Analysis

Trump’s Victory Leaves Merkel One of the Few Sane Leaders Left

With the Republican populist to the west and Putin to the east, the German chancellor is feeling alone both on the Continent and around the world.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel reacts to Donald Trump's election victory, Berlin, November 9, 2016.
Reuters / Axel Schmidt

November 9 is a highly significant date in German history. On November 9, 1918, the Weimar Republic was established, a weak state that went from crisis to crisis, paving the way for the Nazis’ rise. On November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht foreshadowed the Holocaust.

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and with it the East German communist regime. November 9, 2016 is also a historic date in German history. Donald Trump’s emergence as the next U.S. president has left German Chancellor Angela Merkel nearly alone as a leader who still believes in peace, reconciliation, human rights and democracy.

Many people view Merkel as the only significant sane voice left in a world shaken by upsets and crises divided Europe included. Now that Britain has opted to leave the European Union, Merkel probably figured she could at least rely on the shared approach and values with the United States.

But on Wednesday she awoke to the news that she could be on her own facing Russian President Vladimir Putin to the east and Trump to the west, amid other questionable characters such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Philippines’ rising star, President Rodrigo Duterte. There’s no doubt that for Mama Merkel, as she’s called in Germany, the Trump era will be no easy time.

The German chancellor understands the weight of responsibility on her shoulders. After learning the U.S. election result Wednesday, Merkel faced the cameras in Berlin with an expression more appropriate for a Jewish day of mourning, the Ninth of Av, than the Ninth of November.

In her two-minute address, she unenthusiastically wished the president-elect well. At times her appearance was reminiscent of her press conferences with a certain Israeli leader she’s not particularly fond of.

Her remarks were clear. “In the case of Germany, there is no country outside the EU that we have deeper ties to than the United States,” she said. “The person leading that country, with its military might and cultural influence, assumes a responsibility that is felt throughout the world. Americans have decided that this responsibility should be assumed by Donald Trump.”

Merkel mentioned values that she believes connect the United States and Germany – values that Trump is far from identified with. Her list includes democracy, freedom, the rule of law and respect for the individual “without regard to origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political beliefs .... Based on these values I offer to work closely with the future president of the United States, Donald Trump.”

Will Trump extend a hand in return? Time will tell. During his election campaign he dubbed Merkel’s refugee policy, which opened the door to more than a million immigrants, “a total disaster.” But Merkel has been careful not to criticize Trump, and even on Wednesday she didn’t speak freely, though members of her cabinet have.

Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, who has called Trump “authoritarian,” dubbed the presidential candidate’s election victory “a return to those bad days.” The German defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, called Wednesday’s result “a huge shock,” adding that Trump realizes “that the vote wasn’t for him but rather against Washington, against the establishment.”

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who once labeled Trump a “hate preacher,” expressed his own concerns about the Trump era, saying: “Nothing will become easier. Many things will become more difficult. We don’t know how Trump will govern America.”

Trump’s rise to power is seen in Germany as a portent of the end of the liberal democratic era as we’ve known it. Germans fear that Trump’s election will harm NATO as well as the strong economic ties between Germany and the United States.

The election might also be a catalyst for bolstering other extremist forces in Europe, including in Germany itself. It was no coincidence that the only German party that congratulated Trump on his victory was the far-right Alternative for Germany.

The party did well in state elections in Germany earlier this year and shares values with Trump like hatred of foreigners. Trump’s election, said senior Alternative for Germany official Beatrix von Storch, “is a sign that the citizens of the Western world want a clear change in policy.”

But it’s not all grim at least according to German Justice Minister Heiko Maas. He tweeted in German about Trump’s victory: “The world won’t come to an end, it’s just getting crazier.”