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When Trump and Clinton talk Germany worlds collide

Michael KniggeAugust 18, 2016

Thanks to Donald Trump, Germany plays an unusually pronounced role in the US presidential election campaign. But what both candidates say about it sounds like if they are talking about two different countries.

Bildkombo Trump Clinton Thema Deutschland
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Arco Images/ W. Wirth

Germany, as most countries, normally doesn't feature prominently in US presidential election campaigns. Countries that do rise to the level of becoming a recurring theme in elections tend to be either pronounced American adversaries, places where the US is actively engaged in a major military operation or a combination of both.

That's why European states, including Germany, rarely end up as more than a footnote in US election campaigns. Ordinarily, presidential races are run and decided by domestic issues - often the economy. But this is no ordinary presidential election. And so it happens that Germany and its chancellor have suddenly been dragged in to play a prominent role unparalleled in recent memory, in the ongoing US election circus.

Unique role

"This is in some ways unprecedented," said Jeffrey Anderson, director of the BMW Center for German and European Studies at Georgetown University.

"It is kind of unique where Germany is at the moment, given things in Europe and in the US election cycle," concurred Michael John Williams, director of the program in international relations at New York University.

The most recent instances, noted the scholars, in which Germany featured in any significant way in US elections were in relation to the so called Euro missile crisis in the late 1970s, German unification in 1989 and Germany's opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Still, they argue, in those cases Germany had never turned into the kind of mainstream campaign topic it has become now.

Germany owes its unusual role in this election to an equally unusual presidential contender, Donald Trump. By bringing Germany up consistently and controversially the Republican candidate has single-handedly forced a country that still grapples with its increasing international profile into the global spotlight of a historically noxious presidential race.

Angela Merkel Person of the Year Time Magazine Ausschnitt
Trump has repeatedly singled out Angela Merkel in his attacksImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Time Magazine

Terrorism and immigration

Typical of most political campaigns, Trump's depiction of Germany is neither nuanced nor comprehensive. Instead his portrayal of the country focuses almost exclusively on one major theme: terrorism and immigration. But what stands out, aside from repeated factual errors, is the dark prism through which Trump views Germany and the vitriolic tone he employs to describe the country and its leader Chancellor Angela Merkel:

"I always thought Merkel was, like, this great leader. What she's done in Germany is insane" Trump said in an interview in October 2015 about the German chancellor's decision to allow more than a million refugees into the country. In the same interview he predicted: "They're going to have riots in Germany."

In December, after Chancellor Merkel had been named person of the year by Time magazine, Trump tweeted, they picked the person "who is ruining Germany."

Overthrowing the government

Three months later at a rally in Iowa, Trump, in response to the Cologne New Year's Eve assaults on hundreds of women, doubled down on his earlier prediction of public unrest coming to Germany. "The German people are going to riot. The German people are going to end up overthrowing this woman [Angela Merkel]. I don't know what the hell she is thinking."

In May, Trump said about Germany, "it's crime-riddled right now."

In June during his remarks on Brexit, Trump speculated about Germans emigrating: "These are people that were very proud Germans that were beyond belief, they thought the greatest that there ever was and now they're talking about leaving Germany."

In July, Trump blamed Germany and France for the recent terror attacks in both countries and suggested citizens of those countries should face "extreme vetting" when entering the US.

And this week, he declared, "Hillary Clinton wants to be America's Angela Merkel, and you know what a disaster this massive immigration has been to Germany and the people of Germany. Crime has risen to levels that no one thought they would ever, ever see. It is a catastrophe."

Dog-whistle politics

Asked to comment on the nature of Trump's portrayal of Germany, Anderson said "there is no just parallel there." He noted that he doesn't believe Trump's Germany bashing is the result of a well thought out game plan. "I think it is much more insidious," Anderson said, as Trump was clearly engaging in dog-whistle politics:

"I think he views Europe as weak, he views Germany as weak and what's worse, Germany is led by a woman. So he is signaling that Angela Merkel is the personification in some ways of weakness because she is a European woman who is leading a European country. Has he ever uttered those words? No. But I am pretty sure that's what's going on here."

"I think what Donald Trump says appeals to a basic instinct in human beings which is fear," said Williams. "He is stoking that and it appeals to his base which is very much rabidly supportive of him and thinks that Germany is going to become the next Islamic Republic."

Deutschland Hochtechnologie Co2-Laser Maschinenbauer Trumpf in Ditzingen
For Clinton Germany is an economic competitor and role modelImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Bockwoldt

Ally and competitor

Contrary to her Republican rival, Hillary Clinton references Germany sparingly and positively in her campaign rhetoric. When she mentions the country it is usually as key ally and friend, but also as an economic competitor and role model.

In a counterterrorism speech in May, Clinton spoke about military burden sharing: "We'd like to see more European countries investing in defense and security, following the example Germany and others have set during the Obama administration."

And in her recent speech on the economy, Clinton mentioned "Germany, Japan, Italy" as role models of how to keep precision manufacturing jobs. "There is no reason we can't begin to make those machines ourselves and supply the rest of the world instead of buying from somewhere else."

In the same speech, Clinton stated: "Some country is going to be the clean energy superpower of the 21st century and create millions of jobs and businesses. It's probably going to be either China, Germany, or America. I want it to be us!"

Competing versions

So whose version of Germany connects better with its intended audience, the American voter? Trump's portrayal of Germany as a doomed country on the brink of revolution? Or Clinton's positive depiction of Germany as an ally, role model and economic competitor?

While ardent Trump and Clinton supporters will probably stick to their candidate's version of Germany, how it resonates with undecided voters is less certain.

Anderson thinks that it will likely only reinforce their image "that Trump is just not a serious candidate and really is at sea when it comes to these complex international issues." His colleague Williams is not convinced: "Even for those who are not Trump supporters, but are maybe more in the middle, but are just concerned about terrorism and security there is definitely something in his message."