Germany: Welcome to the world of Trump

Germany: Welcome to the world of Trump
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The 2017 Bundestag election handed the German political establishment its version of Trump shock. An upstart politically incorrect party (the Alternative for Germany, AfD) gained its maiden entry into the Bundestag as its third largest faction.

The combined total of the two major parties that had dominated postwar German politics fell from two-thirds to slightly more than half. As the fractious AfD takes its seats in the historic Bundestag, exit polls suggest that the establishment should take the concerns of the German people seriously, especially the more than one million new voters brought in by the AfD.

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The AfD’s entry into the Bundestag, with 94 of the 709 seats, does not seem like a political earthquake to outsiders. Although the AfD will be the third-largest of Germany’s six parliamentary parties, it has no chance of being in a ruling coalition.

 

The real import of the AfD’s unexpectedly strong showing is its challenge to Germany’s fabled postwar political consensus. France may have its National Front, Holland its Party of Freedom, and Hungary its Jobbik, but sensible German voters could be counted on, or so it was thought, not to succumb to the lure of nationalism.

The 2017 election raises the fundamental question of whether Germany must rethink ideological foundations that are no longer in touch with the German people.

Germany’s four-party establishment agrees on a general consensus, challenged only by a marginalized anticapitalist left (die Linke).

This consensus states that Germany must:

  • maintain a Sozialstaat of generous welfare benefits and tightly regulated labor markets;
  • promote Europe as a political union with open borders and a supranational bureaucracy;
  • place European above national interests; and
  • foster a Wilkommenskultur that promotes a multicultural German society.

Per the establishment, the German Volk must collectively bear the guilt for their National Socialist past, and any party that wishes to honor Germany’s war dead (like the AfD) is only a step removed from national socialism. 

The election caught the German political establishment off guard. Exit polls show that a majority of voters want to limit immigration, fear the growing influence of Islam and are not satisfied with the government’s immigration policy.

Half the voters feel that the AfD better understands their insecurity. As to AfD voters, 100 percent are not satisfied with immigration policy, and 90 percent-plus are very concerned about the loss of German culture, the too strong influence of Islam and the drifting apart of society.

German voters want politicians to address the more than one million immigrants that have flooded into Germany, the mass New Year’s rapes at the Cologne train station, terrorist attacks in Berlin, Ansbach and Wuerzburg, soaring crime rates and bailouts of spendthrift Greece. 

Despite substantial agreement with the AfD platform, only 13 percent of German voters cast their ballots for the AfD. Thus, the 2017 election could be a harbinger of change. Either other parties take up parts of the AfD program, the AfD develops into a major party or voter sentiment changes back in favor of the German consensus.

The AfD had its strongest showing, at second place, in the eastern states of the former German Democratic Republic. In Saxony, the AfD became the largest party and could conceivably elect an AfD minister president in the next regional election.

The 2017 election made the AfD the representative party of eastern German states in place of die Linke. The former communist Germany has moved from the far left to the right.

Germany’s eastern states offered a fertile ground for the AfD message that the establishment is more interested in Europe than in its own depressed eastern backyard. The establishment’s western voters are employed, earn higher wages and receive higher pensions than easterners.

The establishment favors open borders that flood labor markets and take away jobs. East Germans suspect the establishment’s Sozialstaat gives immigrants better apartments and subsidies than its own people. 

Another factor explains why the AfD message resonates in the East: The East Germans, who grew up under communism, were taught that they were the “good Germans.” After all, their communist leaders fought the Nazis from the underground or fled to Moscow to avoid arrest.

The Nazis were the ones to find safe havens in the West German establishment. Although the German West was inculcated with a dark sense of collective guilt, East Germans were spared. They are more prone to accept the AfD nationalist message that it is time, after almost 70 years, for Germany to rid itself of its Schuldgefuehle and for Germans to feel proud again.

Consider as well the state of Bavaria that has been dominated by Merkel’s sister-party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), throughout the postwar era. The CSU has exercised national power over the years by hitching itself to the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) bandwagon.

Once CDU values diverge from those of the prosperous and socially conservative Bavaria, however, the CSU stands to lose votes. Indeed, the CSU’s share of the 2017 vote fell from 49 to a disastrous 39 percent as the AfD siphoned off votes.

In the recriminations that followed the Bavarian debacle, the leaders of the CSU complained that Merkel’s obeisance to open borders, abortion, alternative lifestyles, “enlightened” family policy and Europe “uber alles” is costing them their constituency.

Merkel, they complained, left Germany’s right flank wide open for the AfD raiders. If Merkel does not tack to the right, losses will mount, and Bavaria could eventually end up with an AfD minister as president. At least, the Bavarian party is worried by the AfD message.

The shock waves of the AfD taking up its quarters in the Chancellery Building, staffing its delegates with public funds and occupying its seats in the historic Bundestag are reverberating throughout the establishment.

Entry into the Bundestag gives the AfD allotted time during question periods and automatic access for its views on the nightly ARD and ZDF news broadcasts. In one fell swoop, the AfD will gain the respectability of an established party, which is infuriating Berlin’s political elite.

The shock of these events is like those of the Tea Party movement, the Trump administration arriving in Washington or Andrew Jackson’s backwoodsmen celebrating in the White House. The German establishment will continue to lump the AfD together with skinheads and extremists who burn down immigrant housing.

Various civic groups and talk-show panelists will warn that German democracy is at risk, that Jews should flee to Israel and that national socialism is about to return. How well the discrediting of the AfD will work depends in large part on whether AfD’s leaders feud to the extent that they have no coherent message.

Will they remain a protest party or broaden into the voice of reasoned nationalists with a coherent policy for market reforms, European Union limitations and immigration? One thing is certain: The German establishment will resist the AfD message because it challenges its core beliefs.

Paul Gregory is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He holds an endowed professorship in the Department of Economics at the University of Houston, Texas, is a research professor at the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin and is emeritus chair of the International Advisory Board of the Kiev School of Economics.