Why Trump Looks Eerily Familiar to Germans

Many Europeans see the rise of Trump as part of a broad and disturbing trend towards far-right nativist nationalism.

Polish President Andrzej Duda, of the Law and Justice Party, is one of Europe's "little Trumps." (Czarek Sokolowski / AP)

The fascination with Donald Trump is as intense in Berlin as in Boston or Boise. When I visited several German cities this week for talks about the U.S. election, questions about Trump from students, academics, young think-tankers, and journalists outnumbered questions about Hillary Clinton by about 10 to one.

Trump drew so much interest partly because, to many Germans, he embodies an American tradition of candidates with unconventional backgrounds and unsteady policy mastery (Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger were two names I heard). To some, Trump—with his P.T. Barnum bombast—seemed to crystallize the convergence of entertainment and politics in American life.

But mostly, my audiences were fascinated with Trump because they see him championing and benefiting from the same resentments shared by the conservative populist movements all around them. In Germany, Trump is a figure of curiosity because of his uniquely American qualities; he’s a figure of concern because of his universal ones. “All these countries are electing their own little Trumps,” one prominent American observer of German politics told me. (Most of my sessions, which were organized under a U.S. embassy speaker’s program, were conducted with rules that did not allow direct quotation of the participants.)

In Poland, Hungary, and Denmark, conservative populist parties have already obtained power. On Monday, Werner Faymann, Austria’s long-time center-left chancellor, abruptly resigned amid rising anxiety within his Social Democratic Party about the growing strength of the country’s nativist Freedom Party. In France, Marine Le Pen of the National Front consistently ranks near the top in polls for next spring’s presidential election. England’s U.K. Independence Party largely fizzled in last year’s parliamentary election, but this nationalist wave is behind the campaign to get Britain to withdraw from the European Union, which will be considered in next month’s national referendum.

These parties all draw on distinct local concerns, but observers in Europe see far more similarity than difference among them. Like Trump, these politicians’ messages are built on two pillars: hostility to foreign influences and suspicion of domestic elites. All draw on the fear that economic and cultural globalization, along with demographic change, is erasing their nation’s unique identity—creating the imperative to make [fill in the country] great again.

They rail against immigrants, the threat of Islamic terrorism, and global economic integration, with the European Union playing the boogeyman role in their rhetoric that the North American Free Trade Agreement does for Trump. All scorn conventional leaders, who they portray as failing to muscularly defend endangered national interests. (Several have expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin, who trumpets similar themes.) And all seem to find their most passionate support among working and middle-class men.

Two factors have insulated Germany from these pressures. One is that it knows, as painfully as any country, that even cracking the door to extremism can end in catastrophe. (A remarkable public exhibit in Berlin tracking Germany’s experience under the Nazi government notes that Hitler’s party never won more than 37 percent in any election before he took power and eradicated all dissent.) More immediately, Germany also faces less economic strain than its neighbors, with unemployment at a 25-year low.

Yet Germany has hardly been immune to the nativist virus. Its new conservative populist party, Alternative for Germany, surged in three state elections in March and is now drawing about 15 percent of support in early polls about the parliamentary elections in the fall of 2017. The party, known as the AfD, was born primarily in opposition to Germany’s substantial contributions to the financial bailout of Greece. But it has morphed into the most militant voice of opposition to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policy of accepting a million or more refugees from Syria.

“The surge in their voter base is [a result of] the immigration wave which arrived in Germany,” said Michael Meier, the Washington director of Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a center-left German think-tank, in an interview. “I think many people were concerned whether this would continue, whether they will take away the social benefits of Germany, whether they will change Germany into a Muslim country.”

Meier, like most centrists in German politics, views those fears as “baseless.” But these arguments, intensified by concerns about security and terrorism, unquestionably resonate among a substantial portion of citizens. One national poll in March found that while three-fourths of Germans were satisfied with their economic situation, three-fifths were dissatisfied with Merkel’s refugee policies. And that number included nearly half of the members of the chancellor’s traditionally center-right party. The prevailing wisdom is that Merkel, arguably the most powerful among Europe’s elected leaders, is well-positioned to maintain control in next year’s vote. But some believe the election could measurably reduce her parliamentary majority if it becomes a referendum on her Syrian asylum policy.

Against this backdrop, many of those I met view Trump’s rise less as an American singularity than the escalation of a trend toward defensive nationalism across the Western industrialized world. Almost universally, they fear the implications if Trump wins. But they also fear that the economic and cultural anxieties lifting him are unlikely to dissolve, on either side of the Atlantic, even if he doesn’t.