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US elections 2016

Could Trump happen in Germany?

DW's Jefferson Chase says that many aspects of German politics mitigate against a German equivalent of Donald Trump. And the reasons why help explain how he was so successful in the American political system.

As an American citizen in Germany, I was in great demand among my friends as a conversation partner after Donald Trump's surprise election as US president. Most people in Berlin and the rest of the country find the idea of someone like the maverick Republican taking the reins of power a little short of a nightmare. And the question my friends asked most often after "How did it happen there?" was "Could it happen here?"

Right-wing populism is on the rise in Germany, along with the rest of Europe, as the recent successes of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) political party and the Pegida movement attests. Certain segments of the German populace are undoubtedly fed up with the status quo. Moreover, though you'd be hard-pressed to find a blowhard German celebrity of quite Trump's caliber, Dieter Bohlen - the obnoxious face of the German version of the reality TV show American Idol - might do a passable imitation.

But for a variety of reasons, a German iteration of Trump - for convenience's sake let's call him Der Donald - is very unlikely. One of them is the way German political parties choose their candidates for higher office.

There is no German equivalent of state-by-state primaries accessible to anyone who registers him- or herself as a Republican or Democrat. As a rule, the major German political parties select candidates for offices at conventions open only to often non-elected delegates, and in any case only established members get a say in who will represent a party in important elections. You can't just declare yourself a member of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) or the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and expect to have a say in party affairs. Candidates in Germany are thus much more tightly connected to the mainstreams of the parties in whose names they run.

Trump was very much an outsider to politics and to the Republican Party when he declared his candidacy for the nomination after riding down an escalator in Trump Tower on June 16, 2015. There are no such figurative escalators in German politics. Der Donald wouldn't even be allowed to put himself forward within any of Germany's established parties, and there is effectively no way to become chancellor as an independent candidate.

A system of coalition and compromise

Dieter Bohlen bei DSDS (picture-alliance/dpa)

A charismatic reality TV star like Dieter Bohlen would have little chance in German politics

Theoretically, Der Donald could exploit his fame to found a new party or take a central role with relative speed in a recently-formed constellation like the AfD, which lacks a long history and an established internal structure. The latter is what Adolf Hitler did when he began his political rise with the National Socialists, which ended in him becoming German chancellor in the Weimar Republic in 1933.

But even within a non-traditional populist party, it's unlikely that Der Donald could become chancellor in today's Federal Republic of Germany. Unlike the US, the German political system doesn't operate according to the principle of winner takes all. Quite the contrary, it seeks to reflect proportionally the views of all voters, including those who cast their ballots for parties that don't "win" their elections. As a result, it is difficult to imagine a two-party system comparable to that in the US.

Since any party that gets more than 5 percent of the vote in a national election is represented roughly proportionally in the German parliament, the Bundestag, parties need to cooperate with one another if they want to govern. In the 67-year-history of the Federal Republic, only one party - the CDU along with their Bavarian cousins, the CSU, from 1957 to 1961 - has ever enjoyed an absolute majority. All other governments have been coalitions, and for no fewer than three terms, the CDU-CSU and the SPD (the closest German equivalents of the Republicans and the Democrats) have shared power.

Trump is hardly known for his ability to compromise and work together with others. And even as the leader of a powerful political party, if his policies remained extreme and his manner exceedingly confrontational, Der Donald would have trouble attracting the coalition partners he'd need to take power.

A coalition-favoring system is by no means foolproof, as the case of Hitler shows. But the Federal Republic is set up to encourage power sharing as way of limiting political extremism. One major Trump strength is the popular belief that he's against the political system. Der Donald, by contrast, would hardly be able to maintain that pretense and would probably quickly be seen as just another politician.

Unless, of course, he won an absolute majority. But on that score, too, there are major differences between Germany and the United States.

Proportional versus winner-take-all

USA Wahlen Reaktionen Medien Zeitungen (Getty Images/AFP/B. Fathers)

Most Europeans are horrified by the idea of a homegrown Trump

One of the aspects of the US system that my German friends have great difficulty understanding is why, in a system based on winner takes all, the overall winner doesn't actually have to garner the majority of the total popular vote. That was the case for the second time in five election cycles on Tuesday, with Hillary Clinton earning 47.6 percent to Trump's 47.3, belying any ideas of the Republican having mobilized a "silent majority." Trump voters were neither silent nor were they in the majority.

Trump won the Electoral College, which is based on state-by-state results. To become German chancellor, a candidate must possess a majority in a national parliament that is constituted proportionally based on votes received both by individual candidates in districts and parties in general. Germans essentially have two votes, one for their parliamentary representative and one for the party they support, and some people choose to split those votes.

The state-by-state, winner-takes-all US system privileges the voices of people in smaller places and diminishes the say of those in large population centers like New York or California. The proportional German system, with no state-by-state distinctions, reflects the wishes of the populace as a whole concerning the chancellor, even if Germans do not directly elect their most powerful politician (technically, neither do Americans).

As a rule, the chancellor comes from the party that receives more votes than any other. Although coalition possibilities can complicate the situation, no one has become chancellor without winning the popular vote since 1976. By comparison, since 2000, a Republican has twice claimed the presidency without a plurality of total votes. If the US system had been nationally proportional, Clinton would have eked out a razor-thin victory on Tuesday.

The current US system favors Republicans at this historical junction and arguably benefits populists with outsized personalities at the expense of less charismatic traditional politicians. When I moved from the United States to Germany 20 years ago, I didn't even consider the differences between political systems in the two countries. The German system is by no means perfect. But as I've been telling friends a lot in the past day or so, there's a lot to recommend about the way the Germans elect their top leaders.