A Tale of Two Countries Why There Won't Be a German Trump
Seven decades after World War II, a leader like President Donald Trump would have almost no chance of political success in Berlin. But why? The answer lies in the unique historical, political, social and cultural stories of the United States and Germany -- and the tumultuous path they have taken over the last century.
Imagine the horror, the utter horror -- that Donald Trump wasn't the president of the United States, but instead the chancellor of Germany. That the German chancellor said he grabs women "by the pussy," that the chancellor's family tried to get dirt from the Russians for a smear campaign against his political opponent, that the chancellor were to write absurd, simple-minded or threatening tweets every day, that the chancellor were to announce Germany's withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement.
It seems unimaginable, right? But why? Why does the U.S. -- the political, moral and military leader of the Western world since the end of World War II -- now have a dangerous laughing stock, a man who has isolated his country, as its president? Why does Germany, a former pariah, now enjoy a more positive political standing than ever before?
What is it that made the rise of a man like Trump possible in his own country, but impossible here? It's worth making a comparison, taking a look at each society and political system, without shying away from clichés that can sometimes reveal the truth, and with the knowledge that every dominant movement also has its countermovement. If all goes well, it will provide an up-to-date portrait of Germany and its political state in the run-up to the federal election in September.
Politics emerges in the "realm of possiblity" that societies construct for themselves. What do people imagine? What kinds of leaders do they think are possible? The realm of possibility is a product of real experiences as well as that of visions, fantasies, stories and dreams. What's crucial is the height of the wall separating reality and dreams. If it is high, the potential space is small -- and vice versa.
An American film called "Miss Sloane," a portrait of an ice-cold lobbyist in Washington, is currently showing in German theaters. It's a powerful movie that will leave viewers with the impression that its depiction is, in principle, an accurate one. That the fight for majorities is carried out ruthlessly, often with lies used as weapons. The reality under Trump is being compared to "House of Cards," a series about a brutal politician who manipulates his way into the White House.
Ronald Reagan was an actor before he became a politician. Jesse Ventura was a professional wrestler, which is to say a showbiz star, before he became the governor of Minnesota. Arnold Schwarzenegger was an actor before he became the governor of California and now he is once again an actor. Donald Trump was the lead character in a reality show before he became president. These men moved from a pseudo reality into a political reality. The American wall is low, if it exists at all -- the worlds of reality and dreams flow into one another. The Hollywood dream factory is part of the truth, but it is an invented one. President Trump is the product of an enormous realm of possibility.
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There are also political lies in Germany, but not such an intense interdependence between fictional narratives and reality. Here, realism is a long-scorned and underdeveloped art form. Politics is considered too boring to produce grand narratives, a fact that keeps Germany's realm of possibility relatively small. Someone like Trump isn't imaginable because we haven't seen anything like him in a movie or on a TV screen. And then there's the fact that grand narratives, whether real or not, arise out of megalomania -- something that has been viewed with intense skepticism in Germany since 1945, with good reason.
Germany has a different concept of reality than the U.S., a clear separation between the spheres of dreams and politics, a high wall that makes political reality a bit more reliable and more serious.
The Pilgrims who sailed to American on the Mayflower from Britain are central to the U.S.'s founding myth, religious fanatics whose ethos still shapes the country to a certain degree, especially its belief in salvation. Even today, some people still believe that the One will come and make everything great again. Barack Obama was that One for the left while Trump plays the role for the right. Both invoke pathos and euphoria, and both seek to appeal to the mind and the soul. Politics in the U.S. offers grand promises: that the world can emerge anew if you participate, or at least if you select the right candidate.
By now, of course, Americans know that salvation on Earth will never happen. That realization has led some to withdraw, but for others, as in religion, it's not knowledge that matters, but faith. A person believes, is disappointed, but keeps on believing. The fundamental approach is one of optimism.
Germans once believed they had found a savior, but then he tried to destroy the world, and now their belief in salvation has vanished. Sociologist Helmut Schelsky found that there was a "skeptical generation" of Germans who took part in the war when they were very young and then went on to build up the Federal Republic of Germany. They rejected all grand ideas, their state religion became Karl Popper's "piecemeal social engineering," the politics of small measures: turn a screw here, carefully open a valve there, make sure not to create too much hope. That is Angela Merkel's fundamental approach.
There's a freak factor in politics. It can't be measured, but the freak factor expresses the likelihood that an outsider, a freak, a crazy person, an alien to the system, can prevail. It's related to the realm of possiblity, but also to the way politicians are recruited.
In the U.S., it's not only showbiz celebrities who stand good chances of coming to power, but also members of the country's political dynasties -- that is to say, the Kennedys, Bushes and Clintons. Conversely, the role of political parties is relatively small. Trump became the presidential candidate in the face of strong Republican opposition. The primaries are a kind of referendum. What counts is the connection candidates are able to establish with the voters -- at public appearances, and via the media and social networks. What matters is the money each of them raises, allowing them to communicate as much as possible. Those who have oodles of cash, who strike the chord of their era -- even if they are crazy -- can become president without belonging to the leadership circles of their parties.
In Germany, these kinds of careers are basically impossible. The parties have almost complete control over the recruitment of political staff. Those who want to move up the ranks must endure a hard slog through the party structures. Candidates are polished and schooled in the art of adaptation and compromise along the way. The biggest freak of the past decades was Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, whose fortunes waned almost as quickly as they had grown when he had to step down as Angela Merkel's defense minister in 2011 after it emerged that he had plagiarized parts of his Ph.D. thesis. A laughably tiny transgression when compared to Trump's consistent boorishness.
In the U.S., the individual may prevail, but in German politics it is the system that rules. This means that the circumstances in Washington change more starkly depending on who is in office. The governing system in Germany is more stable, uniform and enduring.
In his 1985 book "Amusing Ourselves to Death," media scholar Neil Postman wrote about the "talking hairdos." He claimed the future of politics belonged to them, because they are especially telegenic. It's as if he had foreseen Trump, the blondest of all talking hairdos. For Postman, "hairdo" was a metaphor not just for slickness, but for TV-ready beauty. In that sense, he didn't completely hit the mark.
Still, it is worth rereading Postman because he describes the damaging effect of American television -- the way it dumbs down the electorate and the effect that has on politics. Television presents politics as a TV format, and politicians in turn deliver politics in a TV format -- banal, exaggerated and gimmicky. It's logical, then, that a televisual creature like Trump can become president.
Postman wasn't yet familiar with Fox News, otherwise he would likely have predicted that a channel spouting right-wing populism would one day help catapult a right-wing populist into the White House. Trump and Fox are a perfect match.
In reading Postman, one gets the impression that German television still isn't as degenerate and efficacious as the American TV of the 1980s. The decisive difference, however, is that there is no truly powerful right-wing medium in Germany. The Axel Springer publishing house is as close as it gets, but even it is bound by a stipulation of founder Axel Springer that Germany's special friendship with Israel is unassailable, thus making any attack on the memory of Nazi crimes off-limits. Even Bild, Axel Springer's conservative tabloid, helps contain the right-wing radical margins, ensuring that Germany is a society with a broad center.
Therein also lies a problem that revealed itself during Germany's crisis year of 2016, which saw a backlash against the hundreds of thousands of refugees that had entered the country the previous year. Some Germans feel that their understanding of reality, their view, isn't represented in the media, and they feel shut out. Instead, they have turned to the internet, where political communication can take place without mediation from the media and the parties. At some point, that will create an opportunity in Germany for an individual, a freak or outsider, to turn him or herself into a political force independent of the system. It is here where the possibility arises, faint though it may still be, of a German Trump.
Land acquisition, which is to say the procurement of a piece of real estate, is the origin of the American economy. It represents a grand wager: the loss of a scalp at the hands of Comanchees or Mohicans measured against the possibility of getting rich. This gambler's economy has enjoyed widespread admiration ever since and its blueprint was later followed by the slave traders, the oil prospectors, the real estate sharks and the financial speculators, right up to the founders of the internet economy. The fact that these kinds of business dealings cannot be carried out without ruthlessness or even brutality is widely accepted and cloaked in myth. A real estate tycoon like Trump is not at the margins of society, he's at its core. Admiration is guaranteed.
Germans don't idealize the gambler -- they idealize the engineer. The founding myth of German capitalism isn't the acquisition of land but the ingenious products developed by Siemens, Krupp or Daimler. On two different occasions, those companies were more than happy to put themselves at the service of warmongers, even operating a murderous slave economy during the Nazi era.
In addition, the German capitalist -- almost even before such a creature came into existence -- brought forth the greatest of all anti-capitalists, Karl Marx, a man whose movement ultimately gave rise to social democracy. The works council, representing the interests of workers, took its place alongside the engineer. Together, they created West Germany's postwar economic miracle, which was more a project of the collective than of the individual.
A modest background is still considered to be a positive qualification for holding political office in Germany. Wealth and entrepreneurship are cause for suspicion. In this sense, Trump is the anti-German, despite his family's roots in Germany's Palatinate region.
Americans are used to the idea that the world can be remade every few years. After Johnson came Nixon; after Carter came Reagan. Such dramatic shifts are part of their political system since the majority, first-past-the-post voting system prevails there and you don't have the kind of coalition governments that are standard for the parliamentary systems common in Europe. After Obama came Trump -- a more dramatic shift is difficult to imagine.
The (West) German system encourages continuity above all. In the almost 70 years since the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, there has been only one dramatic shift. It came in 1998, when the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens, after years in the opposition, scored an election victory and formed a government. With that lone exception, at least one coalition party has always made it back into power with each election. Coalition governments are places where compromise and consensus thrive. The country seems to be forever governed by a grand coalition between the center-left SPD and Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) -- sometimes informally, at others formally. Germans seem to have a preference for social democratic political platforms coming from conservative chancellors.
The novel "A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara takes place in and around Broome Street in New York, a setting in which skin color, sexual orientation and family background are meaningless. Soon all become rich, but they are unhappy. It's hard to imagine a more different environment from the rural life that exists in large parts of the United States, with its many taboos and strict separation into right/wrong, good/bad, black/white. These milieus are so different they might as well be on different planets.
The contrasts could hardly be greater: The best universities alongside the ignorant creationists, who reject all scientific findings pertaining to evolution. The millionaire- and billionaire-factory in Silicon Valley, alongside massive homelessness in San Francisco. The relatively high risk of a black man being shot by a white police officer. The divisions are extreme. One-half of the country is so full of hatred for the other that many voters imposed Trump on themselves because they knew he was an even bigger imposition on the other half.
In Germany, this blind hatred isn't as widespread. East/West, rich/poor, these are also problems here. In particular, we are lacking equal opportunity. But the divisions aren't so big that hatred of others could catapult a man like Trump to the top of the government.
After World War II, the U.S. had to weather a double shock -- one positive, the other negative. The country was by far the strongest power in the West, given that the strength of the United Kingdom and France had been significantly diminished. But the strongest power in the West wasn't automatically the strongest power in the world anymore because despite the Soviet Union's tremendous losses, the war also turned it into a challenger.
A nuclear race began, which encouraged megalomania. The Americans believed they had to be the strongest to survive, and to conquer their fear, they had to assume they were indeed the strongest. Together with their allies, they ultimately won this race.
But after fear came doubt. Since the early 1990s, the United States has been the world's sole superpower, but that didn't make life great for everyone. People in other countries lived better lives, and that, many people thought, could only be possible at the expense of the Americans. A big country that doesn't necessarily need allies tends toward egotism and isolationism -- and the notion automatically arises that if one is being used by others, one would be better off alone. An additional reason for Trump.
Unfortunately, there is also evidence to back this theory in Germany. As it became larger and more powerful in Europe, egoistic ideas also developed -- though they were initially muted. But such ideas are not part of the country's DNA. Postwar Germany was not founded as an independent entity, but rather as a part of larger units -- as an appendage of the U.S., as a member of NATO and as a part of Europe. It was protected by alliances, pampered and controlled. It was too broken for egotism or megalomania. It was and is totally content to arrange itself with others, to find compromises and to view European interests, broadly speaking, as its own.
"Germany first" is not a slogan that could work well in Germany.
During the Cold War, morality was used as a weapon. The Americans deployed it extensively. Human rights, freedom and democracy became ammunition against the Soviet Union. The U.S. presented itself as a moral superpower in its own right because it viewed itself as having protected human rights, freedom and democracy since its founding. Doing so also helped advance its own interests and could be used as a constant reproach of the socialist world, as a counter to the claim that capitalist America allowed significant inequality.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the usefulness of this weapon faded and so too did the moral fervor previously embedded in American politics. The consequence was human rights violations in Guantanamo and in other torture centers. Morality is no longer a foundational element of American foreign policy. And this too helped make it possible to elect a man who has no moral framework whatsoever.
On this issue, Germany has no choice. After the Nazi era, the only possible foreign policy was one based on morality. Auschwitz became the cornerstone of German foreign policy, demanding that Germany be good in all possible areas -- which included extreme military restraint in addition to enthusiastic environmentalism. In principle, the goal has been to cause no further harm. The refugee crisis of autumn 2015 turned Germany into a new moral political superpower, albeit one that can only afford its pacifist inclinations because the Americans still provide Germany with security.
Taboos serve, among other things, to govern the interaction between genders, or the interaction with minorities. A subform of the taboo is political correctness, a concept meant to prevent some people from feeling held back or insulted and which is primarily cultivated in left-wing and liberal circles, particularly at universities in the U.S. There, people have to pay close attention to what they say and what they do, because every word and every action could be construed as a "microaggression." Even using the personal pronoun "her" for a person who looks like a woman might be considered an insult if that person doesn't identify as a woman.
On the other hand, the U.S. is a place where taboos are broken in especially drastic fashion, with a gigantic porn industry and the kind of aggressive, cowboy-like masculinity evidenced in Trump. Both are contigent on the other. The stronger the taboo, the more blatant is its violation, and vice versa. America lives with an extreme polarization, with the pendulum swinging this way and that. Those who voted for Trump thumbed their noses at taboos.
Who could emerge as a German Trump? There are no men like him in the German political world, nor are they prevalent in other areas of German life either. This aggressive, primitive archetype is no longer accepted here. The American masculinity myth stretches back to the cowboy, while the German equivalent is rooted in the soldier -- and the latter died in World War II.
There is no pendulum in Germany. It is widely accepted that the greatest possible German taboo is anything associated with Nazism. This taboo keeps polarities in check. If someone moves too far to the right, he or she comes too close to the Nazis -- a career-killing step. Some German universities have political correctness tendencies approaching the ones at American institutions, but they remain a small minority, though they can still make life hell for a professor.
All in all, however, Germany is still a comparatively relaxed country. The genders interact in a more or less comfortable manner. There's a bit of porn and also a bit of political correctness. The debate gently swings from here to there, to a central position, just like Angela Merkel. This makes for a pretty pleasant life.
One way of thinking about Trump is that Americans can take such a risk because they have faith in themselves and in their institutions -- because their democracy has an almost 250-year history that cannot be extinguished by a maximum of eight years under Donald Trump.
German democracy isn't even 70 years old, and it wasn't achieved by the Germans themselves, but rather imposed upon on them by the victors of World War II. The Christian Democrats used the imperative "no experiments" to campaign for Konrad Adenauer in the 1957 election. The phrase still fits. Because the Germans can't draw a great deal of confidence from their history, they vote for chancellors who they believe will provide stability above all else. Adenauer lasted 14 years, Kohl 16, Merkel 12 and possibly more. Those sound like the reigns of kings.
American democracy is closer to one of the fundamental ideas of the democratic system: that of unleashing power through constant change. The Germans, meanwhile, are still more concerned with restraint.
Compared to the United States, Germany is a calm, balanced entity, stable and centrist. That's precisely the goal that the authors of Germany's constitution had in mind and it's now possible for us to say they were successful. During the first two decades of its existance, the postwar Federal Republic of Germany achieved an economic miracle, and today it is also a political leader in the world. It has a solid foundation, it is cognizant of the obligations that stem from its history and it isn't afraid of boredom. That is what is expected from it and that is what has enabled it to build trust and create hope around the world. Only 72 years after the end of the war, that is nothing short of a political miracle.
The fact that Americans' soul and political mores could bring forth someone like Trump -- a man who is the product of megalomania, of the yearning for salvation, of violated taboos and of a rather slipshod grasp on reality that is shaped by Hollywood -- has frittered away the world's trust in the country, at least for the time being. But just as boredom has its virtues, so too do these qualities. They also dominate in Silicon Valley and are behind the global success of companies like Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon and Tesla.
Germany can't keep up with that. It still lives quite well off an old, now-disreputable idea: the combustion engine. But the new era is shaped by Silicon Valley inventions, by the dynamics of the crucial communications and biotechnology sectors.
That's why we, as Germans, should not exult about having a solid Merkel instead of an oafish Trump. Almost everything about him is worthy of rejection, but he was made possible by the tremendous forces the United States is capable of unleashing -- both positive and negative.
The world can be sure that, at some point, a responsible person will once again assume the presidency. Unfortunately, it will take much longer before Germany can inject dynamism into its economy. The political miracle is a nice thing to have for now, but our nation of splendorous boredom isn't particularly well-equipped for the future.