Trump Is Saving Germany’s Liberals

Supporters of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, watching the results in the German federal elections last year in Berlin, Germany.CreditSean Gallup/Getty Images
Supporters of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, watching the results in the German federal elections last year in Berlin, Germany. Credit Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Last week President Trump tweeted that German voters were beginning to rebel against Chancellor Angela Merkel over her refugee policy. “The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition,” he wrote. Days later, he tweeted again, asserting — wrongly — that crime in our country was up because of the hundreds of thousands of refugees Germany has admitted over the last few years.

Trump Is Saving Germany’s Liberals-1

Trump Is Saving Germany’s Liberals-2

Both of these comments are demonstrably, laughably wrong. And more than that: Mr. Trump’s efforts to insert himself into German politics is having the opposite effect, driving together the parties that make up Ms. Merkel’s fractious center-right alliance, and pushing voters away from the parties on the fringe.

Let’s go tweet by tweet. Chancellor Merkel still has an approval rating of 64 percent; she is by far Germany’s most respected politician. And she’s on an upswing: People here love the idea of her standing up to Mr. Trump — she got a boost after a photo of her towering over him at the G-7 summit went viral.

Barack Obama all but literally passed on the mantel of “leader of the free world” to Ms. Merkel (and not Mr. Trump), and most Germans feel empowered by that new responsibility. A country that, due to its history, feels uncomfortable with being the leader of the free world is coming to understand its role in standing up for liberal democracy in a world turning more and more authoritarian.

In this respect, Mr. Trump’s tweets are clarifying: He and his followers have managed to mobilize more and more institutions and citizens to organize pro-European demonstrations and petitions, many of them demanding that Germany defend the values that underlie the “West.”

About that crime tweet: In fact, crime in Germany is currently at a 26-year low. But right-wing populists are using criminal acts committed by a relatively small number of refugees to create a climate of fear and thus cut off empathy for those in need. They are being assisted by parts of the German media who know that fear sells papers.

The populists and the news media have exploited several high-profile cases in which refugee men have raped and murdered young women. These are tragic stories, and horrific crimes. But in fact the number of murder cases involving young women has dropped from 30 in 2000 to 15 in 2017.

Yet the fear-mongering is creating a positive response. As the anti-immigrant faction picked up on these stories, German feminists rallied, demanding to know why violence against women in Germany gets so little attention unless it’s committed by a migrant. Rather than driving German feminists and refugees apart, a new avenue of conversation between them has opened.

Still, even as Mr. Trump is inadvertently bringing Germans together, there is something that troubles us. Germany has always been strongly pro-American — not always on policy, but in celebrating the sense that America is our most stable trans-Atlantic partner. In the last year, and especially over the last few weeks, we seem to have lost that alliance.

Germans have not always liked what America did in the world, but we deeply admired it for a postwar strategy that helped Germany become what it is today. Most Germans have stories like those my American studies professors would tell us at university. These stories all go back to a moment when they were children and met a G.I., often soon after the war, who introduced them to music they had never listened to before, gave them sweets they had never tried or simply behaved toward them in a way the soldiers of the Nazi regime never had.

Yes, they might be the nostalgic, infantile memories of a postwar child. But they also fit our self-conception. For decades after the war, Germans were democrats-in-training; we had to learn the rule of law and the values of liberalism. Democracy was nothing this country ever fought for. Instead, we learned it from America.

There has always been ambiguity about American leadership — one should not forget George W. Bush and his Axis of Evil — but it always felt safer than turning one’s head toward Russia or China. For the first time Germans cannot be sure of this. We don’t know where the United States is leading the world.

The anti-Trump dynamic is at work at home, too. A few weeks ago Horst Seehofer, the head of the Christian Social Union, hinted that he might pull his party out of Ms. Merkel’s coalition government, where he is the interior minister, unless she agreed to sharp limits on immigration. It was a trumpian move, designed to counter inroads made in the party’s home base of Bavaria by the far-right Alternative for Germany (known by its German initials AfD).

But instead of wrecking the government or forcing Ms. Merkel’s hand, Mr. Seehofer’s crude politics forced the majority of Germans who support Ms. Merkel’s position to ask why the 13 percent of far-right voters behind the AfD seem to set the agenda. And why should the elections in little Bavaria define the future of Europe? Instead of getting what he wanted, Mr. Seehofer has set off a wakeup call for his opponents, and is driving Ms. Merkel to work harder with her European allies.

Most Germans feel Ms. Merkel has it just right: After a too-permissive policy in 2015, she created Germany’s most restrictive immigration laws ever. The fact that even this doesn’t seem to be enough for the far-right angers liberal Germans. And it has set off a soul-searching among the center-right Christian Democrats as well. Is it right for a party rooted in faith to sacrifice empathy for the less fortunate? And it has both sides in a surprising alignment, fighting to preserve the postwar European heritage.

Ms. Merkel and Mr. Seehofer have now agreed on a two-week break from their fight. The German chancellor thus gained time to find allies for a European way out of the crisis; after a meeting Wednesday with French President Emmanuel Macron, she seems well on the way.

The far-right in Europe is happy to have the support of the American president. But for the rest of us — the vast majority of us — Mr. Trump’s endless, angry talk, and the images of children taken from their parents from the American border, is only strengthening the resolve of the German center. It is reminding us how important Europe and European values are, and that someone has to defend them.

Jagoda Marinic, an essayist and novelist, is the author, most recently, of Made in Germany.

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