Why Merkel loves to hate Trump
Last week, German chancellor Angela Merkel spoke at an election rally in a packed beer tent in Munich. ‘The times in which we can rely on others completely, they are a bit over’, she said. ‘That’s what I have experienced in these past days… and that is why I can only say, we Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands.’
Spoken in her typically strange style, these words followed US president Donald Trump’s first official trip to Europe, during which he criticised German trade, threatened to pull out of the Paris climate agreement (which he has followed through on), and lambasted NATO members for not paying enough towards security.
Merkel’s response was hailed as a brave attack on Trump. But it was hardly out of the blue. After the US election, Merkel reminded Western leaders they must uphold the core Western values of human rights and diversity (an obvious swipe at the supposedly ‘deplorable’ president). Her deputy chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, was more blunt, labelling Trump ‘the trailblazer of a new authoritarian and chauvinist international movement’.
After Trump’s supposed snubbing of Merkel, even the SPD’s Martin Schulz, her rival in the upcoming election, hit out at the president for daring to humiliate ‘our chancellor’.
Some have suggested that Merkel is picking on Trump to distract from her own shortcomings. Rather than talking about policy, goes the theory, she is trying to play on people’s fear and dislike of Trump. There’s something to this. She has always known how to ingratiate herself to middle-class voters. And, in this election campaign, she has been weaker on policy than ever. Until recently, people feared she would never say anything at all. One newspaper even jibed: ‘Imagine there is an election, and she doesn’t show up.’
But there’s something deeper going on here. For German politicians, Trump is the embodiment of the anti-establishment mood. And he is being held up as a kind of threat, as a reminder of what might happen if we stray from the virtuous path of mainstream politics. Fearing a populist upsurge, the establishment uses Trump to demonise dissent, particularly in relation to Europe. As one writer put it: ‘Merkel knows [that] Trump’s rudeness and arrogance can unite Europe.’
Trump, then, is not just an easy target, and a means of shifting the spotlight – he’s a stick with which to beat dissatisfied Germans into submission, and a proxy for those at home who dare to question the elite. Merkel’s Trump-bashing isn’t just opportunistic — it’s anti-democratic. German voters should reject it.
Sabine Beppler-Spahl is head of the board of the liberal think-tank Freiblickinstitut e.V., which has published the Freedom Manifesto. She is also the organiser of the Berlin Salon.
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