German Politics: A Template for Donald Trump

Recent state level elections in Germany have some political pundits wondering and worrying about the rise of so-called Right wing parties in Europe and elsewhere.  In Europe, Right Wing parties have a different connotation than here in the United States.  And their rendition of “Right wing” is something akin to a socialist-nationalist worldview  while here although there can be some nationalism involved, the Right wing is certainly not socialist.  In either case, looking at the dynamics of Germany’s politics, one can see analogies here in the United States.  And it helps explain the apparent popularity of Donald Trump among groups one would not expect such enthusiasm.

In Germany, the country’s leader is Angela Merkel who heads the Christian Democrat Party (CDU), a center-right party that formed a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD), a center-left party.  Of course, there are other parties that are either more to the left or right of these two parties, with the leftist Green Party being probably the most influential up to this point.

It is the recent gains by a relatively new party- Alternative for Germany (AfD)- that has some ears perking up and eyebrows being raised.  They were formed in 2011.  Their recent gains in the western part of Germany was unexpected.  No new German party has ever become so successful so soon after their founding than the AfD.  The nearest one comes is the Green Party in the 1980s, but that took a longer time to develop.  It also created a major change in German politics.  Hence, the rise of the AfD has the potential to create an even more titanic shift in German politics.

Clearly, the rise of the AfD is a reaction against Merkel and her CDU, but the reaction runs much deeper than that.  It had been in the making for years.  Their rise is a story of strife and alienation between Merkel and a large swath of the German electorate.  Traditional conservatives found a welcoming home in the CDU before Merkel.  But, her leadership of the party and the country has essentially left them without a home.  Contrast this with today’s current strife in the Republican Party where conservatives have delivered both houses of Congress to the GOP only to be let down repeatedly by the Republican leadership in both houses and by presidential hopefuls this year.

Just as the AfD’s popularity is a revolt against the German ruling class, so too is the current revolt in the GOP much the same.  And this is to be expected when promises are not kept, one is taken advantage of, or one moves the politics of one’s party too far towards another end of the spectrum.  Most of the underlying resentment of Merkel among conservatives in Germany centered around policy stances the CDU adopted under Merkel.  They abandoned nuclear power and fell into the climate change rabbit hole.  She established a national minimum wage.  The CDU gave its stamp of approval to same sex marriage.  The breaking point was the influx of Muslim refugees from the Middle East.  To Merkel, this was not a temporary humanitarian effort; it was a “moral imperative” and that moral imperative blinded her to the underlying resentment building within the electorate.  In short, they were not being listened to by the ruling class.  When the SDP, the German media, unions and business leaders endorsed her immigration policies, the conservatives within the electorate felt even more alienated.

And this fight/revolt against Merkel and the CDU is a fight that relies heavily upon emotion.  There is no coherent worldview other than one consistency: people are pissed off.  Contrast that with today’s politics in the US.  It defies explanation why Trump would be the front runner for the GOP nomination, unless one considers that the American electorate is really pissed off.  Merkel, like leaders here, fail to understand the depth of these emotions.  Trump does not really understand them; he takes advantage of them.

Most analysts viewed the AfD as disaffected neo-Nazi types.  But, that is not the only group drawn to them.  Likewise here in the United States, some view Trump’s supporters as only racist, Southern white aging males.  The AfD managed to quickly mobilize an army of first time voters, as has Trump here in the US.  The AfD has stolen voters from the Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats, the Greens and other parties, just as Trump has appealed to strong conservative evangelical voters, some cross-over Democrats, blue collar workers or Reagan Democrats, and others.  Polls taken after the German elections noted that many of them voted for the AfD not over the German immigration crisis, but because of a bitterness towards the politics as usual of the CDU/SPD coalition.  Likewise, it is disingenuous to credit the rise of Donald Trump on a general sense of xenophobia in the US.

Those same polls confirm what sociologists refer to as the “panic of the middle class-” a diffuse feeling of having no future and not being able to realize one’s potential.  There is a serious disconnect between the promises of modernity and a feeling of being limited in reaching those promises.  They seem uncomfortable with the modern world and, at times, yearn for the past.  Obviously, this is not intrinsic to Germany.  New anti-elitist movements have sprung up and captured governments in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia- all on Germany’s border.  Marine Le Pen’s party in France is gaining in popularity and power.

One thing certainly defines these movements: rational argument does not work.  They follow their gut, not their brains.  So comments like “build a wall,” “make America great again” (also a paean to nostalgia), “hunt down terrorist families,” etc have a natural appeal no matter how unrealistic or vacuous the statement.

The American dream is the belief that anyone can be successful.  It is the promise of advancement to realize one’s potential.  It is the glue that has held together a diverse nation.  But, the American dream is broken when two wage earners working two jobs apiece is not enough to get ahead and realize one’s potential.  The American dream has slipped from the grasps of many Americans, or so it seems to them.  Besides Trump, the depth of the sentiment runs so deep today in the United States and it also explains the popularity of Bernie Sanders.  Trump’s invective of “making America great again” revives, in the minds of his supporters, the American dream.  It reaches voters who have turned their back on the political system.  He appeals to the person perceived as being left behind by a modern, global economy.  For the vast number of Americans, they feel left behind by the ruling, elite, rich class.  They are the orphans of the digital age.

In Europe, the movement has attracted a wide array of characters.  They include Putin fans (see Trump’s embrace of Putin and admiration for strongman leadership), anti-globalization people (see Trump’s plans for bringing jobs back to America), pacifists (see Trump’s general foreign policy), devout Christians (see evangelical support of Trump), and radical nationalists (see the KKK’s endorsement of Trump, or read Storm Front, the neo-Nazi website).  They have radicalized the political climate (see any Trump stump speech) and launched a strident digital offensive (see Trump’s Twitter and Instagram accounts).  Europeans may sit back and enjoy the shenanigans in the United States, but their problem is much deeper and potentially more dangerous.  There is no “European dream” analogy to the American dream.  To the extent that there is, it is fragmented: German pride, French pride, British pride, Polish pride, etc.  It explains why all these European parties and leaders oppose the European Union- it is a stripping of their national pride into one amalgamation of “Europeanness,” whatever that is.  The biggest difference between Europe and the United States is that they do not have a strong enough salesman.  Gert Wilders and Marine Le Pen probably come closest.

Another difference is how both sides have expressed their growing political power.  In Europe, especially Germany and France, it is from the ground up.  Most of their gains were made at the local level before going national.  In the United States, it is from the top down starting with the Presidency.  Make no mistake: Donald Trump has adequately tapped into this mindset and sold it better than any of his Republican opponents thus far.  Bernie Sanders is doing the same thing on the other side of the aisle.

And just as we may be witnessing the dissolution of the European Union, so too we may witnessing it in microcosm here in the United States with the dissolution of the Republican Party.  The unfortunate aspect domestically is that Trump’s candidacy has the very real potential of losing GOP control of the Senate in the short term, and conservatism in the long term.  Hopefully, our Constitutional system will be the ultimate check on this gut level, non-intellectual populism espoused by Trump.  Can Europe say the same?