Angela Merkel has no lack of experience in dealing with egocentric men. The chancellor has known Russian President Vladimir Putin for years and she speaks regularly with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the phone.
After the surprising victory of self-made politician Donald Trump in the US presidential elections, another member of this species will now be added to the group. No wonder, then, that the German chancellor wanted to call the new US president-elect as quickly as possible on Wednesday.
The only problem was that no one in the German government had a number to call. It was only after the Chancellery in Berlin requested assistance from the German Embassy in Washington that they were able to reach a contact close to Trump.
The election victory of Trump, literally the embodiment of the new wave of angry voters, creates fresh challenges for the German political elite, not just when it comes to the phone directory. Most leading politicians among both the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) had been convinced that Democratic rival Hillary Clinton would prevail in the election. Now they are all facing the same difficult question. How do you react when the incoming occupant of the most powerful position in the Western world sees himself as a populist and is threatening to end traditional Western alliances?
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who recently branded Trump a "hate preacher," has said he is preparing for "difficult times." The chancellor herself also reminded the president-elect that "democracy, freedom, respect for the law and for human dignity, regardless of ancestry, skin color, religion, gender and sexual orientation" are all values that must be defended -- the very ones that the Republican candidate more or less openly questioned during his campaign.
Trump's triumph raises questions that a postwar German government has never before faced. Will the United States now withdraw from its role as the leading Western power? Will Trump close ranks with autocratic leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin? Will the next US president become the leader of a new international movement that opposes cosmopolitanism, freedom of expression and the principles of parliamentarian democracy?
These are questions that no one can answer at this point. But one thing is certain: Trump means the end of normality in German politics.
The challenge could not be greater. After all, populists are gaining ground in Europe at the moment as well. In many EU countries, they are already well on their way to becoming the strongest political force. Two EU countries already have populist prime ministers and a series of elections and referenda in the coming months could further strengthen them. Little wonder, then, that Hungary's national-conservative prime minister, Viktor Orbán, celebrated the outcome of the US election as "good news" and that Frauke Petry, head of Germany's right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party, is crowing about a "political turning point."
No Answer to the Populist Threat
What is weighing even heavier at the moment is that the political establishment in Europe still hasn't found an answer to the populist threat. In Brussels, EU leaders are sticking to their "more Europe" mantra, even as pronounced anti-EU sentiment is growing back in their home countries.
In Berlin, meanwhile, the parties in Merkel's coalition government are struggling to find the right recipes to combat the AfD's rise. Leaders with Merkel's CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), are divided over whether they should continue to pursue their path of modernization or whether they should reemphasize their more traditional conservative roots. On the left, the Social Democrats have looked on with dismay as right-wing populists have sought to lure away their traditional party base, the working class, in a phenomenon similar to what has taken place in the US.
These developments make it all the more essential for leading German politicians to have a clear view of what the next US president might do. Will Trump join the line-up of populist leaders chipping away at the principles of democracy and rule of law the way Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of Poland's governing Law and Justice party, is doing? Or will things not be that bad, as those who have faith in the strength of the American system of democracy, which has existed for hundreds of years and contains numerous checks and balances, believe?
The problem at the moment is that nobody knows. In the past, governments in the democratic West has at least a broad idea of what to expect following significant elections on either side of the Atlantic. Established contacts between conservative or left-leaning politicians on the two continents guaranteed as much.
But now a self-avowed political outsider is taking the helm, and he's an unknown quantity. Suddenly, the usual channels, personal relations and institutional-level contacts -- in other words, the entire network of German-American relations -- are worth nothing. Prior to the election, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen inquired within her ministry if any officials or military leaders had contact with Trump or anyone close to him. Nobody did.
The same is true elsewhere. When Frank-Walter Steinmeier appeared before the Foreign Affairs Committee in parliament on Wednesday, he was flooded with questions from MPs. What does Trump's victory mean for Germany? How will it transform German foreign policy? But Steinmeier doesn't know either.
No Reliable Contacts with Trump Camps
Despite several efforts, Steinmeier's diplomats haven't succeeded in establishing reliable contacts within the Trump camp. Senior Foreign Ministry official Markus Ederer did meet with Trump advisor Sam Clovis in April. At the time, the retired Air Force colonel sought to convince Ederer there was no reason to fear a Trump victory. But when Ederer pressed for details, the Iowa Republican couldn't provide them. Peter Witting, Germany's ambassador to the United States, had a similar experience in Washington when he met with Trump's stepson Jared Kushner in the spring.
"Not even Henry Kissinger could help us," Steinmeier told the Foreign Affairs Committee. Kissinger met with Trump in May. "Trump appears to view foreign policy largely from a domestic perspective," one source in the Chancellery says.
As such, Berlin is aware that hopes Trump will quickly forget his campaign pledges once he moves into the White House could ultimately prove illusory. And it hardly matters which of his ludicrous plans he begins implementing after taking the January oath of office: The mere fact that a self-professed opponent of immigrants and globalization like Trump could become president is likely to exacerbate Europe's populism problem.
For many in Brussels, Trump's election reminded them of the morning of June 24, the day after Britain voted for Brexit. Then, too, politicians had assumed the vote would turn out differently and then too, the the EU establishment remained committed to business as usual.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz, for example, sees Trump's election as a wake-up call for deeper European integration. "It should be clear to everyone that the refugee crisis, fighting terrorism or any international conflicts can only be solved through a joint European approach," says Schulz. Elmar Brok, an influential member of the European Parliament with the conservative CDU, wants to use his party's next conference in Germany to promote efforts pushing for a common EU foreign and security policy -- in part as a reaction to potential new external threats. "Josef Stalin was the first unifier of Europe," he says. "In a certain sense, Trump has the opportunity to be the second."
Strong Response from Europe Unlikely
This Sunday, the foreign ministers of the EU plan to meet at a hastily convened dinner in Brussels to discuss the consequences of the US election. Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn wants to probe other countries to see how truly committed they are to the European Union. "How do you feel about the EU?" he intends to ask.
Still, it is highly unlikely that politicians in Brussels are going to agree to any ambitious roadmap for European unification. Already, populists participate in the governments of several Central and Eastern European countries. Given that many important European Union decisions must be taken unanimously, their presence is a significant stumbling block.
Besides, Europe is already facing a number of other important decisions. In December, Italy's center-left, social democratic prime minister, Matteo Renzi, must hold a referendum on constitutional reform in the country that could cost him his job. Austria will also elect a new president that month and there's a good chance that Norbert Hofer, the candidate for the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), will win. A few months later, Marine La Pen will battle to become president of France. It's considered highly unlikely that the head of the national-conservative Front National will get elected, but if that did happen, EU Parliament President Schulz has predicted to close confidants, "It would be the end of the EU."
'Misogynists and Xenophobes Feel Emboldened'
Members of the European Parliament consider it a foregone conclusion that Trump's election will put wind in the sails of populists in Europe who are already gaining ground. "Of course misogynists and xenophobes all across Europe feel emboldened by an election victor who plays the same tune as they do," says Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a foreign policy expert in the European Parliament with the business-friendly Free Democrats. And Donald Tusk, the president of the powerful European Council, which represents the interests of the EU leaders, even believes that the European political order could be in danger." The events of recent months and days should be seen by all those who believe in liberal democracy as a warning signal," he says.
The problem is that this message isn't getting across to people in Europe right now. What counts inside the biotope of Brussels bureaucrats is facts and legalese -- regulations on equity capital quotas or environmentally sound design -- but these aren't the things that draw people closer to this union of nations. And the attempt by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to interpret his office as one of EU political leadership is perceived even in EU circles as being more of a threat than a reality.
What's needed right now is for the leaders and heads of states of the EU member states themselves to defend European integration. But out of fear of Le Pen and her ilk, political leaders are currently more likely to emulate the populists than to firmly resist them. When Italian Prime Minister Renzi, for example, spoke out last week against the stability and growth pact and its austerity measures, he said: "We are sick of doing what Brussels demands of us. The time of the diktat has come to an end." Populist politicians across the EU us exactly the same vocabulary.
The EU Is Losing Ground
The result is that Europe is losing its proponents and many people no longer see the EU as an answer to globalization but as part of the problem. "Some people have come to think that the institution of European has nothing to do with them," Juncker lamented in a speech in Berlin on Wednesday.
The EU is no longer succeeding in developing a common vision for the community of nations. Meanwhile, the populists are in the process of developing a competing network across Europe as a counter to the EU. In early summer, Petry had a meet-and-greet dinner with Le Pen, and they reportedly got along swimmingly. Petry's AfD party has already developed close ties with Austria's FPÖ, and Petry and FPÖ head Heinz-Christian Strache met in June on the Zugspitze, Germany's highest peak, with numerous TV reporters in tow.
German Populists Have a New Hero: Donald Trump
As of Wednesday, European populists may now feel they have a new ally in the next US president. "The corrupt establishment is being punished by voters step-by-step and voted out of a number of decision-making roles," Strache wrote jubilantly after the election on Facebook. And Nigel Farage, head of Britain's anti-EU UKIP party, said: "The political revolution of 2016 is that in two massive campaigns the underdogs beat the establishment. We did it in Brexit and Trump did it last night in the USA."
So it's no surprise that populists in Germany also feel their fortunes are rising. Previously, the standard approach within the AfD was to adopt a negative view of America and its president. But now, German populists have found a new hero: Donald Trump.
That could be seen recently at Berlin's Halong Hotel, located in a Vietnamese commerce and cultural center in the city. No other hotel in the German capital had been willing to host a conference organized by the far-right extremist Compact Magazine, which seeks to attract readers with covers like "CIA Agent Bin Laden" or "Heil Hillary!"
A New Populist Figurehead
Four days prior to the US election, the American billionaire was cited there as a new figurehead for the movement. "Trump for President," shouted Lutz Bachmann, the front man for Pegida, the anti-Muslim group that has been organizing across Germany in recent years. Martin Sellner, a 27-year-old activist with Austria's nationalistic Identitarian Movement, also attended, telling the crowd, "I was a Trump fan from the very beginning."
The audience covered the full spectrum of the far-right milieu, with AfD supporters, followers of the racist Identitarian movement and Pegida (which translates as Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) activists. All were united in their abhorrence of the chancellor and her refugee policies and in their certainty that Trump would make a great president of the United States. He is a man who will "rattle the entire structures of Atlanticism," Compact Editor-in-Chief Jürgen Elsässer told the crowd.
Now that it is clear that half of American voters share that view, German right-wingers could hardly be happier. "We have to take advantage of this international tailwind," Elsässer wrote in his blog, and he called for Merkel to be toppled "before the next parliamentary election." AfD head Petry says she's hoping for the "end of political correctness." To André Poggenburg, head of the AfD's state chapter in Saxony-Anhalt, Trump proves it is "still possible to prevail despite headwinds from the establishment, despite opposition and malice from all sides." The AfD official said he believed his party would succeed in winning 25 percent of vote in national elections in 2017.
AfD opponents in Merkel's government coalition in Berlin think that figure is exaggerated. But after this week, they too no longer have much faith in traditional polls.
With Trump's victory, the fragile state of Europe and an ongoing refugee debate, both Merkel's conservatives and the Social Democrats urgently need to develop a strategy for dealing with the challenge of populism. It is a debate that began in this country long before Trump's ascent. But his victory lends it new urgency.
It is being debated with particular fervor inside the conservative CDU and CSU parties. On the face of it, the long-simmering dispute between the leaders of the two parties has been about Merkel's decision to take in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. Deeper down, though, it's a question of the fundamental course the conservatives should take.
Merkel Would Rather Live with AfD Than Go Right
CSU leader Horst Seehofer believes Merkel has steered the CDU too far to the center, thus creating a vacuum to the right for the populist AfD to fill. He wants to combat right-wing populism with what you might call right-wing populism light. The CSU head believes in the idea of a German Leitkultur, or "guiding national culture," the traditional family and he also opposes political Islam.
The strategy should be pursued without the racist and homophobic undertones that some AfD leaders use to attract voters. But it is intended to bring about a conservative shift of the kind being championed by former German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich of the CSU. "Trump picked up on a sentiment in the American population that many Germans also feel, namely that things are being imposed on us from the outside." He pointed to his party's months-long tussle with the CDU over refugee policies as an example. "Those who claim that the German borders can no longer be closed today are opening the field up to the populists without a fight."
Merkel, on the other hand, believes that her party stands to lose more voters at the center than it could possibly win to the right in a populist competition with the AfD. Given the choice of reversing her modernization policies or having to live with the existence of a party to the right of the conservatives, she would prefer the latter. The CSU, however, is firm in its decades-old conviction that there can be no democratically legitimate party to the right of the conservatives.
Losing the Working Class
Trump's victory also raises new questions for the center-left SPD, Germany's equivalent of the Democratic Party. The billionaire's triumph is in no small part due to his success in attracting working class voters. The AfD has long been doing the same: poaching voters from the SPD. The question as to how the trend can be stopped is becoming more urgent.
Deputy party head Olaf Scholz, who is also the mayor of Hamburg, believes the party should maintain its current course. Hastily adopting AfD positions, he believes, would be the surest possible way to lose support among the populace. In an increasingly complex world, he says, it's the job of politicians to say "what is acceptable and what is not." Then, says Scholz, people "will once again have faith in the future and won't yearn desperately for a return to the past."
Other leaders within the party are more pensive. Thomas Oppermann, for example, who leads the SPD in parliament, and can himself be quite outspoken, is calling for the party to reevaluate and to approach voters with "more humility and modesty."
What bothers Oppermann is that even political decisions that voters consider to be correct have not strengthened trust in politics. "We've raised pensions, introduced a minimum wage and applied rent controls, but none of these measures has been enough to hinder the populists," he says. For his part, party head Sigmar Gabriel has drawn the lesson from the Trump shock that the SPD needs to refocus on its party base, the workers. He wrote this week that "consequences need to be drawn following Trump's alarming election success."
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 46/2016 (November 12, 2016) of DER SPIEGEL.
There is, however, one view that Christian Democrats and Social Democrats both share -- that the current coalition government between the center-left and right "is not helpful if we want to regain voter trust," say both Oppermann and SPD deputy national head Ralf Stegner. The deputy head of the CDU, Jens Spahn, warns: "A continuation of the coalition government (between the CDU and SPD) presents a major threat to the two mainstream parties because it would strengthen the extremist fringe."
It's difficult to argue. But the two parties may have no other option remaining given the populists' rise. Recent polls show that the only form of government that is currently mathematically possible in Germany is the current coalition between the conservatives and the SPD.
Right now, government leaders in Germany are placing their hopes in the possibility that the Trump administration will be less radical that it currently appears it might be. Perhaps Trump could become a second Ronald Reagan, say sources in the Chancellery, a man who started as a brute reformer, but, tamed by his administration and experienced political veterans ultimately adopted more moderate positions.
First steps have been taken. On Thursday, the chancellor spoke to the president-elect by phone. Merkel assured Trump of Germany's close cooperation -- and also agreed to a meeting. She said she would be pleased to welcome him "at the very latest, to the G-20 summit in Germany next year."
By Melanie Amann, Horand Knaup, Martin Knobbe, Peter Müller, Ralf Neukirch, René Pfister, Michael Sauga and Christoph Schult
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