Read: Fear of a female president
When Barack Obama visited the chancellor for the last time as president in late 2016, he was startled to see the same faces he first saw eight years earlier running her office. “You guys are still all here!” he exclaimed. Her staff is loyal because she works them no harder than she works herself. “She really thinks twice,” one of her top aides told me, “before she calls us on the weekend.” Merkel devours briefing books, not people.
Merkel clearly enjoys power. Power is a way to get things done: passing minimum wage, closing Germany’s nuclear power plants after the Fukushima explosion, promoting marriage equality, keeping the EU and the U.S. united in sanctioning Russia for invading Crimea, as well as rescuing the euro in 2008. In 2015, in her typically undramatic way, she announced, “Wir schaffen das,” we can handle this, thereby allowing 1 million refugees from the wars of the Middle East a chance to restart their lives in German society. To a remarkable extent, Germany has handled it, though the AfD sits in the Bundestag as a result.
Merkel does not seem to crave the trappings of power. She has no private jets, yachts, or mansions. Her security personnel are instructed to hang way back. (I’ve observed her shop for shoes: the image of a middle-aged lady trying on footwear, betraying not a hint that this is the world’s most powerful woman buying six identical pairs of sensible black flats.) She and her scientist husband live in the same apartment, across from Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, that they’ve lived in for decades. Only his name is on the buzzer. Her modest country house in her native Brandenburg is no paparazzi magnet. And here is another remarkable feat for one of the world’s most famous people: She has ferociously fought for, and has been largely granted, the right to a private life. Her closest staff was not sure where she spent her annual August break last year. (Mostly in her country house.) So, another formula for political longevity: If you are not constantly in the public’s face, chances are people won’t tire of you quite as fast. Even in her own country, Merkel is a figure of some mystery.
Persistence is a key component of the Merkel model. Merkel refuses to give up on even bad actors. She knows when Putin lies to her. He claimed, as his military moved into Crimea, that the “little green men” were not his militia. “We have eyes, Vladimir!” an exasperated Obama exclaimed, and stopped engaging him. Merkel persisted. In a single week in February 2015, Merkel shuttled among nine cities, on two continents, in search of peace.
Read: Does Germany hold the key to defeating populism?
She’s applied the same approach to Trump. Armed with maps and charts, she patiently explained to the American president how many jobs German car manufacturers create in South Carolina, and why NATO is about shared values, not merely dues paid into an account. In her view, even if only 10 percent of her message gets through, that’s better than giving up on Berlin’s most important relationship, its historic mentor and the midwife of German democracy, the United States.