Who is president of the United States: the Republican Donald Trump or the anti-European populist Donald Trump? To Germany, this is an essential question. The Republican Trump is expected to stick to the close trans-Atlantic relationship that is key to Germany’s prosperity and security. The populist Trump has the potential to pull the rug right out from under us.
There’s evidence for both. Mr. Trump regularly rails against Brussels and NATO, but his surrogates in Europe have made an extra effort to dismiss it all as just talk and to emphasize the administration’s continued commitment to the Continent.
We’ll get a much better idea of which President Trump is really in charge on March 14, when Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany pays her first visit to the new administration. Her trip has been meticulously prepared over the past months, and her advisers think there is a strong case for optimism. And they might be right, if all they’re looking at are statements from Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. But they underestimate the fervent anti-Europeanism of Mr. Trump’s voters and the limits placed on a president who insists on governing from his base.
To Berlin, Mr. Trump’s election came as a shock. Many German foreign policy makers admit that until Nov. 9, the Trump team was pretty much a black hole to them. Since then, Berlin has invested considerable energy in meeting with everyone in the new administration and the upper and lower ranks of the White House they could possibly get a hold of, plus anybody close to anybody close to the president.
Shortly after Mr. Trump’s election, Mrs. Merkel dispatched one of her closest advisers, the foreign policy expert Christoph Heusgen, to Washington to establish contacts with Mr. Trump’s transition team. Jürgen Hardt, the coordinator of trans-Atlantic cooperation at the German Department of Foreign Affairs, has traveled to Washington twice since the election. And members of Mrs. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Party, who have maintained friendly relations with many Republican members of the Senate and the House, have made their own contacts with American officials familiar with Mr. Trump’s people.
At the Munich Security Conference in February, there was much occasion for informal talk, not least with Mr. Pence, who spoke to members of the Bundestag as well as to Mrs. Merkel and Ursula von der Leyen, the minister of defense. Mrs. Von der Leyen was also the first European minister of defense to meet Mr. Mattis. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has encountered Secretary of State Rex Tillerson twice. And the German ambassador to the United States, Peter Wittig, was recently able to meet Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s chief strategist.
In all of these conversations, the key question was: Who is a “trans-Atlanticist” — and how much influence does he or she have on the president?
While the substance of the encounter between Mr. Wittig and Mr. Bannon is being kept secret in Germany, those who agreed to speak about their insights — some under the condition of anonymity — were carefully optimistic that there still are many trans-Atlanticists in the administration and that they have sufficient influence.
Mr. Hardt, the trans-Atlantic coordinator, said that he was overall more “relaxed” today than right after the election, regarding security politics and trade relations, and that Mr. Pence’s public commitment to NATO at the Munich conference reflected the administration’s stance as a whole.
German foreign policy experts are not blind to the obvious divide between ideologues and pragmatists in Mr. Trump’s administration. “He will always have to do something to keep his people excited,” Mr. Hardt said. “That’s what Stephen Bannon is in there for. Just as all populists, Donald Trump runs the risk of being a captive to his own populism.”
But Germany seems a little too confident that pragmatism will prevail, that Mr. Trump has too much to gain from Europe and that he will cooperate with Germany and Europe, if somewhat more grudgingly, just as his predecessors have.
The problem is that while previous presidents have tried to govern from somewhere near the middle and reflect some version of the public consensus, Mr. Trump governs as he campaigned: from his right-wing base. And that base, as I found during a recent trip to the United States, has a dim and divisive view of Germany, and Europe generally.
If you search for “Germany” on Breitbart News, the far-right website, you’ll find nothing but reports of terrorist attacks, crime rates and forced child marriages. On Jan. 3, Breitbart reported that “1,000 men chanted ‘Allahu akbar’ and set Germany’s oldest church alight” in the northwestern city of Dortmund. But the facts were different: According to the local police, there really had been a gathering of some 1,000 people in central Dortmund, but local reporters say that only a small group chanted “Allahu akbar.” There really was a fire, but it came from some errant fireworks that had been caught in a nearby net. (Oh, and it’s not the oldest church in Germany.)
But such details don’t matter. Mr. Trump’s base and the news media he consumes believe that Europe is being overrun by violent Muslim refugees. “Do you still feel safe,” a woman asked me, “I mean, after letting all those Muslims in?”
This shouldn’t be a surprise; Mr. Trump is no different from the European populists we have come to know so well over the last few years — they all depend on the narrative of the liberal West’s self-destruction by lassitude and multiculturalism. Germany and Europe — or rather their blurry “alt-right” media twins — present dystopian futures for the United States if Mr. Trump’s “movement” doesn’t succeed. And Mr. Trump is well aware of this. It’s what he was alluding to when he said to supporters at a rally in Florida in February, “Look at what’s happening in Sweden.”
True, Mr. Trump’s alt-right allegiance doesn’t preclude behind-the-scenes cooperation. But it does present severe limits to what can happen publicly. How would Mr. Trump explain to his voters that he is cooperating with Germany and Europe in sensitive fields such as national security — while in the minds of his supporters they are at the brink of chaos and civil war? It is this distorted image that German foreign policy makers will be up against in the years to come.
Anna Sauerbrey is an editor on the opinion page of the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel and a contributing opinion writer.