Distant cousins: ‘Trumpism’ and Germany’s right-wing labor movement

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The fact that the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) is represented in the Bundestag marks a sea change in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Considering the social base of the right-populist revolt, some similarities — despite numerous differences — with “Trumpism” in the United States appear to exist. As is the case in the U.S., the right-populist bloc receives its support from all classes and strata of the population, it is interclassist in nature.

{mosads}It is met with above-average sympathies especially among workers. Winning 12.6 percent of the total vote during the latest general elections, some 19 percent of workers and 15 percent of trade union members voted for the populist formation.


Most AfD voters have a simple secondary school leaving certificate or secondary modern school qualification (enabling graduates to start professional training), while only 7 percent of academically educated people vote for the AfD.

Women are markedly underrepresented in the party’s electorate, although their share in rural and economically underdeveloped regions is particularly high. 

Compared to all other political parties, the AfD exhibits the largest income gap among its voters, but also the largest proportion of workers and unskilled wage earners. The social profile of the right-populist Pegida movement is likewise dominated by workers and wage earners with low and middle incomes.

The AfD pursues an approach that seeks to address “ordinary people” as the most important target group in its electoral campaigns.

The support from workers coincides with a radicalisation of the AfD. Having started out as a radical free-market formation, the AfD is increasingly becoming an ethno-nationalist, social-populist party.

Correspondingly, leading figures of the party like Björn Höcke declare that the German social question of the 21st century is a “question of distributing national wealth inside instead of outside the country.”

Simultaneously, they advocate for a tough border regime of “zero migration.” While the liberal-conservative current within the AfD is calling for a “national capitalism,” the national-social wing is keen to appropriate the labour movement’s 150-year-old legacy.

The latter current accuses the German trade union federation’s membership organizations of incredulously practicing an “oppositional relationship with employers” because they resemble “state-run unions” and are part of the establishment.

This strategy is actually working, and neither the left nor the trade unions have been able to formulate an adequate response thus far.

In the fight against the ethno-nationalist populist right, three problems emerge: First, right-wing oppositional works council slates, such as the Zentrum Automobil, have achieved remarkable electoral results in some of the trade unions’ strongholds.

In purely quantitative terms, right-wing works council slates or platforms appear to be no more than a marginal phenomenon, but would be a mistake to underestimate them.

Right-wing works council members make an effort to appear reasonably critical of globalization, combative and avoid any racist language at the workplace. That said, there is no doubt that leading members of the Zentrum Automobil are firmly rooted in the militant, violent far-right milieu. 

Another development appears to be even more dangerous. There are works council members who display model behaviour at work, are members of a DGB trade union, yet sympathise with Pegida and the AfD in political matters.

Given that they keep a low profile at the workplace, it is hard to openly challenge them. Wherever there are personal elections and no trade union representatives present, works councils harbouring right-populist orientations are not even apparent in the first place.

As the rather disturbing finding of our most recent study suggests, active trade union members, who help recruit their work colleagues to the trade union, at times are the same who volunteer to organize coaches to go to Pegida marches.

In their self-perception, these distinct actions represent mutually complementary aspects of their democratic revolt. Asked whether he considered Pegida to be a democracy movement, a works council member we interviewed responded: “I believe so.”

Theoretically, the movement could “appeal to anyone”; and although some sort of “Nazi shadow” indeed floated above it, in his view it nonetheless addressed issues which really “affected any normal person working a steady job.”

Nine of the 66 respondents we interviewed openly expressed sympathies for the far right. With regard to the criterion of xenophobia, the percentage would be markedly higher. This points to the third and, as it were, most difficult problem.

The Social Democratic Party (SPD) has lost a substantial part of its erstwhile working-class base of support.

The share of workers among voters with a preference for the SPD receded from 44 percent to 17 percent between 2000 and 2016. It must be added, however, that the working-class proportion of the entire electorate decreased during the same period.

With regard to the shares of both unskilled workers (24 percent) and trade union members (19 percent), the SPD ranks noticeably behind AfD (36 percent and 24 percent, respectively) as well as the Left Party (23 percent and 27 percent, respectively).

Compared to all other parties, the AfD received the largest share of votes among workers as well as unskilled wage earners. Unfortunately, Social Democracy’s de-proletarianisation and the abandonment of its traditional platform cannot be easily reversed.

The party is in free fall in recent polls, with figures below 20 percent — a development which threatens its existence as such. As long as the party remains in a coalition government with the Christian Democrats, any meaningful policy change is impossible.

When Martin Schulz became the new party leader, many hoped for a German Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders. What they got instead was a bearer of hope without any political substance. At the moment, an improvement of the situation inside the SPD is not in sight.

In the social response to the ethno-nationalist danger, the trade unions therefore assume a key role. Trade unions are often the only remaining democratic institutions still able to connect with and reach out to workers sympathising with the populist right.

It remains unclear, then, as to how exactly a successful engagement with radicalised populism could look like. Two approaches to anti-populist politics seem conceivable. The first requires harsh measures on the part of companies and works councils in order to intimidate authoritarian characters.

Taking a “clear stand” represents a practice mostly pursued by academically educated trade union secretaries with an Antifa socialisation who are ultimately, given their self-understanding, not even able to act otherwise.

For advocates of the second position, often with a working-class background, this is not enough, however. If the organisation limits itself merely to excluding workforce representatives from the trade union, it simultaneously abandons the represented workforces to the orientation offered by Pegida and the AfD, as the experience-based argument would have it.

Any realistic strategy will have to be situated somewhere between these two extremes. The first step toward a successful engagement with ethno-nationalist populists is to earnestly admit that which philosopher Jürgen Habermas has expressed as follows: What is emerging in Germany is “the breeding ground of a new fascism.”

It emerges because the ethno-nationalist right has successfully turned social grievances into a mobilization resource. Only if it is edged away from the social question through an authentic political project from the left can the further advance of the populist right be brought to a halt.

Klaus Dörre is a sociologist at Friedrich Schiller University Jena, where he focuses on theories of financial capitalism, employment and right-wing populism. He recently carried out a study of union members’ political views.

Tags Alternative for Germany Bernie Sanders Pegida Political spectrum Political terminology Politics Populism Populist Party Right-wing populism Trade union trumpism

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