In February, I traveled to Europe and gave a guest author talk in Dusseldorf, Germany about US politics and life in America under Trump. It was an amazing visit, a dream-come-true trip! I got to meet lots of local German progressive activists from Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), the center-left party in Germany’s parliamentary system. They had lots of great questions and perspectives; it was actually kind of embarrassing how well-informed my German audience was about U.S. politics and election minutiae—I went over there thinking that I might need to explain basic concepts like the Electoral College, but instead people in Germany were asking me questions like, “Why did Hillary do so badly in Michigan?” and “Do you think Bernie could have done better than Trump at relating to Midwest working class white voters, even though Bernie is a self-described socialist from Brooklyn-via-Vermont?”
Germany has an inspiringly progressive political culture; in general, most of the issues that are so contentious in American politics aren’t a big deal in Germany. The political consensus in Germany, broadly speaking, is farther to the left than it is in America; even Germany’s conservatives are quite liberal by American standards.
Germany is not constantly trying to take away women’s health care and rights to abortion. They have universal health insurance and free university tuition that is supported by everyone’s tax dollars. There is no death penalty in Germany and they don’t have much of a problem with gun violence. Even under a “conservative” government led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany has made massive investments in renewable energy (while phasing out nuclear power altogether) and has admitted more than 1 million refugees from Africa and the Middle East.
Germany—former home of Nazism and the Berlin Wall—has become one of the most progressive and welcoming countries in the world. Of course, Germany still has its problems; a resurgent right-wing party called Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) is on the rise, there have been hate crimes committed against refugees, and Germany is witnessing rising income inequality that is causing political tensions like we’ve seen in Britain and the U.S. But in general, Germany seems to be a bulwark of relative democratic stability and sanity in these tumultuous times.
I wanted to share the perspectives of some of the German progressive activists who I met in Dusseldorf who asked particularly great questions. I talked with SPD activists Ulrich Schweitzer and Thomas Gestrich about what message they would offer to America about what we can learn from Germany’s experience, and where we might go from here.
Ulrich Schweitzer, Sociologist, Member of SPD-Düsseldorf-Friedrichstadt: To be honest, to me Trump is really a strange guy. I have been reading newspapers for about 60 years, but I cannot remember ever experiencing an American president like this one. Even now, months after the US election, I have problems understanding how citizens of the US could give their votes to a person who tells such bizarre and untrue stories (The Washington Post has summarized a number of lies told by Trump), who has no political experience at all, and finally, who is suspected of having suspicious connections to the Russian government. In the very first days of his presidency, I really have been afraid of actions by the new president anywhere in the world.
So I am very glad to see the democratic system of the U.S. working to defy the first decree of Mr. Trump concerning the travel ban against citizens of certain Muslim-majority nations. And yet I read about the president’s reactions criticizing the judges, working hard to neutralize (by assaulting and despising) the media, which are so important for a democracy.
Thomas Gestrich, Consultant, Member of the Board of SPD Düsseldorf: German Social Democrats, from my point of view, regard Mr. Trump as a person that does not regard Democracy as a society model, that is rooted in human and civil rights, implemented by democratically and rightful laws (“Rechtsstaatsprinzip”) and then—finally—makes decisions by the calculus of a majority-rule.
Instead, he feels obliged solely to his group of voters and understands his election as the all-embracing permission to decide, neglecting the accompanying powers of the Legislative branch and the Courts (“Balance of Powers”). In brief: he has not understood the nature of contemporary Democracy.
Accordingly, Social Democrats have the impression, that Mr. Trump follows a path towards an authoritarian system. Yet, he encounters clear boundaries, set up and enforced by America’s civil society. Mr. Trump’s set of values has an unambiguous tendency (and describing it this way is almost too polite) towards discrimination, latent racism, anti-emancipation, mercantilism and domination.
Ulrich Schweitzer: American progressives should avoid getting drawn into Trump’s constant media chaos. Try not to follow the schedule of Donald Trump, who is giving new “information” every day (“alternative” facts in the most cases), new lies (the “massacre in Sweden” for example), trying to scandalize the political world around him (the press, the judges, Obama) and, in the end, trying to confuse everybody to distract from his own faults. On the one hand, clear reactions and criticism of the policy of the new president is quite necessary and completely correct, but American progressives should keep in mind their own schedule and mental energy and avoid getting drawn into Trump’s falsehoods and chaos as far as possible. And they should not try to deal with every single thing the president says on Twitter, but rather deal with the truly important information. Keep filtering the information to preserve your mental energy.
Thomas Gestrich: My personal advice would be to use the non-executive and therefore countervailing powers of the U.S. system to fight legitimately and legally against an Executive branch that either has not understood the structure of a Democracy or neglects its components. So far, citizens of the U.S. as well as some American officials are doing this job excellently. “Endurance” and “sustainability” are the key values to be promoted (which, by the way, counts as well for the democratic movements happening right now in other countries such as Russia, Turkey, Hungary, the Philippines and Poland). As Martin Luther King showed: a movement must have an endurable breath.
How do you feel about the idea that Trump is not unique to America, but is part of a broader global pattern of rising nationalism, right-wing populism, and distrust of the post-World War II global economic and political order? Do you worry that Germany could face a similar result to Trump in your upcoming election, with the rise of AfD (Alternative fur Deutschland)? Why or why not?
Ulrich Schweitzer: It is true, we have already seen the election of several right-wing governments in Europe—for example, Hungary and Poland—producing difficulties with regard to the constitutions in those countries. Europe is also seeing nationalist movements in other countries like France, Germany, and the Netherlands. But I do not see these forces taking over the government here in Germany. In Germany, the AfD is a movement that has to be looked upon severely—these AfD people sometimes present very old ideas even of Nazi times in a smooth and sophisticated form. And really we have problems of rising social and economic inequality in our country, which could cause protests against establishment parties or even against the present democratic form of the society. And yet: AfD is rather far away from gaining power. Opinion polls say they are near at 12%, maybe 15% of followers, and none of the other parties has the intention to form a coalition with AfD. (One parallel between AfD and Donald Trump: AfD also call the news media liars, in the generalized form “Lügenpresse”).
Thomas Gestrich: Mr. Trump is not a phenomenon that is unique to the U.S. From my point of view we have to face two aspects: A) Globalization has become a more powerful economic and political force than ever before, because it has become technically possible, because people in less developed countries have become better educated, and because international trade has become less regulated. Thus, globalization has improved the material situation of many people in less developed countries, in part at the expense of jobs and/or income in other wealthier countries. B) People in more developed countries who have not benefited from globalization are scared to lose their socioeconomic position, and therefore seek a leader to help them. These leaders offer easy solutions, that typically include the idea of isolationism. This leads to hostility against immigrants and other marginalized groups. And this is a peril for democracies, including Germany.
Yet, I am not too worried, despite the existence of the AfD, because in a Social Market Economy system like Germany, we have public policy instruments to address these issues. These include making a better redistribution of wealth towards the lower income groups and promoting a better education of the people, that enables them to understand the peril of authoritarian systems. In order to bring that education to the people, it has to be offered free of charge. Countries that follow the paradigm of a Free Market system tend to refuse those instruments of promoting social equality. In brief: the challenge in the age of Trump is that we have to handle globalization in a more just way.
Ulrich Schweitzer: I am feeling both optimism and pessimism. Optimism because I see millions of people in American, even in the first days after the inauguration, demonstrating against a president who does not at all respect people of other countries or religions, who disrespects women, who disrespects the constitution and so on. And I see the US courts working in a very serious form, obliged to the law and not to the president (who did not yet understand the principle of separation of powers).
Pessimism: to see a president disrespecting the constitution and the principle of separation of powers is a troubling sign. And to be honest, the majority of the Republican Party makes the impression of being completely oriented backwards with no idea of social equality. There are other ways to organize a society, like Scandinavian societies did many decades ago.
Thomas Gestrich: I do admire the determination of the people to show their rejection of those measures that harm democratic rights, and I do admire the courage of some institutions to apply their power; so far, America’s checks and balances do work.
I am worried about the cast of judges at the Supreme Court. The more conservative the group will be, the more probable it will become that liberal rights will be repressed (as we have seen happening in Poland).
I am also worried that Mr. Trump’s policies could cause an economic decline, which might even worsen the situation of the people who have suffered from globalization, and therefore might further increase their anxiety and anger.
Many thanks to the SPD Dusseldorf-Friedrichstadt group for hosting my speaking gig in February! I appreciate your hospitality, insights and perspectives; best wishes for the German election in September!
Watch the video of Paste Magazine writer Ben Gran’s presentation in Germany about life in America under Trump—with English and German translations! Part 1 and Part 2.