Angela Merkel’s advisers see a chance that Donald Trump’s swipes against the chancellor could work in her favor as she seeks a fourth term as German leader.
While Trump’s approach is raising concern in the Berlin chancellery, the U.S. president-elect may inadvertently help her in the election this fall, according to two people with knowledge of Merkel’s thinking. Trump’s brand of politics, including his habit of lashing out without considering the consequences, could serve as a negative example of populism, said one of the people. Both asked not to be named because the deliberations are not public.
Polls suggest most Germans were already put off by the U.S. president-elect’s rhetoric and policy positions even before his latest volley, published in the country’s biggest-selling Bild newspaper. Though he expressed respect for Merkel as Europe’s pre-eminent leader, Trump laid out stances on the European Union, NATO and the economy that signal a fundamental clash with the chancellor’s defense of free trade, open borders and liberal democracy.
“I believe the Trump presidency will lead German voters to recognize how serious the situation is, including threats to our security,” Norbert Roettgen, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union who chairs the German parliament’s foreign-affairs committee, said in an interview.
Faced with a voter backlash against her refugee policy and vehement criticism from the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party, Merkel is homing in on Trump as a foil in her most difficult election campaign yet. As Europe’s political establishment also faces electoral onslaughts by Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front and Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders, Merkel is presenting herself as guarantor of German stability and export-driven prosperity in turbulent times.
“Le Pen, Brexit and Trump are the warning triangle of populism,” Jan Kallmorgen, head of political-risk analysis firm Berlin Global Advisers, said in an interview. “Trump’s whole style, including his treatment of the press, is really quite foreign to us.”
The view inside the chancellery is that it would be utopian to expect Trump to change his ways after he takes office on Friday, meaning that he’ll have to be dealt with as he is, according to one of the people. Merkel will push back by reinforcing her message that values such as democracy and press freedom are worth fighting for, the person said. Merkel’s chief spokesman, Steffen Seibert, declined to comment.
The disconnect with Trump’s stances hits home in Germany, where the U.S. led the post-Nazi revival of democracy, and open borders spurred growth after the end of the Cold War. With Trump in the White House, 55 percent of Germans fear that U.S.-German relations will worsen, according to a Jan. 10-12 FG Wahlen poll of 1,292 eligible voters.
Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the U.S. who now heads the Munich Security Conference, told an audience in Berlin last week that he fears “a new wave of anti-Americanism” in Germany as a result of Trump’s stance on the trans-Atlantic relationship.
Citing Trump’s remarks casting doubt on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s clause pledging a joint response against an attack on any member country, he warned of a “fundamental departure from the established values” of the postwar order. With the U.S. threatening to abandon its leadership role, “we are in for quite a bit of serious difficulty,” Ischinger said.
Merkel’s stand may flip voters to the CDU, particularly among supporters of the Greens, a liberal party with a base among urban middle-class voters. About 19 percent of Green supporters said they could imagine voting for the CDU this year for the first time, according to a Jan. 12 Civey poll for Berlin’s Tagesspiegel newspaper.
That might help Merkel make up for voters lost to Alternative for Germany, which seized on Trump’s comment that her open-border refugee policy is a “very catastrophic mistake.” The party’s Facebook page features the tagline “Make Merkel small again,” a play on Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan.
“The points raised by the future U.S. president in his interview sound absolutely sensible,” said Paul Hampel, a member of the party’s national leadership.
Even before Merkel and Trump meet face-to-face, the clash is under way between the leader of Europe’s biggest economy and the man who told a campaign rally in August that “Merkel’s not going to be re-elected.” Addressing a business group in Cologne on Monday, Merkel vowed to fight for free commerce, including trade agreements.
“I have a lot of determination, but the number of doubters is growing,” she said. “In every generation, one has to fight for one’s ideals.”