WEST DES MOINES — Marco Rubio is talking about the decline of the American military. Matthias Kolb can hardly believe what he’s hearing.
Standing at the back of a packed and overheated sports bar, Kolb, a soft-spoken journalist, stops scribbling notes when the Republican candidate hits this point in his campaign speech: “We’re on pace to have the smallest Army since the end of World War II, the smallest Navy in 100 years, the smallest Air Force in our history.” But as president, Rubio pledges, he would rebuild the military, “because when America is the strongest country, the world is a much safer place.”
A few minutes later, driving across the frost-laden Iowa prairie, Kolb sounds dubious. “The American military, it’s the most advanced!” he exclaims. “NATO depends on the U.S. military. There’s no need to believe the American military is getting weaker. This whole thing, it’s so overblown.”
Things look and sound a little different when you’re a German newspaper reporter covering the American political circus.
Kolb, 35, is a digital correspondent for Süddeutsche Zeitung (literally, “Southern German Newspaper”) assigned to his second presidential campaign. If the political process occasionally strikes native-born Americans as odd, it can look positively, well, foreign to a journalist from Munich who’s just dropped into the American heartland.
For eight days leading up the Iowa caucuses, Kolb crisscrossed Iowa in a rented Jeep, steeping himself in the quadrennial spectacle. Among other things, he covered a raucous rally for Donald Trump in Des Moines, a Bernie Sanders speech near the Mississippi River in Davenport and a get-out-to-caucus event for Hillary Clinton at the Family Fun Center bowling alley in tiny Adel.
Along the way, Kolb forms one strong impression: Unlike the formal, coalition-building, consensus-driven politics of his native land, the American campaign is a bare-knuckle brawl. Other parliamentary democracies tend to see it the same way. Western Europeans typically can’t begin to comprehend, for example, the boorish insults spewed by the GOP front-runner, Donald Trump. Or even Hillary Clinton’s fervent bashing of Republican economic policies.
“The hostility is just something we don’t do in German politics,” he says.
When the candidates talk up their faith in evangelical Iowa, it’s also a little strange to Kolb. (“Religion does not play a role at all in our politics or society,” he says. “Germans don’t go to church.”) Ditto Obamacare, gun control and abortion. Those issues are more or less settled in Deutschland, he says. Talk-radio bloviators, polarized cable-news channels? Unknown. Campaign ads? Well, there are some of those, but not many, given that Germany’s national election campaign lasts all of six weeks.
Kolb finds Trump’s candidacy eye-opening, too, but not just for his polarizing style, which seems to intrigue German readers almost as much as it does Americans. It’s that Trump is a candidate at all. German billionaires simply don’t declare that they’re running for national office; politicians dutifully work their way up through the party ranks until they’ve reached leadership positions. For a German to run for high office without any political experience “is beyond belief,” he says, as is a candidate worth “eight or nine figures.”
Kolb knows that working for a European news outlet won’t land him many scoops or even much access to the candidates. (“German newspapers don’t bring them a lot of votes,” he notes wryly.) Occasionally, he can’t even get inside the building. In Iowa, he spent several days trying to secure media credentials to the Republican debate in Des Moines. No dice, he was told.
So Kolb’s strategy is to get as close as he can and concentrate on explaining some of the nuances of American politics to his readers.
When Trump decides to skip the Fox News-sponsored Republican debate in favor of holding his own event, for instance, Kolb’s article about Trump’s counter-event gets to the heart of the matter: “What happens on the small stage at Drake University for an hour is beside the point. Because Trump has reached his goal: For days, the media was just talking about him and his feud with Fox News — and not his rival Ted Cruz. And because more than 100 journalists had been accredited and dozens of cameras were present at Drake (Trump said it was ‘like the Oscars’), Trump proved once again that he better understands the media business than any other competitor.”
If the politicians are generally indifferent to Kolb, the people seem to be a different story. “For a reporter, America is really great,” says Kolb, who is based in Washington. “I find ordinary people are open to sharing their thoughts. They talk about their ideas. They’re chatty. It’s easier to get along. In Germany, if people don’t know you, they wonder why you’re coming into their space.”
Besides, he adds, “Germany has a good image in the U.S. You like our cars, our beer.”
Kolb grew up in Munich’s suburbs (his father was a manager at Siemens, the Munich-based multinational conglomerate; his mother was a teacher), and graduated from one of Germany’s leading journalism schools. He caught the reporting bug as a teenager. When he found that a memorial to the slave-labor victims of the Dachau concentration camp in his home town was more or less hidden in a courtyard at his school, Kolb, then 19, wrote a series of articles for his local newspaper. The stories prompted officials to move the memorial to a more prominent location.
In 2012, his paper asked him to cover the U.S. presidential election for its website, a prestigious assignment. Having grown up traveling on Germany’s efficient rail system, he decided he didn’t need a rental car when he first landed in Miami for the Florida primary; the decision cost him a fortune in cab fares. He covered the midterms in 2014, too, and traveled through 21 states on a fellowship last year.
Mild-mannered and pale, with straw-colored hair, Kolb is a friendly presence on the campaign trail. He speaks English nearly flawlessly, the result of studying the language since he was 10.
One morning in Iowa, he shows up at Ted Cruz’s bustling headquarters in Urbandale, just outside Des Moines, eager to see Cruz’s vaunted get-out-the-vote operation. He arrives without a firm appointment, but communications director Rachael Slobodien gives him the run of the place, anyway.
“I am Matthias, a reporter from Germany,” he says by way of introduction to K.C. Broyles, a cowboy-hat-wearing Cruz volunteer from Texas (Kolb is particularly fond of Texans; their swagger and confidence remind him of people in his native Bavaria). Soon, the two men are chatting and laughing, and Broyles is asking Kolb questions about Germany’s refugee crisis. At the end of the encounter, Broyles hands Kolb his business card and invites him to a meeting of his group back home, the Clear Lake Tea Party.
Kolb reasons that the rhetoric in the American campaign is more heated and passionate than in his country because “there are such huge things at stake” in this election, such as the possible repeal of Obamacare, immigration and security, and various foreign crises.
Germany’s politics have their fault lines, too — particularly now with the influx of so many refugees — but, he notes, his is a mostly prosperous, largely homogeneous and stable nation protected by American military strength.
This makes German politics kind of boring, although Kolb doesn’t use that word. “During my lifetime, there has always been a consensus” about important national issues, he says. Germany’s multiparty system fosters political coalitions, rather than the winner-take-all combat of the presidential elections.
From his reading and his travels, he views the United States as a mighty country, not without its problems and challenges, but filled with strength, diversity, creativity and optimism. After a few days of reporting in Iowa, he confides that he has trouble squaring the tone of the campaign he’s been covering with the nation he’s experienced for the past few years. “It’s astonishing,” he says, “to hear people say America is going down the drain.”
In this, he sounds pretty much like any other patriotic American. At least one who isn’t running for president