Believe it or not, there was a time when German politicians were cool. There was Helmut Schmidt, the 1970s chancellor, packing up the sails of his boat, sleeves rolled up, his face roughened by the wind, tobacco and the Cold War. But that was then; in the decades since, the country has been run by stolid men and women — and, until lately, we’ve been fine with that. For good reason, Germans have a certain allergy to political charisma.
But then came a new crop of stylish world leaders — Barack Obama, first, and now Justin Trudeau of Canada and Emmanuel Macron of France. So Germany has decided to take another shot at making politics cool again — not just lauding camera-ready politicians but also trading in the sort of anti-Trump “resistance” posturing that has caught fire worldwide. This is a mistake.
The latest politician to take a stab at cool is Christian Lindner, the 38-year-old leader of the pro-business Free Democratic Party, who poses for campaign posters with his face bestubbled, his shirt collar unbuttoned. But he can’t quite pull it off — his posing seems, well, posed.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has a dry, witty sense of humor, and she can be cool in a hard-boiled, implacable way. But she’s not cool in the breezy manner of Mr. Macron and Mr. Trudeau; she bears the weight of the world on her shoulders, and she wants us to know it.
At the beginning of the year, when the Social Democrats declared Martin Schulz their candidate for this fall’s election, young people joined the party in droves. At his rallies, supporters held up posters imitating Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster, with Mr. Schulz replacing Mr. Obama.
But Mr. Schulz couldn’t live up to it. He is competent but humorless, a party functionary, not a political visionary. He recently appeared in a white protective suit and cap while visiting a smoked-fish manufacturer — and he looked more comfortable than he ever has on the stump.
Why can’t Germans do cool politics? There are the clichéd explanations, all of them true to some extent. Is it because of our Nazi past? Is it because after decades of working their way up through the German party system, candidates have lost their sense of daring? Is it because we are a nation in doubt, a nation of permanently self-reflecting ditherers?
Coolness is not a democratic necessity, of course, and we have no right to expect that our policy makers entertain us. You could even argue that the sort of maverick quality that we marvel at in Mr. Macron is inappropriate, because democracy is not about lone decision-making but about seeking broad compromise. But coolness can serve as a means to engage people in politics, to create a sense of belonging. Coolness has the power to create cohesion.
So we keep trying. Lacking a figure to rally around, Germans have found one to rally against: Donald Trump. If we can’t be inspired by the positive, we have decided to embrace the negative, to join the “resistance” as a way of unifying, motivating and aestheticizing our politics.
After all, sometimes all you need is a good evildoer to make a story work. And Mr. Trump is the perfect villain, particularly to the German left. The political coolness everyone can agree on is to be anti-Trump.
A “cool” political culture needs a code that insiders can quickly recognize to create social cohesion. The more people you’d like to be involved, the simpler the code needs to be. And so we’ve reduced Mr. Trump to a caricature — his yellowish hair, his ill-fitting suits, his figure rendered into various comic-book-villain tropes (the Joker is a favorite among Germans). During the G-20 summit meeting, such depictions were everywhere. An uninformed visitor might assume that Mr. Trump is a candidate in the coming election.
Predictably, Mr. Schulz has tried to harness the anti-Trump cool for his own campaign. He embraces the resistance, telling supporters, “It is our duty to step into this man’s way with everything we stand for.” He personalizes the fight, trying to make himself the star of the anti-Trump show, even going after him on Twitter.
When Mr. Trump tweeted that his son’s meeting with a Russian lobbyist was business as usual — “most politicians would have gone” — Mr. Schulz replied: “I wouldn’t have gone there. This is not politics.”
This might be good for politicians, but it’s bad for our politics. In the same way that the public often swoons over charismatic candidates, losing sight of their flaws and nuances, turning Mr. Trump into a cartoon bad guy renders him unreal. If he’s too bad to be true, we may forget that he actually exists.
It also distorts what voters should really worry about. Of course it’s relevant to Germany what happens in the United States, our closest ally. But Mr. Trump is not running for chancellor. Mr. Trump is nothing but a strange surrogate for the lack of catchy slogans and German political coolness.
Eventually, he’ll go away. In the meantime, German politics needs to find a more positive, sustainable way of engaging with the public, speaking to the issues that matter to them, not just tossing up politicians to love — or love to hate.
Anna Sauerbrey is the editor of the opinion page of the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel and a contributing opinion writer.