The Last Throes of Trump’s Wounded Alpha-Male Ego

What Angela Merkel’s approach to a blustering incumbent can teach us about America’s political crisis today.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on March 17, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on March 17, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on March 17, 2017. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

As I watched U.S. President Donald Trump’s rambling late-night response to the initial election results, I needed a moment to recall which earlier disputed election it reminded me of. Then I remembered: It was Germany’s 2005 national election, which I followed as a graduate student newly arrived in Berlin. The televised aftermath of that vote—and the political resolution that followed—puts the United States’ current crisis into some new perspective, and may suggest how it’s most likely to get resolved.

The election pitted the incumbent, Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, against the leader of the Christian Democrats, Angela Merkel, in what was her first campaign for national office. Schröder was the clear underdog, after a second term marked by the passage of unpopular welfare reforms that triggered street protests and fractured his party. Merkel was expected to stroll to victory in partnership with her intended coalition partner, the business-friendly Free Democrats.

The polls were wrong. The Christian Democrats barely eked out a one percentage-point lead over the Social Democrats. That wasn’t enough for Merkel’s preferred coalition, but it was a lead nonetheless—a fact that Schröder went on to ignore in the traditional nationally televised post-election group panel (dubbed the Elefantenrunde or “elephant panel”). A red-faced Schröder hectored and huffed before the cameras, declaring without evidence that “nobody, except for me, can form a stable government—nobody except me.” At a wide-eyed Merkel visibly struggling to process the unexpected election result, Schröder growled, “You can’t seriously think you’re going to be chancellor. Get real.”

As I watched U.S. President Donald Trump’s rambling late-night response to the initial election results, I needed a moment to recall which earlier disputed election it reminded me of. Then I remembered: It was Germany’s 2005 national election, which I followed as a graduate student newly arrived in Berlin. The televised aftermath of that vote—and the political resolution that followed—puts the United States’ current crisis into some new perspective, and may suggest how it’s most likely to get resolved.

The election pitted the incumbent, Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, against the leader of the Christian Democrats, Angela Merkel, in what was her first campaign for national office. Schröder was the clear underdog, after a second term marked by the passage of unpopular welfare reforms that triggered street protests and fractured his party. Merkel was expected to stroll to victory in partnership with her intended coalition partner, the business-friendly Free Democrats.

The polls were wrong. The Christian Democrats barely eked out a one percentage-point lead over the Social Democrats. That wasn’t enough for Merkel’s preferred coalition, but it was a lead nonetheless—a fact that Schröder went on to ignore in the traditional nationally televised post-election group panel (dubbed the Elefantenrunde or “elephant panel”). A red-faced Schröder hectored and huffed before the cameras, declaring without evidence that “nobody, except for me, can form a stable government—nobody except me.” At a wide-eyed Merkel visibly struggling to process the unexpected election result, Schröder growled, “You can’t seriously think you’re going to be chancellor. Get real.”

Last night, Trump cloaked his grievance in a veneer of legal objections, just as Schröder claimed some authentic connection to Germans’ popular will. But beneath both lies the same basic motive: wounded alpha-male ego. It’s to Merkel’s credit that she recognized narcissistic rage wasn’t a politically effective force at that juncture. The votes had been tallied, and Merkel correctly surmised that Schröder’s flailing wasn’t going to alter Germany’s established norms for forming a government. Schröder wasn’t actually threatening to usurp her—he was blustering. But Merkel has never been easily intimidated.

On Twitter, there is chatter of Trump mounting a coup. But halting the vote count is beyond his control, just as leading a military insurrection is beyond his capacity. Trump announced his intention to dominate America’s public life for the next several weeks—and for as long after that as he likes. But who says that’s up to him? More likely is that as the remaining states do their constitutional duty, and the votes stack up in favor of Joe Biden, Trump’s lawsuits will be exposed for their vacuity, and his ranting will recede into the background as a new president-elect asserts himself.

Biden could do well to learn from Merkel that power speaks for itself, and shouting exposes the very lack of it. It’s a large reason why, 15 years after that first election, Merkel is still the German chancellor. It also helps explain why Schröder has long since left public life, and now works in the energy sector for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

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