Democracy Dies in Darkness

Europe

The rise of Trump has led to an unexpected twist in Germany’s election: A resurgent left

By Anthony Faiola

February 16, 2017 at 5:09 PM

Martin Schulz last month in Strasbourg, France, before stepping down as president of the European Parliament. (Patrick Seeger/European Pressphoto Agency)

The unconventional administration of President Trump may be causing consternation among American liberals. But here in Germany, the anchor of the European Union, Trump’s rise is helping fuel an unexpected surge of the left. 

What is happening in Germany is the kind of Trump bump perhaps never foreseen by his supporters — a boost not for the German nationalists viewed as Trump’s natural allies but for his fiercest critics in the center left. The Social Democrats (SPD) have bounced back under the charismatic Martin Schulz, the former head of the European Parliament who took over as party chairman last month and is now staging a surprisingly strong bid to unseat Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In a country that stands as a painful example of the disastrous effects of radical nationalism, Schulz is building a campaign in part around bold attacks on Trump. He has stopped well short of direct comparisons to Adolf Hitler, but Schulz recently mentioned Trump in the same speech in which he heralded his party’s resistance to the Nazis in the lead-up to World War II. 

Related: German politicians demand new deportation centers, re-vetting of migrants

“We will never give up our values, our freedom and democracy, no matter what challenges we are facing,” Schulz said in a recent speech. He added, “That a U.S. president wants to put up walls, is thinking aloud about torture and attacks women, religious communities, minorities, people with handicaps, artists and intellectuals with brazen and dangerous comments is a breach of taboo that’s unbearable.”

His anti-Trump platform comes as Germans are questioning American power more than at any point since the end of the Cold War, illustrating an erosion of allied faith in the new era of “America first.” A recent poll found that only 22 percent of Germans see the United States led by Trump as a “reliable partner” — putting it only one percentage point above Russia.

The traditional left remains in disarray in France and Britain. But buoyed by Schulz’s approach, his party last week pulled ahead of Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats in opinion polls for the first time in six years. Elections are not until September, but analysts are giving the SPD, under Schulz, its best chances to regain power since Gerhard Schröder lost to Merkel in 2005.

“There are different factors that are coming together for the SPD,” said Ralf Stegner, the party’s deputy chairman. “Schulz has provided a new impulse for people who were waiting to come back . . . but also, the new American president, because Trump’s presidency has politicized the German public, making them more active and aware.”

Without naming names, Merkel, who was perhaps closer to President Barack Obama than any world leader, has taken aim at Trump — criticizing, for instance, his refugee ban. But Schulz has also accused Merkel of being too diplomatic. 

Related: In Germany, the language of Nazism is no longer buried in the past

Germany, which shoulders the history of Nazi tyranny, is an outlier in containing the current spread of me-first nationalism. Even as far-right parties and isolationist politics gain ground elsewhere in Europe, the largest right-wing populist party here — the Alternative for Germany — has fallen slightly in the polls since Trump’s election.

At the same time, left-wing parties in Germany have seen a jump in dues-paying members. There are also signs that Trump’s election is making left-leaning voters in Germany more politically active. 

In 2015 during an annual news conference with reporters, Putin said, He is a bright and talented person without any doubt. He added that Trump is an outstanding and talented personality. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)
When Trump criticized Merkels refugee policy and described NATO as obsolete, Merkel hit back, saying in a statement that Europes destiny was in our own hands, she told reporters in Berlin. She added that Trumps positions had been known for a while. (Thomas Niedermueller/Getty Images)
We will work together to advance security, stability and peace in our region, Netanyahu said in a statement released a few hours after Trumps win over Hillary Clinton. (Kobi Gideon/AP)
In 2015, Then-British Prime Minister David Cameron said Trumps remarks about a Muslim travel ban were divisive, stupid and wrong, comments made to the House of Commons. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)
I think for the United Kingdom, Trump will be better for us than Barack Obamas been, of that theres no doubt, Farage told CNN in May 2016. Donald Trump dares to talk about things that other people want to brush under the carpet. (Gerald Herbert/AP)
On Jan. 25, 2017, during a live video statement, Pea Nieto slammed Trumps executive orders on immigration, saying that Mexico does not believe in walls and emphasizing once more that his country will not pay for a wall. (Marco Ugarte/AP)
When I saw todays gathering of the Republican Party retreat, Trump being there reminded me of Hitler addressing the Nazi Party, Fox told CNN International on Jan. 19, 2017. (Eduardo Verdugo/AP)
During an interview with French magazine Valeurs Actuelles in July 2016, Le Pen said that she would vote for Trump if she could. She added that what appeals to Americans is that he is a man free from Wall Street, from markets and from financial lobbies and even from his own party. (Jacky Naegelen/Reuters)
On Dec. 11, 2015, the Saudi prince tweeted: You are a disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America. Withdraw from the U.S presidential race as you will never win. (Petros Giannakouris/AP)
Arriving in London on May 10, Hidalgo was asked about the U.S. presidential candidates proposed ban on Muslims. Mr. Trump is so stupid, my God, she said. (Christophe Morin/Bloomberg News)
His discourse is so dumb, so basic, that it would ... help socialist politicians in Latin America, Correa told the Ecuadoran newspaper El Dia. (Kiko Huesca/European Pressphoto Agency)
On Feb. 26, 2016, Le Pen tweeted, If I were American, I would vote Donald Trump. (Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images)
On Dec. 7, 2015, Wilders tweeted: I hope @realDonaldTrump will be the next US President. Good for America, good for Europe. We need brave leaders. (Michael Probst/AP)
In a letter to Trump, Rivlin wished the president and his administration much success: On behalf of the people and State of Israel, I am honored to extend to you congratulations on your inauguration as the 45th President of the United States of America. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)
I consider Donald Trump a man who invests a lot in a policy of fear, the prime minister said on CNNs Fareed Zakaria GPS. (Pasquale Bove/European Pressphoto Agency)
A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian, Francis said on Feb. 18, 2016, after being asked about Trumps rhetoric regarding Mexican immigrants. CNN reported. (Andrew Medichini/AP)
On Jan. 22, 2017, May said: When I sit down [with Trump] I think the biggest statement that will be made about the role of women is the fact that I will be there as a female prime minister. Whenever there is something that I find unacceptable I wont be afraid to say that to Donald Trump, she told the BBC. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
We actually thank this new president! We thank him, because he made it easier for us to reveal the real face of the United States, Khamenei said, according to a transcript posted on his website. With everything he is doing ... he is showing the reality of American human rights. (Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters)
I regret that President Trump is slandering our country in his attempts to find reasons for what he wants to do in closing off the United States, Bildt said in a guest column for The Washington Post. If it were not for the massive turmoil that could ensue, I would urge him to skip one of his golfing weekends and come to us and see for himself. (Virginia Mayo/AP)
Photo Gallery: What 20 foreign leaders have said about Donald Trump

Take, for instance, Kristina Seidler, a 28-year-old mother and Düsseldorf resident who works as a substantiality adviser for a textile company. She has voted for the SPD before. But the day after Trump’s victory, she signed up as a dues-paying member and party volunteer. 

Horrified by Trump’s win, she said she sees the traditional left as the only answer and is preparing to put up posters and help with campaigning as the German election season rolls into high gear.

“What kind of sign is it for the world when a man who is a racist, who treats women so badly, can become the president of the United States?” Seidler said. “I thought, ‘It’s time for me to do something.’ ”

Perhaps the biggest single driver of the SPD’s new popularity, however, is Schulz.

The SPD is already part of Merkel’s governing “grand coalition,” with the party’s senior operatives filling top cabinet posts. Yet its popularity with its left-leaning base has been hampered by that power-sharing deal. Under its former chairman, Sigmar Gabriel — Merkel’s foreign minister — the SPD was struggling to distance itself from the current government. 

Enter Schulz, who last month took over as the party’s chairman and candidate, positioning himself as an “outsider” who could mix things up in Berlin. A 61-year-old who never finished high school, Schulz has embraced his imperfections, openly speaking about his battle with alcoholism. He started in local politics, becoming the mayor of the western German town of Würselen before being elected to the European Parliament in 1994.

He rose through the ranks as a champion of European unity, civil rights and social justice, becoming the parliament’s president in 2012. He has at times been chided for his tell-it-like-it-is approach, drawing the wrath of the Hungarian and Polish governments after decrying democratic lapses in those countries.

Critics call Schulz similar to Trump in at least one regard: He is a straight talker who argues against elites and favors the common man. He is also blunt — a trait that contrasts with Merkel, a leader famous for her meandering, parsed answers. 

“The way in which he conjures up the alleged division of society in a populist manner is along the lines of the post-factual methods of the U.S. election campaign,” Merkel’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, charged in Der Spiegel last week

In the dealmaking game that is coalition governments, Schulz may have several paths to the chancellery if his party can maintain its momentum. It will be difficult, analysts say, but Schulz’s rising popularity means it is no longer unthinkable that Merkel loses. 

Related: Germany used to be migrants’ promised land. Now, it’s turning them back

Merkel’s open-door policy for refugees brought a barrage of criticism from the conservative wing of her party. And despite Merkel’s hesitance, Horst Seehofer, head of her sister party, the Christian Social Union, appears to be extending his hand to Trump, praising the new president’s “consistency” and “speed” in implementing his campaign promises. 

A Merkel loss could mean a greater frost in German-U. S. relations, harking back to the days of Schröder’s cool relationship with President George W. Bush. Merkel, while hardly cozying up to Trump, has nevertheless avoided outright conflict. Analysts call that further evidence of her pragmatism and firm belief that Germany needs the United States, diplomatically and for collective defense.  

“Going after Trump might be a smart strategy for winning elections but not for running a government,” said Jürgen Falter, a political scientist at Mainz University.

Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.

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Anthony Faiola is The Post’s South America/Caribbean bureau chief. Since joining the paper in 1994, he has also served as bureau chief in Berlin, London, Tokyo, Buenos Aires and New York, and covered global economics from Washington.

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