BERLIN — In Germany, he was a California boy made good — a 29-year-old from Fresno whose thriving burger joint in the western city of Essen served up towering plates of greasy American goodness.
Then Nicholas Smith came out on national television as a Trump fan.
What followed — a de facto boycott of his restaurant, followed by its surprise rescue by the German right — suggests how the polarization of the Trump era has gone global.
“I was trying to make a business work,” Smith said. “But then it became just about my politics.”
Far beyond the United States, President Trump is emerging as a symbol of ideological division. In international right-wing circles, he is becoming as worthy an idol as Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But particularly in places like Europe, where a certain brand of anti-Americanism often lingers just below the surface, Trump’s rise has also stirred deep animosity along with serious concern.
In Britain, nearly 2 million citizens signed a petition trying to thwart Trump from making an official state visit, arguing that the requisite audience with Queen Elizabeth II would embarrass her. In Antwerp, Belgium, the wood-paneled Cafe ZeeZicht has replaced Coca-Cola and Lay’s potato chips with local sodas and snacks in a sort of European version of the 2003 “freedom fries” fracas.
In France, meanwhile, far-right presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen has been praising Trump — dragging out fiery phrases like “today the United States, tomorrow France.” In Germany, one right-winger has launched a Facebook page titled “Donald J. Trump Fanclub Deutschland.”
Yet in Germany, polls show that an overwhelming majority are deeply uneasy about Trump’s presidency. And as Smith’s experience shows, they are willing to vote with their feet.
It started innocuously enough. At Halloween, Smith agreed to host a forum on the U.S. elections with German broadcaster ZDF at his eatery, Gringo’s California Kitchen. Of the seven American panelists, he was the only Trump voter.
“I said what I felt, that my experience as a small-business owner has led me to believe that regulations and taxation are damaging to the creation of jobs, and that Trump is about fixing that,” he said.
After the show aired, German newspapers, radio stations and top broadcasters came calling en masse.
In notable appearances on the respected “Maybrit Illner” show, Smith found himself engaging in heated debates with members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet and the European Parliament.
In one exchange, he presented Trump’s argument that U.S. allies should pay more of the cost of their own defense.
“I said, ‘Look, you have free education, high-speed rail and great highways because we paid for your defense,’ ” Smith said. “I tried to explain that that’s an important factor as to why Trump has so much support, because Americans feel like we’re subsidizing our allies. The audience broke out in laughter. They didn’t get it.”
Soon after that November appearance, he said, he got the first in a barrage of negative comments on his restaurant’s Facebook page. Initially, business at Gringo’s — located in a highly liberal neighborhood in Essen — wasn’t affected much. But after Trump’s surprise victory, his regular customers, Smith said, started to disappear.
By the time Trump imposed his initial travel ban on seven Muslim-majority nations, so many German critics had cited his politics as a reason not to eat at Gringo’s that it became, in effect, a boycott, Smith said.
On Smith’s personal Facebook page, former customer Gerd Dillon-Schoder wagered that Smith “would have liked Hitler as well.”
“If you are so in favor of walls, I wonder what you want here in Germany. We fought for walls to disappear. . . . I find you unbearable and will never set foot in your restaurant again.”
Another critic, Peter Koch, a 43-year-old health-care worker, also posted about the declining sales.
“If you don’t understand it, why don’t you think again. If your place is about burgers, talk about burgers. But since you are such a big fan of this auxiliary dictator, why don’t you just go back to the promised land?”
The backlash reached a point, Smith said, where he would pass regular customers on the street and they would simply refuse to speak with him.
“We used to be packed at night,” he said. “But if we were lucky, we were having three customers a night.”
He said he tried to engage his critics, both in person and via the German media. Many accused him of being homophobic and racist for supporting Trump. He countered that he is none of the above, describing himself as a gay man who voted for Barack Obama twice.
“It’s not easy to define the people who support Trump,” he said. “But the critics don’t want to hear that.”
He was reconsidering whether Gringo’s would remain financially viable when a counter-
ovement abruptly began. As news spread of his falling business, right-wing populist Germans started spreading the word: Eat at Gringo’s.
Some of the newcomers lived in and around Essen, but others drove for hours to show their support. By February, Smith’s burger business was booming again.
“I went to dinner there twice, and then to lunch, and asked all my friends to come out and support Nicholas,” said Andreas Hellmann, 28, a German conservative activist. He recently moved to Washington for a job with a nonprofit, but he visited Gringo’s during a trip home this month. One of his friends drove 22 miles from Düsseldorf to join him.
“In the U.S., I see the division. There is all this hatred, and people can’t argue in a decent way anymore,” Hellmann said. “I feel the same thing is happening in Germany now.”
A good number of Smith’s new customers have come from the nationalist right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party — including from its small base of gay supporters.
“I personally welcome Trump’s politics,” said Adrian Ochmanski, 36, the North-Rhine Westphalia state coordinator for the group Homosexuals in the AfD.
And, he added, “I personally try to support Mr. Smith by going to eat there and spread the word.”
Yet the boom in business, Smith fears, may not last — especially as more-distant conservatives find it tough to drive miles out of their way for a pro-Trump burger every night. In fact, in the past few days, he said, business has begun tapering off again.
He is already mulling backup plans.
“I thought about asking for a job with the White House in case the restaurant closes,” Smith said.
Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.