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In Watching the Spread of Nationalist Populism, Eyes Now Turn to Germany

As their right-wing party rises, Germans wonder whether Trump could happen in their country, too.

By , a global affairs journalist and the author of The Influence of Soros and Bad Jews.
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“Can Trump also happen in Germany?”

That’s what German newspaper Bild wondered on Thursday. Der Spiegel took a different approach, bemoaning that “It Becomes Lonely in Europe,” as Berlin and Brussels must now deal with Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Donald Trump, in addition to local populists like Viktor Orban.

Germany might not be lonely for long. The European powerhouse, for obvious reasons, has for decades been hyper conscious of hate speech and xenophobia. In September’s regional elections, however, the right-wing populist party AfD outperformed German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party in her home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Merkel took blame for her party’s poor performance but nevertheless maintained that her refugee policy  -- which the AfD openly hates -- was fundamentally right.

“Can Trump also happen in Germany?”

That’s what German newspaper Bild wondered on Thursday. Der Spiegel took a different approach, bemoaning that “It Becomes Lonely in Europe,” as Berlin and Brussels must now deal with Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Donald Trump, in addition to local populists like Viktor Orban.

Germany might not be lonely for long. The European powerhouse, for obvious reasons, has for decades been hyper conscious of hate speech and xenophobia. In September’s regional elections, however, the right-wing populist party AfD outperformed German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party in her home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Merkel took blame for her party’s poor performance but nevertheless maintained that her refugee policy  — which the AfD openly hates — was fundamentally right.

AfD was originally formed in 2013 to protest the euro, but has since morphed into an anti-immigrant, anti-Islam party, and has taken to aping the anti-establishment rhetoric of the (also anti-immigrant, anti-Islam) “Pegida” movement.

Its official policy says that “Islam does not belong to Germany.” And, since the German government’s 2015 decision to take in refugees, it has done quite well. In the September regional elections, it won 24.2 percent of the vote in Saxony Anhalt; 12.6 percent of the vote in Rhineland-Palatinate, and 15.1 percent of the vote in Baden-Württemberg. It has nine MPs across Germany’s state parliaments. And it may well win seats in next year’s federal elections, which bodes ill for Merkel’s already struggling current coalition. Electoral desperation has prompted some in Merkel’s own center-right CDU party to suggest banding together with AfD. Meanwhile, after Tuesday’s shock, some German officials are warning that Trump’s victory should put German politicians on alert.

In response to Trump’s election, Frauke Petry, the leader of AfD, tweeted, “Congratulations to the next president of the United States of America #USElection2016 #Trump #AfD.” She added, “Americans have decided for a new political beginning and against sleaze/corruption — this opportunity is historic #Trump,” and “It’s revealing how establishment politicians and journalists treat a democratic election as the apocalypse. #USAWahl2016.”

Frauke Petry was certainly not alone: Marine Le Pen, front of the National Front and Nigel Farage, former head of UKIP and champion of Brexit, both extended their heartiest congratulations.

While most world leaders were not as effusive as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, prime ministers and presidents from friendly nations — Canada’s Justin Trudeau, Georgia’s Giorgi Margvelashvili, India’s Narendra Modi, and U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May (“don’t touch her, for goodness sake,” Farage joked) — offered Trump straightforward congratulations.

Merkel, however, whom some have called the last guardian of liberalism and whom Trump called his favorite world leader after many months of blaming her for ruining Germany, did not.

After the election, Merkel submitted a statement saying, “Germany and America are bound by common values — democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views. It is based on these values that I wish to offer close cooperation, both with me personally and between our countries’ governments.”

Germany holds federal elections next year. The world will have to wait until then to see if Germans agree with Merkel as to the centrality and importance of any of those things.  

And to answer Bild’s question: After Tuesday’s result, it’s clear that Trump can happen anywhere — even, potentially, in Germany.

Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a global affairs journalist and the author of The Influence of Soros and Bad Jews. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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