A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 153

Paging Dr. fall guy: How Trump missed a blame-game opportunity.

Monday, September 28

Before he co-wrote the legendary Martin Beck series of Swedish crime novels, Per Wahloo penned some futuristic dystopian books, including one that offers clues to how Trump might have played the pandemic differently, and to his advantage. 

In Wahloo’s 1968 book The Steel Spring, a chief inspector of police travels away from his unnamed homeland in order to have a necessary kidney transplant. Three months later, after recovering from the operation, he attempts to go back and he’s told he cannot: all airports in his homeland are closed and all communications between it and the outside world have been cut off. A national election has been postponed due to “serious disturbances” including riots that provoked police and army intervention. Now, on top of all that, it seems likely that there’s some kind of epidemic raging, and everything has been shut down.

Doesn’t some of this sound like what we’re experiencing—or what we fear we might experience in the weeks to come?

Ministers of a government-in-exile give the policeman an assignment: sneak into their home country and find out just what the hell is going on.

This he does, and what he finds remains puzzling, at least for a while. The principal city is largely depopulated. The only authorities seem to be medical functionaries, tooling around in ambulances. He makes his way to his apartment, and later to his office, where he finds suspicious but official-seeming notices declaring that, due to the epidemic, meetings of more than three persons are not permitted. Later notices announce a “total curfew.” 

When he encounters a few, self-isolating citizens, they fear him. They attempt to barricade themselves in their apartments. They seem more wary of the authorities than they do of the epidemic.

The Steel Spring is not a great book—it’s far from matching the level of excellence set by the Martin Beck series. About halfway through, the volume begins to seem padded—or maybe the plot is just overstuffed.

But the reader’s suspicion that perhaps there was no epidemic—that it was all a deception meant to cover up a political takeover—is dispelled. There really is an epidemic. AND, there has been a political takeover as well—a takeover by doctors!!

With its persistent betrayal of working-class voters in favor of big business, the social-democratic political establishment has discredited itself. About the only authority left with any credibility is the medical establishment—and boy, do they know it. Now, with their dictatorial response to the epidemic, the doctors have likewise discredited themselves.

So here, at long last, is my point: Trump should have just deferred to the medical authorities. Then, when their methods became too heavy-handed or their pursuit of a COVID-19 cure took too long, he could blame them. Hey, I let these guys—Fauci and the witch doctors—take charge, he could say. And they failed us!

As we know all too well, Trump loves blaming—and firing—other people.

But he didn’t do that. Instead, insisting that he was in command, he regularly issued wild, fantasy cures and predictions: The sickness will magically disappear. Drink bleach! Shine a light in the body. Hydroxychloroquine is a miracle cure. Very soon, there will be a vaccine. 

Will Trump pay the penalty on election day? Maybe. As he often says, we’ll see what happens.

Dinner: turkey chili and a lettuce and radishes salad.

Entertainment: Episode three of Ripper Street on Britbox, followed by more episodes of Borgen on Netflix. 

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 103

Swedish writers Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.

Saturday, June 27

“ ‘Justifiable homicide,’ ” said Allwright. “How do you say that in Swedish?”
“It’s untranslatable,” said Martin Beck.
“There is no such concept,” Kollberg said.
“You’re wrong about that,” Allwright said, and laughed. “They’ve got it in the States, believe you me. Just let a policeman shoot somebody, and it’s always ‘justifiable homicide.’ Legitimate murder, or whatever we’d call it in Swedish. It happens every day.”

—Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, Polismordaren  (1974)

So some Europeans have been on to us, with our peculiar institutions, for 40-odd years. But who are the Swedes, with their increasingly popular and very bloody “Scandi noir” fiction, to preach?

In cinematic depictions, police activity in Sweden, Denmark, or Norway is often marked by squads of black uniformed, Kevlar-padded, automatic-weaponed cops closing in on suspected evildoers. In such fiction, the contrast between the heavily armed Scandi cops and often unarmed Brits like Inspector Lewis or Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope is very striking. Has Sweden become more violent, and more heavily policed, since the 1970s?

In an article on Sweden from two years back, Politico reported that “Shootings in the country have become so common that they don’t make top headlines anymore, unless they are spectacular or lead to fatalities.” Norwegians disparage their trigger-happy neighbor, commonly using the phrase “Swedish conditions” to describe crime and social unrest. Crime is closely linked to Sweden’s failure to integrate the immigrants it has allowed, more per capita than any other EU country. Immigrants now make up a quarter of the Swedish population.

Denmark, in contrast, has been noticeably unwelcoming to immigrants. It is one of six Schengen-area countries that tightened its borders, contrary to EU protocol, and has deported lots of asylum-seekers and would-be immigrants. In 2018, its government even went so far as to begin moving undesired immigrants to a remote uninhabited island once used for contagious animals.

That country’s admirable social contract seems to rest upon the fact of a less diverse population. What American wouldn’t envy the Danes’ benefits as summarized in The New York Times: “free health care, free education from kindergarten through college, subsidized high-quality preschool, a very strong social safety net and very low levels of poverty, homelessness, crime and inequality”? But must such goodies come at the cost of ethnic diversity?

Denmark has also been much more effective in fighting the pandemic than Sweden. A combination of lots of testing and government subsidies to keep employees on payrolls has meant a COVID-19 death rate that’s less than one-third of Sweden’s. The pandemic continues in Sweden, which never closed its schools or restaurants and has had five times as many deaths as its Scandi neighbors combined. Recently, Denmark, Norway, and Finland all closed their borders to Swedes, as did the Netherlands and Cyprus. Greece requires visiting Swedes to produce a health certificate.

So what’s my point in all this? Sweden, unlike its neighbors, seems to be evolving in the direction of the U.S.: more crime accompanied by fewer restrictions on the population and on the economy—all at the cost of placing people at greater risk.

The authors of the Martin Beck detective novels, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, were already unhappy with the direction of Sweden in the 1960s and ‘70s. They spoke of their Social Democratic government’s “anti-humanitarian cynicism” partially disguised by its proclaimed goal of A More Compassionate Society. Today, they would likely be even more disenchanted.

Dinner: leftover black beans and rice, a lettuce salad with cucumber, radish, and avocado.

Entertainment: One episode of Netflix’ German series Dark–which we deemed too weird and supernaturally oriented. Then an episode of the Margaret Atwood adaptation Alias Grace, which is terrific. We paid for but were unable to load a streaming video from the Film Forum, Jean-Pierre Melville’s When You Read This Letter. Poor streaming reception has led us to cancel our subscription to Acorn. Both Mhz and Britbox have almost no new shows, so they may be next.