In Germany, the baseball cap is not a common sight. So when Beatrix von Storch, a leading voice of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), donned a red one, the sight turned some heads, especially because of its similarities to President Donald J. Trump’s signature campaign cap. But instead of the inscription “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN,” von Storch’s read “MAKE GERMANY SAFE AGAIN.” On September 24, AfD became the first far-right party to win seats in the Bundestag since World War II, and the third-largest party in the nation’s parliament.
While it’s true that far-right political parties in Europe long pre-date Trump’s presidential campaign (see Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded France’s Front National in 1972), European politicians with xenophobic, racist, and/or misogynist views are finding inspiration in the 45th president of the United States. Nigel Farage, former leader of the U.K. Independence Party, campaigned with Trump. Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, hobnobbed with the notable celebrities of the U.S. far right who came to witness Donald Trump’s acceptance of the GOP presidential nomination at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Farage’s specialty is xenophobia; Wilders’s is Islamophobia. In 2016, Wilders told revelers at a far-right event headlined by Milo Yiannopoulos, then of Brietbart.com, that “Islam has no place in a free society.” Both are leaders whose movements formed long before the Trump campaign, but who doubtless see Trump’s rise as a harbinger of their own presumably coming good fortune.
Beatrix von Storch
Sometimes the inspiration goes the other way around, however. Presaging Trump’s war with the National Football League over the practice of an increasing number of players—nearly all African American—who refuse to stand during the playing of the national anthem before games in protest of racism and police brutality, AfD’s von Storch kicked up some dust with a what appeared to be a complaint about the ethnic and racial composition of Germany’s team in the Euro 2016 soccer championship. “Well, maybe next time the German NATIONAL TEAM should play again,” von Storch tweeted. Most took that to be a comment on the fact that five players on the German team were immigrants.
When controversy ensued, von Storch deleted the tweet. But after Trump’s attack on the protesting players, von Storch might be more willing to stand by such convictions. After all, Trump leads the world’s economically and militarily dominant nation, and apparently sees no downside in calling Colin Kaepernick—the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who began the protest during his tenure with the team—“a son of a bitch” and demanding the firing of players who refuse to stand for the anthem. Yet, as von Storch claimed in the wake of the controversy stirred by her soccer tweet that her it was not about immigrants but about national pride, so Trump claims that his remarks had nothing to do with race, and are simply about “respect for our flag and for our country.” If nothing else, there’s an exchange of energy going on here.
Any differences between AfD politicians and Trump often seem to be merely by matter of degree. Von Storch called for “illegal immigrants” to Germany to be shot at the border; Trump has merely called for their detention in harsh conditions and their ultimate deportation.
Before it became known foremost as an anti-immigrant party, AfD made its mark as the party that opposed Germany’s participation in the European Union.
In Munich, at one of Angela Merkel’s final campaign rallies before last Sunday’s election, Wilfried Biedermann, the local AfD chairman of Munich-Ost, was passing out literature for his candidacy, hoping to peel votes away from Merkel from among those who normally vote for the Christian Social Union, an affiliate of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Talking to a small group of U.S. journalists, Biedermann expressed his enthusiasm for Trump’s message.
Speaking English, Biedermann told the reporters: “When Donald Trump says, ‘America first,’ we say, too, ‘Germany first.’”
Some in liberal circles dismiss the importance of AfD’s triumph in this election, which amounts to its seating in parliament as a party, because of the fact that it drew a mere 12.6 percent of the vote, as opposed to as the CDU’s 32.9 percent and the Social Democrats’ (SPD) 20.5 percent. But that 12.6 represents an uptick of some 7.9 points since the last election cycle. Meanwhile, the two major parties, CDU and SPD, lost 8.6 and 5.2 points, respectively.
Others cite squabbling within AfD as a sedative to feelings of alarm. But internecine political warfare doesn’t always amount to defeat. Just look at the Trump campaign, whose first two leaders, Corey Lewandowski and Paul Manafort, were each fired before Stephen K. Bannon was appointed in August 2016 to lead the final sprint to the White House.
You can issue all the caveats you want. As in the last U.S. presidential election, the energy, clearly, is on the right in Germany’s political culture. And AfD turns its lonely eyes to Trump.
Adele M. Stan explored the German elections as a guest of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, an independent foundation affiliated with Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD).