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Meet the Lesbian Goldman Sachs Economist Who Just Led Germany’s Far Right to Victory
How Alice Weidel manages to be a globalist and nativist at the same time.
Xenophobic populism has returned to German national politics with a bang, this time in the guise of a 38-year-old lesbian investment-banking economist. Alice Weidel is the unusual figure who has come to symbolize the far-right Alternative for Germany’s (AfD) goal-line run into the Bundestag. The AfD’s astounding 13.4 percent finish makes it the first openly chauvinistic, illiberal party to capture seats in Germany’s foremost democratic institution since the early postwar years. Should the Social Democrats (SPD) enter another “grand coalition” with Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), the AfD, as the largest opposition force in the Bundestag with over 60 seats, would become Oppositionsführer, the de facto leader of the opposition.
Until now, Germany had been one of the very few countries in all of Europe that didn’t harbor such a sample in its national legislature. Though their fine print varies, the far-right Europe-wide, like the AfD, flaunts pedigrees that are anti-immigration (and anti-immigrant), eurosceptic, authoritarian, and volkish, blood-and-soil nationalist – and together, in ever greater numbers, pose a very real threat to Europe’s postwar consensus. More immediately, they now pose a threat to the parliamentary order of Germany’s Bundestag. For the size of their triumph, Merkel herself must bear much of the blame as by refusing to address immigration in the campaign, she left the field wide open for the AfD.
In part, the AfD owes its promotion into prime-time German politics to Weidel, its unlikely public face. A complete unknown in Germany until she, in tandem with Alexander Gauland, was tapped to lead the party’s national campaign. Gauland more or less fits the stereotype of the Willie Stark-style populist rabble-rouser, but its Weidel — a self-confident, dressed-for-success expatriate financial consultant who on the surface seems to be the sort of “globalist” that nationalist populists typically claim to despise — who has earned the higher public profile. It’s no accident, however, that she has remained in her party’s good graces.
Weidel was born and educated in West Germany, and after college, she lived in China for a year, working at Bank of China, and learned Chinese. Following a stint at Goldman Sachs in Frankfurt, she completed her doctorate in economics with a scholarship from the Christian Democrats’ foundation, the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. From there she spent time at other way-stations in the private sector, including at Rocket Internet, signing up with the AfD in 2013, the year of its founding.
The AfD isn’t a party of suit-and-tie, neo-liberal stock-brokers and slick consultants. Its voters are overwhelmingly men, older than 30, educated and middle-income. Its bastions are in the most beleaguered of the eastern states, not the western financial capital of Frankfurt. But Weidel has never made a serious attempt to hide the more incongruous aspects of her biography.
When Weidel first joined the AfD, it was out of deep eurosceptic convictions. At the time, the early focus of the so-called “professors’ party” (she wasn’t the only one) was not opposition to immigration, but rather Germany’s multi-billion euro bailouts of the debt-strapped southern Europeans. Weidel headed the new party’s “euro and currency” portfolios – pro bono, then as now.
The AfD shot into the European Parliament in 2014, and a year later commenced its march into Germany’s regional legislatures, first in the post-communist eastern states and then in the west. It now has MPs in 13 out of 16 of Germany’s federal states, where it captures as much as 23 percent of the vote (in Saxony Anhalt, for example, but on the lower end in Schleswig Holstein and Saarland: only 6 percent). Some have extremist, even Nazi-esque sympathies, but not the lion’s share. The AfD’s backbone is normalbürger non-voters and defectors from the mainstream parties – even those on the left.
Its past never far from mind, Germany has especially deep neuroses when it comes to right-wing extremism, which is part of the reason it took so long for a national populist aspirant to make the leap into the Bundestag. Indeed, one of the primary requisites to the AfD’s success in Germany has been its finesse in defying the category of neo-Nazi, and burnishing instead an image of polite, decorous populism, thanks to the likes of Weidel. This veneer of respectability in the young, turbulent party is largely an upshot of its leadership, which though it has changed several times – a result of splits, putsches and mini-scandals – nevertheless has largely upheld a degree of propriety in public that that its brown-around-the-edges predecessors could never manage.
The AfD’s single-issue target moved when the 2015 refugee crisis broke, during which nearly a million immigrants entered Germany — and Weidel opportunistically moved with the AfD. A person who college friends remember as open-minded and fond of Turkish gastronomy, jumped on the anti-immigrant bandwagon. The AfD’s topic number one is migration, and at rallies or on talk shows neither she nor her colleagues beat around the bush. Germany, says Weidel, “has become a safe port for foreign criminals,” more specifically: Islamic criminals. She calls for prisons in northern Africa for deported “criminals” from those countries, the curtailing of civil liberties for immigrants guilty of crimes, and withdrawing Germany from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Minarets should be banned across Germany, as should head scarves worn by Muslim women in Germany’s offices of public service. “The refugee crisis is in no way over,” says Weidel, calling for the abolition of the current asylum law, which the AfD claims is a product of Germany’s overcompensation for Nazi-era crimes. Otherwise, says Weidel, Germany can expect a “mass attack on Europe and Germany.”
This type of xenophobic rhetoric appears sufficient to earn her populist bona fides. The AfD rank-and-file are not turned off, as populists in other countries might be, by Weidel’s background as a banker. If anything, it’s a plus to conservative-minded working-class Germans: Weidel seems like a safe pair of hands.
A similarly baffling contradiction marks another aspect of Weidel’s biography – her common law marriage to a woman, a Swiss filmmaker boasting Sinhalese heritage, with whom she has two adopted sons who live in a village on Lake Constance in Switzerland. (Apparently they illegally hire a Syrian refugee as cleaning lady.)
The couple are legal partners, but not married, which was unlawful in Germany until this summer. Had the AfD been in the Bundestag, it would, judging by its pro-traditional-family program, have voted against it. When lawmakers passed the bill, Weidel didn’t damn it, but neither did she cheer. “As if [gay marriage] were Germany’s most pressing problem at the moment,“ said Weidel. “The grand coalition is pushing through ‘marriage for everybody’ legislation, while the mass migration [sic] that has swamped the country over the last two years considers homosexuality a crime.”
Weidel says that being lesbian doesn’t fly in the face of the AfD platform, which doesn’t dwell on sexuality but does praise conventional families. She maintains that she’s never been the object of bias in the AfD, even though the German media is flush with examples of AfD homophobia. In the regional legislature of Saxony Anhalt, the AfD’s Andreas Gehlmann interrupted a speaker condemning countries that outlaw homosexuality, by yelling: “We should do that in Germany too!” A family, Weidel responded curtly to Gehlmann and others, is “where there are children.”
Since there’s no German party willing to cooperate with the AfD, its role in the Bundestag will be limited to outspoken opposition. But that alone will make the parliament noisier and the tone rawer than ever before. It could well shift discourse to the right, perhaps earning some of the AfD’s extremist positions a further degree of respectability. This is their hope.
The AfD’s behavior in the Bundestag will reflect the way it has agitated in Germany’s regional legislatures. But there it’s shown two faces: one relatively tempered, the other strident. It’s at its most radical in its stronghold, Saxony Anhalt. Hardcore, loud-mouth national chauvinists have stood out with offensive strategies on migration and pro-German nationalist reinterpretations of history (the kind that show vague sympathy for Adolf Hitler). Since it’s the second largest party in Saxony Anhalt, the AfD is a force to be reckoned with in the Landtag and managed to temporarily destabilize the ruling CDU – before splitting and imploding in acrimony. The Saxony Anhalt branch of the party sees itself as part of a mass movement of radical rightists, which includes unsavory characters who wear swastikas on their arms.
In the western states, the AfD polls less, in Rhineland Pfalz, for example, it took 12 percent in the 2016 vote. Here the tone is somewhat milder with the AfD playing by the parliament’s rules, even though it attacks the established parties aggressively, often drawing sanctions for its conduct. It battles against the CDU for conservative profile in the opposition, and pushes the debate to the right, say observers.
Having delivered the party 13 percent, Weidel should be ensconced in the leadership for the next four years. And she’s a moderate. But that’s foreboding enough. Postwar Germany became a shade less liberal on September 24. The mainstream parties’ response will determine whether it becomes a long-term fixture.
Photo credit:Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images