It may have to do with the fact that Germans despise Trump, who has the lowest approval rating here (11 percent) of any post-war president. In the lead article for Germany’s major weekly, Der Spiegel, Klaus Brinkbäumer recently compared Trump to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Trump is the “savage,” she the “judicious one”; he represents mere “destruction,” she “the difficult search for reasonable compromises”; Trump is all “fury,” she “intelligence” itself. All this at a time when Merkel is drawing unprecedented criticism from across the political spectrum for her handling of the refugee crisis. At a low point in her own political career, and perhaps on the verge of losing her governing coalition, Merkel still outshines a U.S. president who is regularly denigrated in the mainstream press and quality papers (regardless of the respective political affiliation) for his stupidity, boorishness, and vindictiveness—and perhaps above all because he is seen as having abandoned Europe.
If Trump is as deeply egocentric as James Comey claims (Comey is now here on his book tour), this alone might explain why he lashed out. Perhaps it is just a bruised ego. But whatever the source of this outburst, the consequences may be more sinister. For Germany is at a crossroads, and I’m betting that it’s Merkel’s political vulnerability that tempted Trump to insert himself into German politics. He smelled blood.
The threat to Merkel comes in the form of Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who is a member of the CSU (Christian Social Union), a conservative Bavarian party whose recent losses to the right-wing, anti-immigrant AfD (Alternative for Germany) have been widely attributed to the unpopularity of Merkel’s refugee policies. Bavaria is gearing up for another election this October, and the CSU fears further losses to the AfD—unless it can decisively distance itself from Merkel’s Willkommenskultur (culture of welcome) toward refugees. And that is what Seehofer—Merkel’s bete noire on this issue since at least 2015—is really up to. Along with the ambitious CSU Bavarian governor, Markus Soeder, he is on a collision course with the chancellor over how best to limit the influx of asylum seekers into Germany.
Merkel agrees in principle, but she is seeking a European solution—which I think most reasonable observers view as the preferable option, if she can get it. Seehofer is playing the bully with his own coalition partner, threatening simply to enact his own policy if she fails, or if she doesn’t succeed quickly enough. Soeder and Seehofer are thumping their chests in public; Seehofer has recently been quoted as saying he “can no longer work with this woman” and will go it alone. Both appear committed, at least for the purpose of favorable election results, to a course of brinkmanship. This would very likely cause the collapse of the coalition government in Berlin.
Objections from within the CSU to Seehofer’s hardline stance against refugees and asylum seekers are few indeed. But one such opponent is Hans Maier, former president of the party’s Catholic Central Committee. Maier has said publicly that he no longer recognizes the “C” in the CSU moniker. The party has, he says, given in to a “climate of cowardliness and fear. Instead of the party leaders holding firm against it, they are chasing after it. They are afraid of the AfD.” Maier advocates for policies based on the Gospels, the Ten Commandments, and the teachings of Jesus—on the simple notion of Christian charity. Self-designated “Christian” political parties (including Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Union), he insists, must stand up for the persecuted. But his is an isolated voice in contemporary politics.
Let us be candid: there is a connection between immigrants and crime—even if it is based more in emotion than in fact. The most horrific recent crime in Germany was the murder last month of a fourteen-year old girl known in the press only as “Susanna from Wiesbaden,” perpetrated by a twenty-year-old rejected asylum seeker from Iraq, a certain “Ali B.” This is the kind of crime, like the public assaults on numerous women in Cologne during the 2016 New Year’s celebrations, that tends to cement in the public’s mind the image of certain immigrant men as almost inherently criminal. Spectacularly abhorrent crimes have a way of undoing whatever consolation the actual data offer. Trump understands and exploits this dynamic very well. By staging events with family members of those killed by undocumented immigrants in the United States, he seeks to obscure the larger truth that native-born Americans commit crimes at higher rates than immigrants. By referring to these victims as “angel families” (who of course merit our sympathies), he deftly demonizes immigrants. His intrusion into German politics, in other words, is nothing more than an extension abroad of what he is doing at home.
Ironically, it was Horst Seehofer himself—in his role as interior minister—who last month made the announcement about Germany’s historically low crime rate. The message has not gained much traction. As the Deutsche Welle put it in a recent headline , “Germany: Crime rate drops, but fear rises.”
In 2015, Germany did a truly great thing by acting generously in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Chancellor Merkel rallied her fellow Germans with the encouraging words, “Wir schaffen es!” (“we can do it!”). By appealing to Germans’ deeply held ideals and values—rooted in their own experiences of war and expulsion—rather than to their fears and resentments, she did exactly what a real leader should. Since then, however, she and the federal refugee agency known as BAMF have come in for some harsh criticism. With her own conservative coalition partners from the CSU closing steadily in upon her, Merkel is truly in crisis, and in desperate need of an ally’s support.
Instead, President Trump poured gasoline on the embers of Germany’s anxieties. With his lie about rising criminality, he has unduly sought to influence elections in a foreign country; attempted to bolster the prospects of the AfD; and undermined the government of a country whose democratic institutions the United States has painstakingly cultivated since the end of World War II. But the stakes are higher even than this. Commentators worry about a “domino effect” in Europe if Seehofer and Soeder have their way. If Germany closes its borders unilaterally, others will have no choice but to do the same. And that would be another crisis for Europe, not just Germany. Surely, Trump’s mendacious meddling cannot be made responsible for all this. But it sure hasn’t helped matters.