes “nobody is left out” provided that you are ethnically Swedish. The inclusion
of only one person who appears to be a migrant – and on investigation turns out to be
a Moderate Party politician – suggests that if you are not actually ethnically Swedish,
you need to be a small minority that blends in, perhaps preferably by being a member
of the Moderate Party.
Figure 7. “Young families put down roots, and students stay on after graduation”
The video generated a flurry of very heated reactions. Central to the negative reaction
was the image of the burning car: the state radio channel P3 revealed that is was
actually taken from a riot in Vancouver, Canada, after the local ice hockey club lost
the Stanley Cup against the US team Boston Bruins. Hampus Magnusson, the local
representative of the Moderate Party justified the usage of the video footage saying:
We have ordered this movie from our agency, and it is obvious that we cannot
light up cars ourselves. And nobody can deny that there have been cars burning,
so it does not change the credibility [of the film] in the least. (12 February 2018)
If the situation was so bad in Gothenburg, and there were burning cars, why would
one even suggest the possibility of lighting up cars themselves? As Arendt puts it,
Totalitarian propaganda thrives on escape from reality into fiction, from
coincidence into consistency… Before they seize power and establish a world
according to their doctrines, totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of
consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality
itself; in which, through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and
are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to
human beings and their expectations (1968: 50-51)
A lying world of consistency where “nobody can deny” this or that is the emerging
picture of the way that crime and “no-go” zones in Sweden are invented from what
seems like thin air. But in my opinion the burning car is a red herring that distracts
our attention from the far more problematic issue of the subtly Aryan grounds on
which the film rests, in which the future of unity is actually based on the implicit
promise of the recreation of racial and ethnic homogeneity. It is in tension with crime
and no-go zones that this future is constructed, and thus that we can see a banal
network of evil crystallising again. We need not search for it in the extreme far-right
wing parties, but in the very midst of mainstream politics.
To go back to how I began this paper: how can it be, as we reject and ridicule Trump,
representing him as a sick and ridiculous man outside of society, that some of his core
‘ideas’ (if you can call them that) become mainstream, and represent a new ‘normal’?
The more we push him away, the closer he seems to get to a position of hegemony.
Taking my cue from Arendt, I would like to suggest that it is in imagining that there is
some profound and radical dimension to human evil that needs to be pushed outside
of our account of the ‘normal’ society, that we miss the banality of its expansion.
Laughing at the fungus does not help stop it; calling Trump an idiot does not
substantially slow down the spread of this insidious discourse.
Rather, in analysing the textual circulation of Trumpism, we have much to gain from
remembering some of the ingredients, which led to totalitarian regimes in the Europe
in 1930s. Totalitarian propaganda is not something that may easily be relegated to the
past; elements of it are a reality in the present. And I hope I have demonstrated here
that it is fragmented, dispersed but interconnected: it is part of the texture of what we
call “free speech” and “democracy”.
To conclude, Trump, Horowitz and the members of the Moderate Party of Sweden are
terrifyingly normal. Their rhetoric might not be truthful, but it links into a ‘truthiness’
built of elements that sound true, and, through a web of discursive devices and
intertextual links, creates the illusion of truthful and coherent account of society. Each
of them is a spore in a growing fungus that might not have much depth, but is
spreading quickly into the very centre of a democratic country like Sweden. And it is
in this apparent normality that lies its terrifying character because as Arendt pointed
It is quite conceivable, and even within the realm of practical political
possibilities, that one fine day a highly organised and mechanised humanity will
conclude quite democratically – namely by majority decision – that for humanity
as a whole it would be better to liquidate certain parts thereof (Arendt 1968: 298-
While we have not yet reached this extreme scenario, the spores of banal
totalitarianism are already presenting an existential threat to the very nature of what
we call democracy.
I would like to thank Scott Burnett (Lund University) for editing this paper and for translating the
excerpt in Appendix 2. I am also particularly grateful to Stephen Turton (University of Oxford) for
transcribing the interview reproduced in Appendix 1. This paper was originally presented as a keynote
address at the conference Words, Images and Ideologies of Populism 3.0, which took place at
Università degli Studi di Napoli l’Orientale (23-24 February 2018); it was also delivered as part of the
Cross-London Sociolinguistic Seminar on Language & the identification of existential threats at Queen
Mary University of London 26 October 2018. I am indebted to the Giuseppe Balirano and Erez Levon
who organised the two events, respectively, and to audiences for their comments and critique. All
remaining errors are my own.
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Varney: Our next guest has just returned from a trip to Europe. He went over there
because he wanted to see the migrant crisis firsthand for himself. He went to no-go
zones in Sweden—I didn’t think there were such places, but there are—no-go zones
where the police do not go. While he was there, he was jumped by five apparently
Islamic thugs. The filmmaker Ami Horowitz is the man who went over there, and he
joins us right now. First of all, I didn’t know there was any such thing as a no-go zone
in a place like Stockholm, Sweden. There is?
Horowitz: I, I heard about them. The truth is I didn’t actually believe they were real,
Horowitz: Figured this is probably some kind of propaganda.
Horowitz: I went there, met with the police officers, they said, ‘When we’re pursuing
a suspect, and they cross that threshold’—and there’s about thirty or forty of them in
Sweden—they will not pursue. They will simply not pursue.
Varney: There are thirty or forty no-go zones in Swedish towns and cities?
Varney: Thirty to forty of ’em?
Horowitz: That’s right.
Varney: Did you say that there were guns being used in these no-go zones?
Horowitz: Th-th-they used to have, about five years ago, the police officers who I met
with would say, they’d have an incident of gun violence, let’s say, once a month, once
every few months. Every day there’s gun violence going on. And it’s not simply
staying—here’s the problem, it’s not simply staying in these enclaves, which, by the
way, they say are states within states. Swedish law doesn’t apply in these places.
What they do is, they’re now coming out, and the rape—it’s become the rape capital
Varney: You’re kidding.
Horowitz: No. I kid you not.
Varney: But we know nothing about this. Well, well, we’ve not heard of it.
Horowitz: That’s my job, Stuart. That’s what I do for a living, I warn you guys.
Varney: Yeah, I know, but we’ve not heard of this. I mean, okay, now you went into
one of the no-go zones.
Horowitz: I did.
Varney: Right? And you went in—now, were you wearing your yarmulke?
Horowitz: I wasn’t.
Varney: Did they know that you were Jewish?
Horowitz: They did not know I was Jewish. My nose is slightly larger than normal,
but it was not exactly—
Varney: No, no, no, no, don’t get into that. But you walked in with a camera crew?
Varney: That identified you as an outsider?
Varney: They jumped you? Tell me.
Horowitz: Yeah, they said, ‘You guys have to leave right now.’ They gave us a little
bit of a warning. My crew, they’re smart, they took off, and I just said, listen, I just
tried to explain what I was gonna do, and that was it, five guys.
Varney: They jumped you?
Varney: Beat you up?
Horowitz: Pretty good, yeah. Beat pretty good.
Varney: Uh, and what was the response of the Swedish police?
Horowitz: The police said, ‘Listen, you can stay here for, you know, a month or two,
and you can go through the system, but we’re not going there to find those guys, and
it’s, it’s gonna end up being pointless.
Varney: Now, h-here in America, uh, we’re told, frequently told, that everything’s
going just fine in Europe. We know there are isolated incidents of culture clashes, and
we, we know about that, but we did not know that there were thirty or forty no-go
zones in a place like Sweden. What’s going on? Why are we not getting the full story?
Horowitz: Well, first of all, Sweden has done a phenomenal job of trying to cover it
up. So, for example, there were a series of music festivals in Sweden, and there were
these gang rapes that went all across these music festivals. They specifically tried to
hide the attacks themselves, but they couldn’t, ’cause there were just so many victims.
It wasn’t dissimilar to what happened on New Year’s Eve in Germany.
Varney: In Cologne? Oh, yes, ah, right.
[Off-screen presenter: Cologne, yeah.]
Horowitz: Exactly. Same thing, where the government was specifically trying to
cover it up, and more than that, what they were desperately trying to do was cover up
the ethnicity of the people making the attacks.
Horowitz: Because, they’re pro—
Varney: They know they’ve got a problem.
Varney: And they know they can’t do a thing about it.
Horowitz: They’re doubling down. They’re bringing in as many migrants as they
possibly can to Sweden.
Varney: But what do the Swedes think about this? Good Lord.
Horowitz: The Swedes are—they’re, they’re, they’re not—they’re, they’re, they’re
not Vikings. Those Vi—the Vikings are gone. They’re, they’re a sweet people. They
wanna help. And they—if you bring up the ethnicity of any of these attackers, the first
thing they say to you is you’re a racist. You’re a racist to bring it up.
Horowitz: That’s the problem you’re dealing with.
Varney: This is incredible. This is incredible. I mean, I’m, I’m shocked by this. Now,
you took video, I take it?
Horowitz: Of course, yeah.
Varney: And you’re, you’re organizing it, right?
Varney: And you’re gonna make a, is it a documentary you’re making?
Horowitz: It’s like a short, uh, eight-minute video of [XXXX]
Varney: When you’ve done it, can we see some of it?
Horowitz: I think we could make an arrangement.
[Off-screen presenter: (Laughs.)]
Varney: If you could—(laughs) thank you very much indeed, we’d like to see that.
[Off-screen presenter: Yeah, we would.]
Varney: Uh, Ami Horowitz, you’re a brave man and a good man, and we wanna see
that video, and you can come back any time you like.
Horowitz: Ah, thanks.
Varney: Yeah, yeah, right. But, but thank you. Seriously, good stuff. Thank you, sir.
Där var en gång en stolt stad
There once was a proud city
Med en alldeles egen karaktär
With a character all of its own
Ingen annanstans fanns en så god
Nowhere else could one find such a great
Det berodde inte på något överflöd
This wasn’t because of abundance
Det här var en stad där man strävade och
This was a city where people strove and
Där man gjorde rätt för sig
Where people did the right thing
Där var hårt arbete, tung industri
There was hard work and heavy industry
Men det gav resultat en känsla av
But they resulted in a sense of
För varje kullager, varje bil, och varje
fartyg som lämnade hamnen stärktes
With every ball bearing, car, or ship that
left the harbour, the community was
Inget kändes omöjligt
Nothing felt impossible
Inte ens att spela in UEFA cupen två
Not even making it into the UEFA
Champions League twice
Det rullade på bra för stan
Things were going well for the city
Men det var längesen nu
But that was a long time ago
Människor skjuts ihjäl
People are shot dead
Bilar sätts i brand
Cars are set on fire
Det uppstod städer i staden, och
Göteborg slits isär
Other cities have developed within the
city, and Gothenburg is being torn apart
Hur blev Sveriges framsida ett tillhåll
för jihadister och kriminella gäng?
How did the front side of Sweden become
a lair for jihadis and criminal gangs?
How did the face of Sweden become a lair
for jihadis and gangsters?
Nu räcker det
Enough is enough
Vi måste till en förändring
We need change
Om alla arbetar hårt och är stolta över att
If everybody works hard and is proud to
vara Göteborgare då kan framtiden blir
be a Gothenburger, we could have a
Låt oss bli fler som går på jobbet
Let more of us be in employment
Och färre på bidrag
And fewer of us be on benefits
Låt oss möta fler poliser
Let’s see more police
Och färre vapen på gatorna
And fewer weapons on the streets
Låt oss se fler byggkranar
Let’s see more construction cranes
Och färre överklagande
And fewer administrative delays
And less red tape
I en stolt tradition, vi kan få en lysande
In a proud tradition, we can once again
look forward to a bright future
Där barnfamiljer slår rot och unga stanna
kvar efter sin utbildning
Where young families put down roots, and
students stay on after graduation
Där entreprenörer startar nytt och
etablerade företag bygger huvudkontor
Where entrepreneurs start new businesses,
and established ones build new
Där Göteborg växer och fler välja bli
Where Gothenburg grows, and more
people choose to be Gothenburgers
En framtid där vi är en stad igen
A future where we are one city again
En stad där vi vågar stå upp for
värderingar som är värda att bevara
A city where we dare to stand up for
values that are worth preserving
Ett samhälle där rättsstaten aldrig backar
A society where the rule of law never
Eller lämnar någon utanför
And nobody is left out
Vår bästa tiden har inte varit
Our best days are yet to come
Tillsammans bygger vi Göteborg starkt
Together, we will build a strong