What is Populism? and Populism: A Very Short Introduction

As we come up on the 2022 midterm elections in the United States, and right-wing extremism expressed in the idiom of populism continues to circulate alongside a growing number of politicians sounding the alarm about democratic survival (see Joe Biden and Barack Obama’s recent speeches, along with Liz Cheney campaigning in my home state of Michigan for Elissa Slotkin), I wanted to take a comparative look at two short books about populism that were published in 2016 and 2017, right at the moment of Trump’s campaign and presidency.

What is Populism?, by Jan-Werner Müller, was published by German publisher Suhrkamp in 2016 and then in English by the University of Pennsylvania Press that same year. He is a political philosopher currently working at Princeton who has written several books on theories of democracy and right-wing figures, including Carl Schmidt.

Populism: A Very Short Introduction, by Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, was published by Oxford University Press as part of the Very Short Introduction series in 2017. Cas Mudde is a political scientist at the University of Georgia and very well known as a scholar of right-wing politics and European extremism. Kaltwasser is a professor of political science at Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago, Chile.

These two books are very different. Mudde and Kaltwasser have written an introductory text that is historically informed and investigates multiple forms of populist movements globally over multiple centuries. Müller’s book is more of a political polemic that was very popular as an explanatory text in 2016, and certainly made the rounds of academics in the humanities as a book outside of political science that many people read and talked about.

As political commentators opine in these days before the midterm elections about red waves and disastrous inflation and candidates in the Republican Party who also adhere to the Big Lie, I am consistently surprised by the willingness of large media outlets to provide oxygen to narratives that they (should) know will harm the democratic and civic fabric of society. Trying to predict the outcome of an election, an activity that certainly provides clicks but also can demotivate voters by suggesting that the outcome is a foregone conclusion and not dependent on their individual behavior, is an activity I consider destructive. And yet, in the days leading up to the election, this is perhaps the most common style of both articles and clickbait in various races from the House and Senate campaigns down to governor’s races and state legislatures.

Consequently, I was actually appalled when reading Müller’s text to notice that his book makes some fundamental mistakes. His overarching argument is that populism is a danger to democracy, a reductive thesis that I would not expect from a political theorist. Mudde and Kaltwasser offer a more sensible approach to populism as a movement, pointing out that populist rhetoric can often serve to bring more people into civic and political engagement. What happens after a populist movement succeeds in contesting elections depends upon whether those civically engaged newcomers persist in populist rhetoric and political tactics that become more extreme, or whether the political system can appropriately shape their behavior in ways that temper impulses that could become a danger to democratic procedure.

The other mistake Müller makes is to confuse media spectacle and representation in political rhetoric for action and ideology. Mudde and Kaltwasser do not make this mistake, perhaps because they are more focused on political representation and electoral outcomes and don’t confuse that with representational narrative forms that are the object of discursive analysis.

Publishing for a general audience often relies on polemic and for authors to confirm beliefs their audience already holds. Müller’s text fits this paradigm: rather than looking explicitly at populist movements in comparison, at the various outcomes a populist movement could have within a democratic system, and at the role of the media in stocking or stifling populist rhetoric, his narrative confirms (slippages included) the opinions and fears of an audience dismayed by the populist tactics employed by Donald Trump and the contemporary Republican Party, as well as the Alternative for Germany party.

The problem with this style of writing is that polemic does not educate – it irritates. Especially on this topic, a narrative that plays fast and loose with parsing the variety of outcomes and futures made possible by certain semantic behaviors in the media runs the risk of amplifying some of the sentiments the author purportedly wants to act against. To put it more simply: Müller conflates right-wing extremism with populism and by doing so, stokes attitudes of fear and anger.

Admittedly, it is much more difficult to hold the attention of a general audience when you make the kinds of reasoned demands of readers that Mudde and Kaltwasser do. They look at the origins of populism in 19th century Russia and the United States; explore different movements globally, especially in Latin America and Europe, and require a level of distance between the environment in which the reader may live and the distance of an historical and analytic gaze. Their examples require either tolerance on the part of the reader for not having immediate associations with political contexts and leaders with which they may not be familiar, or a willingness to move slowly through the text in ways that may challenge reader assumptions. If you don’t have a global framework already in place when you read their text, and if you don’t have a basic mental map of Latin America, Europe, and Asia and a rudimentary understanding of the political systems in place in the largest countries, I can imagine their text would be challenging to read. But I want to emphasize that this text is not written in an idiom for experts: the Very Short Introduction series is explicitly designed to introduce readers to a theory, topic or formation. All of us who teach literacy in its various incarnations have extensive work to do in teaching our students that quality texts deserve their energy and attention.

Authors who write texts for general audiences and the presses that publish them have a responsibility, especially when writing about politics and extremism, to not add fuel to the fire. We need to craft narratives that are both accessible and specific enough in their analysis that they don’t become part of polemic machinery that generates sales at the expense of analysis. As highly trained readers, we also have a responsibility to bring that critical lens to the texts that we read and to resist being drawn in by an industry that somehow seems hell-bent on contributing to democratic collapse.

The Centrality of Gender to Right-Wing Extremism

I remember having a conversation with a postdoc while I was researching in Germany about the “right to abortion.” She gave me an amused smile, and asserted that in Germany there was no “right to abortion.” Abortion in Germany is illegal, although it is permitted provided certain circumstances are met during the first trimester. But I understand the nature of our misunderstanding now to have been a cultural one: as an American citizen, where we have had the right to both privacy and abortion for nearly fifty years, I was unable to comprehend how a highly industrialized country such as the Federal Republic had also not protected this right for their citizens.

The leaked Alito/Coney Barrett Supreme Court draft opinion is now a constant topic on our media landscape. As commentators continue to remind us, the right to privacy in a variety of situations, from interethnic/interracial relationships to the legality of queer sex and fundamental rights of bodily autonomy, is linked to the particulars of Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Center (MS), the current case about which the draft opinion was leaked. Memes are also asserting the connection of criminalization of abortion and miscarriage as essentially an attempt to eliminate the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Here’s the logic. If abortion is criminalized as a felony, and felons are not permitted to vote, by extension, women’s bodies and their uncontrollability becomes the subtextual logic that would strip women caught in this tangle of legislation of a basic right of citizenship: the right to vote and participate in democratic processes. (Women also tend to vote Democratic, even if that margin is slim, primarily due to a subset of white women who determine the needs of their husbands to be more important than their own.)

Although queers, transpeople and families with transgender kids have long been aware of the maniacal importance of gender for right-wing politics, I get the sense that some people are just waking up to the expansive attempts by right-wing politicians and actors to limit gender expression for all bodies. There is perhaps no issue more important to authoritarian actors than gender, because gender serves as a foundation for so many other rights that are deeply related to family life and the performance of gender and reproductivity. Freedom of movement is often regulated through migration regimes that extend rights through family connections that permit resettlement, residency permits and access to citizenship. Tax law is based on benefits provided for married couples; health insurance access – especially before ACA – was provided through either employment or marriage. Schools are funded through property taxes, benefitting communities in which families purchase houses – and who can afford houses? Primarily families with double incomes – or patriarchal families with substantial means from one income, typically a domain of men.

There are two posts coming on this blog: the first will compare two of the primary introductory texts about populism, Cas Mudde and Christobal Rovira Kaltwasser’s Populism: A Very Short Introduction and Jan-Werner Müller’s What is Populism?

The second will review Agnieska Graff and Elzbieta Korolczuk’s Anti-Gender Politics in the Populist Moment. Politics in Poland is not so different from American politics in some of its recent events: the Black Protests of 2016 – when the Polish courts tried to tighten an already limited abortion policy – were founded in a gendered critique of care work and ultimately successful in preventing those changes from taking effect.

Doctors can still be imprisoned for providing “illegal” abortions, however, and persuading a woman to get an abortion in Poland is a criminal act.

Critiques of “Day X” (NYTimes)

On my Facebook timeline yesterday, a photo popped up of myself at a protest of the 2017 inauguration of former President Trump. The photo was labeled, as the Facebook archive does, “5 Years Ago Today” and I was struck by the rapid passing of time, especially as covid compresses the experience of how time passes.

In terms of understanding the symbiotic relationship between profit-generating media and democratic processes, we learned a lot from how the media covered the 2016 election campaign. There was far too much pastiche for the far and extreme right (especially at The New York Times); too much misogyny from all sides directed towards Hilary Clinton; and too many reporters took far-right talking points seriously instead of seriously considering the very real threats to the continued functioning of our public media and democratic processes through this type of journalistic attention. (If you want to read a really compelling narrative about how journalists felt about their engagement, what it means to amplify the voices of those who represent a threat, and how journalists could perform their jobs differently, see this report by critical media scholar Whitney Phillips put out by Data and Society called The Oxygen of Amplification (2018).)

The “Day X” podcast not only amplifies a far-right extremist’s views by giving him airtime and including interview tape for a large part of episode three, it also fundamentally misunderstands some of the critical issues that undergird far-right and extreme-right politics.

There were three main critiques that i had of the podcast. First, there’s an unwillingness to understand one of the most obvious tenets of nationalism and how this intersects with national defense. Franco A., the former military officer who disguised himself as a refugee may have been planning a violent attack to potentially turn the public against refugee resettlement. (That happened anyway – while Franco A. was caught, other perpetrators were not, and radical groups like the Gruppe Freital, the perpetrators in Chemnitz, and individual perpetrators still managed to instigate violent acts against asylum-seekers, targeting both individuals and refugee housing.) The reporting team on this podcast seems to be flabbergasted that parts of the German military had been “infiltrated” * by nationalists. But national armies are inherently nationalist. Soldiers are not necessarily extremist, but the patriotic values that are inculcated through military training and patriotic defense (no matter how often Germans deny they feel patriotic feelings) are the definition of nationalism. While “Day X” uses a melancholy soundtrack to imply that “infiltration” of the army is a dangerous, dangerous threat, what it neglects to take into account is why people who find extremism attractive may be drawn to the hierarchical and nationalistic order provided by participation in the military of any nation. (We will look at this particular issue in a later post.)

Second, the podcast includes a rather long, evasive interview with Franco A. While the reporter declares that the team thought long and hard about whether to include this interview, I don’t agree with their choice to include this much tape. Franco A. is evasive, illogical, and taking these reporters for a ride. He lies about actions he later admits in court. Watch right-wing politicians talk with reporters and they will evade their questions in similar ways: the only way to thwart this kind of attention-seeking is not to provide extremists airtime.

Finally, as I hinted at in the kick-off post to this blog’s focus on far-right and extremist politics, the reporting team in the final episode (titled “Defensive Democracy”) comes off as rather superficial about both German history and German social trends. Their subtextual adherence to the Sonderweg thesis is strong. This thesis implies that Germany’s path to democracy followed a different trajectory than in all other places and correlates with the politics of Holocaust memory in Germany in very specific ways. The notion that Germany has atoned for the Holocaust by “coming to terms with the past” and explicitly educating the public about genocide; supporting the state of Israel to the point of not even permitting critique of Israel’s land-grabbing behavior and mistreatment of Palestinians; and supposedly being shocked when right-wing extremism becomes visible in a German context, permits two further ideas. One implication is that Germans have done everything right in terms of accepting their historical culpability, which means extremists can be explained away as somehow external to the system rather than originating within it. Second, the sheer disbelief that extremism could reappear in Germany, of all places completely misreads the development of the global and transnational forms of extremism that are particular to the global conditions in which we live today. Germany is not isolated from what happens in Europe or the United States or the rest of the world. There should be absolutely no shock – in a country that saw right-wing political movements gain representation in the early 1950s, the 1969 election, and throughout the 1990s in state elections – that at some point these movements would succeed in garnering federal representation and/or compel broad, ideological social acceptance. Indeed, this has been the aim of the Neo-Nazi National Democratic Party for decades: to make extreme ideas common in public space so as to reduce the social shock when citizens encounter extremist ideologies. (For more on this idea, see: Fabian Virchow (2004) “The groupuscularization of neo-Nazism in Germany: the case of the Aktionsbüro Norddeutschland,” Patterns of Prejudice, 38:1, 56-70).

There are points in this podcast where the team attempts, but fails, to take some of these ideas into account. The critique of the German government’s tendency to label violent extremists who were connected online as “lone wolves” comes through loud and clear. Showing that at least someone on the team expressed concern at airing Franco A.’s interview means that – slowly, very slowly – journalists are reflecting on how they cover the far-right. But the overall effect I’m left with after a second listen is that these gestures are halfhearted and ultimately ineffective. The pull for sensationalism is too great. The worst thing we can do on the current media landscape is feed extremists attention and remain superficial in our understanding of where, how and why extremism arises. We need instead to think critically about how nationalism exists within rather than without state institutions.

For this reason, the next post will try to lay out some of the basic foundations of populist nationalist politics and what scholars know about it.

*I am skeptical about term “infiltration” and would like to find statistics about how often radicalization takes place within national armies.

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Day “X”

This past summer, the New York Times produced a podcast called Day X. This five-part podcast examined a mix of issues around the German Far-Right, from the National Socialist Underground murders, the police invasions of privacy known as NSU 2.0, the extremist Day X plot, and the scandals of extremists found within the ranks of the German armed forces, such as the now partially disbanded special forces unit known as the KSK (Kommando Spezialkräfte, Special Forces Command).

My initial reaction to the first episode was positive – it was clear that the journalist who produced the podcast knew the cultural and political figures who had long been targets of the far-right, such as Anetta Kahane of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation. It was refreshing, I first thought, to hear an English-language podcast that featured a cultural insider cognizant of German politics.

But as I continued to listen, I was dismayed at the repetition of the kinds of post-war tropes about German memory culture and coming to terms with the Holocaust that Michael Bodeman termed “Memory Theater” and that popular polemicist Max Czollek has criticized in his book Gegenwartsbewältigung (Coming to Terms with the Present). I reviewed Czollek’s book last year for Europe Now.

To my mind, one of the interventions that is critically needed for journalistic attention to the far, extreme and radical right movements globally are partnerships with scholars who have knowledge of the massive amount of research conducted on the far-right since the 1990s (there have been multiple waves of interest amongst social and political scientists in the far-right at various points since the 1920s). Over the course of the next year, this blog will attempt to do just that: make research conducted on the far-right accessible to a broader audience with a special focus on the contemporary German and Austrian extreme right-wing movements and parties.

Social scientists have accumulated expertise not only about voting behavior and protest behavior, but also have spent decades looking at the antagonistic politics of the far-right with respect to globalization, gender and sexual expression, education, political organizing, and separatist movements. Of particular interest in terms of these social issues for this blog will be racism, whiteness, gender politics, anti-genderism and anti-LGBT organizing, and violent crime, including the NSU and NSU 2.0 scandals.

What I tend to see reproduced in the U.S., German and Austrian press are a wide variety of opinion statements that are not supported by the evidence we have gathered through decades of interdisciplinary research. If one of our primary visions of society includes a healthy democratic public sphere, we cannot permit the spread of tropes about extremism that are not based in evidence. Misunderstanding the intent or structure of right-wing political discourse will ultimately hurt any attempts to intervene.

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Is the world ready for a strong German leader?

File 20170711 5970 lzijrv.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1U.S. President Donald Trump is welcomed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the first day of the G-20 summit.
AP Photo/Jens Meyer

Johanna Schuster-Craig, Michigan State University

What does it take to be elected chancellor of the most populous country in Europe four times in a row?

Germany does not have a system of term limits for heads of state. Candidates for chancellor can seek reelection as long as their party continues to support their candidacy. However, it’s not common. The only postwar German politician to be elected for four consecutive terms was current Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mentor, Helmut Kohl, who passed away last month.

Germany’s general election will take place on Sept. 24. Chancellor Merkel is likely to be elected for a fourth term. Her party, the Christian Democratic Union, is currently polling near 40 percent.

This was not the case just two short years ago. Her decision to open the borders to refugees fleeing along the Balkan Route in 2015 was criticized for being illegal and haphazard. The year before, she had faced criticism for her handling of the Greek financial crisis. Back then, it seemed Merkel would never survive a fourth election.

Then the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. That vote was followed by President Donald Trump’s America First policies and conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. These events have fundamentally changed the global political landscape and created an opportunity for Merkel’s style of leadership to prevail.

Journalists and commentators frequently assert that Merkel has become the leader of the free world.

Despite negative images of riots in Hamburg during the recent G-20 summit, the German magazine Der Spiegel reports that Merkel’s campaign hardly took a hit. Instead, the mayor of Hamburg is being criticized.

How is Merkel so politically invincible? As a professor of German studies, I have blogged and commented on Merkel’s political appearances since 2015. One of her political strengths is her understated reaction to international conflicts. The other is her “party-manager” style of governance at home.

Deliberate approach to conflict

The G-20 summit was an important show of Merkel’s global leadership. Against this backdrop, Merkel’s slow and steady approach to governing stands in sharp contrast to the charisma of recently elected President Emmanuel Macron in France, the autocratic tendencies of President Vladimir Putin of Russia and the impulsivity of President Trump.

Before the G-20, Merkel stated in an interview that she acknowledged the vacuum of power left by Trump’s policies. Merkel said, “Apparently the American administration no longer wants to be the peacekeeping power per se for all regions of the world.” She acknowledged that this might be good or bad, depending on the context.

Several weeks before the G-20 Summit, Merkel traveled to South and Central America to shore up trade relations. She stopped in Mexico and pledged her support to President Enrique Peña Nieto in upcoming talks on the North American Free Trade Agreement. After that, she traveled to Argentina, where journalists asked her whether this international tour signaled that she was preparing to assume the mantle of the leader of the free world. Merkel replied diplomatically, saying that “no one alone in this world, no single person and no country alone can solve the problems [we have].”

This rhetoric is similar to previous appearances in which she has emphasized European unity and the need for international partnerships.

Merkel the party manager

Back home in Germany, Merkel’s leadership style is described as that of a “party manager.” Merkel attempts to keep the many factions of her party in her corner at any one given time. This strategy succeeds because the Christian Democratic Union is a “catch-all” party. A catch-all party tries to maintain diverse ideological viewpoints so that it can capture the support of a broad swath of the electorate.

In the two-party American system, both the Democratic and Republican parties have functioned as catch-all parties. In the multi-party German system, it is possible to have a political party gain representation in Parliament even with a focused ideology, like the Green Party’s focus on sustainability and social justice.

Merkel’s identity facilitates a party-manager approach because she holds a variety of minority identities. Merkel is female, Protestant in a previously predominantly Catholic party and grew up in the former East Germany.

As a party manager, Merkel maintains a strategy of keeping all options open as long as possible. In German, her governance style has earned its own verb. “To merkel” is to deliberate, evaluate a course of action and eventually choose a suitable option at the last possible moment.

This tactic drives her opponents crazy, and Germany’s dominance in the European economy and now global politics has strained the country’s relationship with some European partners.

The ConversationMerkel may not like the title “leader of the free world.” She may also be merkeling, or waiting until the last possible moment to claim it. But with an election campaign that seems assured of success, a variety of international partners pledging their support and an acknowledgment by more than just Merkel after the G-20 that President Trump’s policies leave a diplomatic vacuum, all signs point to a very powerful position for the German chancellor after Sept. 24.

Johanna Schuster-Craig, Assistant Professor of German and Global Studies, Michigan State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How the Berlin Christmas market terror attack affects Chancellor Merkel and Europe

Image 20170103 18679 1fols96.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1Italian police at a press conference after Berlin attacker was killed in Italy.
AP Photo/Luca Bruno

Johanna Schuster-Craig, Michigan State University

Germany is recovering from one of the most deadly terrorist attacks since the 1980 bombing at Munich’s Oktoberfest.

On Dec. 19, 12 people were killed when Anis Amri, a Tunisian citizen who had claimed allegiance to the Islamic State, killed a Polish truck driver and then drove his truck into a Christmas market in Berlin. Three days later, Italian police discovered Amri during a routine police search. When he was asked for identification he opened fire, and was killed by police.

In an age where radical Islamic terrorism is seen as a global threat, every attack can be used to make political arguments. As an American scholar of German studies with a focus on the political attention given to Muslim populations, I believe that the impact of the attack in Berlin will be felt in two political arenas. One is domestic: How will this most recent act of terror from a criminal asylum-seeker affect Chancellor Angela Merkel’s reelection campaign? The other is international: In the context of a divided Europe, how will Merkel’s European partners react?

Merkel’s open border policy

Merkel’s decision to open the borders in September 2015 to refugees trying to reach Germany has been both praised as a humanitarian gesture and widely criticized, even within her own party. Many on the right see refugee resettlement as a threat to German identity and security.

In the week after the Berlin attack, however, the Frankfurt General Newspaper published the results of a voter survey conducted by the Forsa Institute, a prominent polling firm. A majority of the Germans polled (68 percent) saw no relationship between Merkel’s refugee politics and the attack in Berlin. Seventy-six percent of those surveyed did believe, however, that terrorism and security would play a large role in this year’s upcoming federal elections, as Merkel is seeking a fourth term.

The far-right Alternative for Germany party lost no time pointing fingers at Merkel just minutes after the attack. Markus Pretzell, a representative of the group in the European Parliament, tweeted that the victims killed were “Merkel’s dead!”

Horst Seehofer, the head of the Christian Social Union in the province of Bavaria, struck a more tactful tone. Seehofer declared that “we owe it to the victims, to those affected and to the entire population to rethink and adjust our entire immigration and security policy.” Seehofer was quickly reprimanded for using a national tragedy to politicize Merkel’s decision in an op-ed from Peter Dausend in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.

What effect will this event have on German politics? Various commentators suggest that most Germans are resistant to political panic. An article from Der Spiegel, published two days after the attack and widely circulated on social media, compared German, French and American responses to terrorist attacks. Americans, the authors argued, rebel against terror. The French remind themselves of their republicanism by singing the Marseillaise especially loudly. Berliners? They react as they always do: by showing themselves to be “completely unfazed.”

Merkel shines under pressure

German Chancellor Angela Merkel after her annual New Year’s speech.
AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, Pool

The same poll asked Germans if a debate about security would serve Merkel well in the coming elections. Only 17 percent said yes. And yet, it is in times of insecurity and uncertainty that Merkel appears most poised and most committed to both liberal democracy and a united Europe.

After the perpetrator of the Christmas attacks was caught, Merkel gave a five-minute press conference during which she thanked the Italian police and criminal justice system. She wished a speedy recovery to the Italian police officer who was shot by the terrorist. Finally, she also thanked all of the international partners who continue to work together and who helped bring the attacker to justice.

“Terrorism challenges all of us,” Merkel said. She added, “We feel the global solidarity of our friends across the world and you should know how deeply we also mourn your victims.” She reassured Italians and Poles that Germans mourn the life of the Italian woman killed in the attacks, as well as the life of the Polish truck driver. These statements were carefully crafted to position Germany as part of the European Union and as both dependent on and confident in European cooperation.

Not everyone shares Merkel’s vision of a united Europe. Challenges to the EU come from parties and politicians to Merkel’s right who position themselves against the European Union, such as the Alternative for Germany party. European politicians can also be quick to criticize the Schengen Agreement, which permits free movement across internal European borders, as insecure.

Various political camps in France have criticized Merkel’s decision to open the borders in light of the most recent attack. French Republican candidate for president Francois Fillon, for instance, reproached Merkel for having underestimated the threat of radical Islamists. This reproach – echoed by far-right leaders in France’s National Front – may be a way of deflecting embarrassment that Amri traveled through France without detection on his way to Italy.

Like most heads of state, Merkel gave a short televised New Year’s address on Dec. 31. She declared Islamic terrorism to be the most difficult test of contemporary society. But she also criticized the efforts of the far right across Europe to undermine liberal democracy. Questioning achievements like a united Europe or parliamentary democracy, as the far right does, creates “distorted images,” she said.

The ConversationShe called on Germans to strengthen democracy, admonishing those who believe that a “prosperous future” could ever be found in going it alone as a nation: “Where…Europe is challenged as a whole, Europe must also find answers as a whole – irrespective of how tedious and tough it is.”

Johanna Schuster-Craig, Assistant Professor of German and Global Studies, Michigan State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

“Will Trump victory make Angela Merkel leader of Free World?”

Johanna Schuster-Craig, Michigan State University

After the election of Donald Trump, commentators have argued that German Chancellor Angela Merkel may become the leader of the free world, a role typically played by the president of the United States.

After 11 years as chancellor and as the leader of the largest economy in Europe, Merkel is certainly one of the most experienced heads of state in office. On Nov. 20, after a long wait, Merkel finally announced that she would seek a fourth term in the federal elections next fall.

In the upcoming campaign, Merkel is in a difficult position. She must both live up to her reputation as a defender of liberal democracy, and also contain the right-wing populist streaks in the Alternative for Germany party in order to win reelection.

As an American scholar of German studies, I have blogged about how Merkel’s public appearances function as political theater. The chancellor changes her message depending on her audience. At home, she is much more likely to appear conservative.

But in anticipation of Trump taking office in 2017, Merkel is publicly setting clear boundaries. Trump not only criticized her open-doors refugee policy, but also may represent a threat to close international collaboration between Germany and the United States.

In between Trump and the German far right

Merkel is most likely to present herself as a defender of liberal values when appearing on the international stage. On Nov. 9, Merkel congratulated Trump on his new office at a press conference. In contrast to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s celebratory statements or Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s cautious well wishes, Merkel issued a warning: If Trump cannot respect “democracy, freedom, respect for the law and for human dignity independent of background, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political beliefs,” Merkel implied that Germany will need to reevaluate the terms of its partnership with the United States.

This warning to Trump has been praised by some in the American press for its defense of liberal, democratic values.

Many Germans see Trump’s racist and xenophobic comments as statements that would be illegal under current German law. His rhetoric echoes not only the racism and anti-Semitism of the Holocaust, but also shares similarities with the authoritarian doublespeak of East German communist politics.

However, in domestic appearances, Merkel is at times illiberal, choosing to accent her conservativism to pander to the xenophobic right wing. On Nov. 6, Merkel gave an acceptance speech after receiving the nomination of her party. The speech garnered widespread attention in the U.S., mostly for the moment when Merkel stated support for banning burqas – a move designed to attract voters on the right.

Merkel’s campaign begins

As the German public was anxiously awaiting Merkel’s decision to run for office, German journalists Matthias Geis, Tina Hildebrandt and Bernd Ulrich published a full-page article in the German newspaper Die Zeit about Merkel titled “Leader of the free world? Not that, too!”

In this article, they explain the difficulties facing Merkel’s reelection campaign. Merkel, they say, has never faced more pressure to lead. Europe isn’t pulling its weight. She doesn’t have unified support from her party. Finally, she doesn’t have the same polling numbers she used to. Despite these obstacles, they write:

“Merkel can sense that the arguments she could bring against her candidacy get weaker and weaker as the global situation becomes more and more dramatic.”

Merkel couches her decision to seek reelection in similar terms. When she announced her candidacy, Merkel said she needed to run because – after the U.S. election and in relationship to Russia – the world needed to be “sorted out.” Merkel repeated this phrase in her nomination speech:

“We are dealing with a world – especially after the American election – which first needs to be sorted out, especially with respect to things like NATO and the relationship to Russia. This poses the question: What is actually to be done?”

By standing for reelection, Merkel answered her own question. Merkel sees herself as the person to “sort out” the new world order. In this narrative, the first thing to do is support her campaign. The second thing, visible in her comments about refugees and burqa bans, is to pander to voters who might abandon her party to vote for the right-wing Alternative for Germany party.

The Alternative for Germany party, which criticizes Merkel’s every move, later joked on social media that the CDU (Merkel’s party) had stolen their campaign platform.

The ConversationThe Alternative for Germany party was founded in 2013 and is a xenophobic, nationalist, right-wing party critical of the European Union. The AfD has been successful in gaining representation in local German elections. They will likely enter the national German parliament in the fall of 2017.

Johanna Schuster-Craig, Assistant Professor of German and Global Studies, Michigan State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Angela Merkel Re-elected as Head of CDU

Today at the CDU Party Meeting in Essen, Angela Merkel was re-elected as the head of the CDU. With 89.5% of the votes, Die Zeit  is reporting that these aren’t great numbers. Interesting to note, however, is that Merkel’s numbers in 2004 were worse: at that time, she only received 88.4% of the votes.

What I find compelling in the past several weeks of Merkel’s public appearances is the notion that Merkel’s domestic and foreign appearances highlight different sides of the Chancellor. After the decision to allow refugees entry into Germany, Merkel was frequently portrayed as having moved to the left. In her pivot on refugee issues and national identity in this speech for a domestic audience, Merkel has moved rightward. I’m quite interested to explore how Merkel will navigate this question of position in the leadup to the fall elections.

 

Frauke Petry after President-Elect Donald Trump

“It’s telling that establishment politicians and journalists are selling a democratic election as the apocalypse”

Two days after the election, many in the United States and across the world feel like this is the apocalypse. The only reason Petry isn’t proclaiming the apocalypse is because the party she agrees with won. If Hilary had won, Petry surely would be declaring the end of the world.

I understand the apocalyptic sentiment, although I disagree that the world is about to end. I also disagree that the far-right is an American phenomenon: the rise of extreme right populism globally shows that nativism and racism are prevalent.

Whiteness and patriarchy are clutching to privilege , and let’s hope this is it’s last chance to maintain hegemonic power. About that, I am less hopeful: privilege reproduces privilege, and if there’s anything 500 years of imperial conquest has shown, it’s that whiteness and patriarchy are incredibly protean and adaptive. But the protest culture in US society is healthy – and must get healthier. BlackLivesMatter, NoDAPL, trans* agitation, and the access to quality, alternative journalism are just some of the signs that resistance is possible, probable and holds political potential.

One of the gaps in coverage about the far-right in both countries has been the occasional lack of inclusion of LGBTQI identities as a targeted identity by the far-right. While – rightly so – racial, immigrant and religious identities are frequently identified as the targets of Trump’s wrath, Vice President-elect Mike Pence has made gay conversion therapy part of his platform. Trump just appointed a staunchly anti-gay politician, Ken Blackwell, to head his domestic transition team. The attacks on so-called “Gender Mainstreaming” in the AfD party have also received remarkably little media attention, but are starting to emerge as an issue given more press time from the AfD.

On November 6, two days before the US election, Frauke Petry gave a speech in Pforzheim that queer.de called a “taste of the coming national parliamentary campaign.” In this speech, Petry declared that “normal” families needed to be protected from educational programs which are covered in “gender sauce.” She sowed factually inaccurate information, saying that parents of school children would be required to pay for gender courses (whatever that is). She denied that homophobia was a problem, and asked parents to stand up for their (cis, hetero) children. She also declared the “classical family” to be a valuable institution, because it provides the country with children. Earlier this summer, Petry declared that there were too many gays on television.

This kind of homophobic politicking is common for those of us who grew up in the US. I’ve seen versions of these arguments in German spaces before, especially in arguments about two-parent adoption and gay marriage. Beyond discussions of sexism directed against female candidates, we need to pay strict attention to the ways in which family structure and kinship networks are used to reflect images of the nation. This moves beyond discussion of homonationalism, where minorities are painted as homophobic and whites are painted as homophilic. Nationalistic groups in the US and Germany are hardly homophilic.

Call a spade a spade.

Christmastime

As a slow warm-up to getting this blog up to speed this fall, here’s a short video to test the absurdity of the climate we find ourselves living in. Chancellor Merkel’s utterances at this party meeting – which seem to be a clear indication that the CDU is feeling itself pushed to the right – argues that party members need to remind themselves of the “Christian” in “Christian Democratic Party” by singing Christmas carols.

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