But while disaffected workers in the Rust Belt had gravitated toward Trump’s message in large enough numbers to swing the election, the AfD’s appeal had been limited in the Ruhr region. Three days after my visit, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, along with a sister party, won the national election with 33 percent of the vote. The AfD outperformed pollsters’ predictions, with the third-highest share of votes, after the center-left Social Democratic Party—nearly 13 percent, enough to enter parliament for the first time. It was an impressive, and sobering, result. Yet it might easily have been worse. In May, in the French election, the nationalist leader Marine Le Pen carried 34 percent of the vote. Before that, more than half of the United Kingdom had voted to exit the European Union. And while the AfD did well in the east (which is more socially conservative and economically troubled than the west, akin to the American South), its results in the industrial west were lower than the national average.
There are several explanations for the AfD’s qualified success. Germany’s Nazi past has left its citizens wary of racialized rhetoric; its multiparty political system offers voters several choices (the business-oriented Free Democratic Party also made gains); Trump and the Brexit vote have given a bad name to right-wing, antiestablishment politics. But the explanation that came up most often in my conversations with politicians, political scientists, and regular Germans was an economic one.
Germany is much more equal than the United States. The top fifth of U.S. income earners make eight times as much, on average, as the bottom fifth, while in Germany, the higher earners make only about four times as much, largely because CEOs and other well-paid Germans have seen their incomes go up less, over time, than their counterparts in the U.S. The German tax system distributes more from the rich to the poor, and unlike in the U.S., the government covers the cost of basic social services—health insurance, child care, nursing care, even college. Americans believe that their country’s free-market economy fosters healthy competition and allows the energetic and entrepreneurial to inevitably rise; in fact, economic mobility is considerably greater in Germany’s “social-market economy.”
“This is a country which to some extent guarantees its people access to essential facilities, like health and education, regardless of their income level. In exchange, people are less ready to support right-wing populism,” Friedrich Heinemann, an economist at the Centre for European Economic Research, in Mannheim, told me. “They say, ‘Okay, this is a country where we can live well.’ ” Of course, social spending doesn’t make countries immune to populism—look at Le Pen’s success in France, which invests even more in welfare programs than Germany does. But the combination of market forces and the social safety net that Germany has engineered does seem to have kept most people there feeling satisfied that the government is looking out for them. As of last year, 55 percent of people in Germany said they trusted their government, compared with 30 percent of people in the United States.