Could Donald Trump Make Europe Great Again? #MEGA

When it comes to dealing with Donald Trump, European leaders should turn to parents of toddlers for advice.

As any three-year-old can attest, there are times when throwing your toys out of the pram is an excellent negotiating strategy. In other situations, it simply limits your supply of fruit gums.

The challenge for parents is to reduce the opportunities for unavoidable concessions. These include busy supermarket lines and long-haul flights. In all other circumstances, presenting a united front does the trick.

The European family is of course going through a period of extreme dysfunction. A messy divorce has triggered a heated debate about its future. The question of what to do with the hundreds of thousands of people who have sought refuge or a better life in its midst has polarised opinion and sparked questions about whether Europe can even be considered a family at all anymore.

At a time of low morale, a good rallying cry can work wonders. No one knows this more than Donald Trump. His promise to ‘Make America Great Again’ managed to combine hope for a better future with indignation for his country’s faded glory.

Hope and indignation are powerful political forces, which Europe has so far failed to package into a digestible message of 140 characters.

This is a pity because as any social media professional will tell you, messages of hope and indignation have a tendency to spread.

In November of last year, Irish Labour politician Aodhán Ó Riordáin shot to Internet fame after he posted a video of himself lambasting Donald Trump. “America has just elected a Fascist,” he told the handful of senators gathered in the Dublin chamber. “And the best thing the good people of Ireland can do is ring him up and ask him if it’s still okay to bring the shamrock on St Patrick’s Day.”

Fast forward a few months and the taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny found himself in a bit of a pickle on St Patrick’s Day. Ingratiate himself with Donald Trump for the sake of the economy like his British counterpart Theresa May, or stand up to him and earn brownie points at home? He opted for the latter and extolled the virtues of St Patrick, the immigrant.

Donald_Trump_and_Enda_Kenny,_March_2017

Attribution: Shealah Craighead [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

His speech too went viral.

These examples demonstrate the extent of an appetite in Europe – and beyond – for an unequivocal response to Donald Trump.

A day after Enda Kenny’s visit to the White House, it was German chancellor Angela Merkel’s turn. When Trump ignored her request to shake hands for the cameras, she responded with the kind of bemused expression one might direct at a sulky child who has rebuffed their caregiver’s command to “say hello to Auntie Angie.” Once again, the Internet exploded in delight.

The positive attention such encounters have attracted prompts a provocative question: could Donald Trump Make Europe Great Again? (#MEGA)

The answer is that he could, if European leaders keep three important things in mind.

First, they must show that despite Brexit, the continent remains bound by common values.

While many Europeans found British Prime Minister Theresa May’s charm offensive in Washington cringe-inducing, there was widespread respect for the decision by John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, not to welcome Donald Trump to address parliament during his return visit. For pro-Europeans, this was a welcome reminder that the UK’s divorce from the EU has not made it an unquestioning bedfellow of the United States.

The next thing leaders must do is take serious action to stem the rise of the Trump-loving far right at home.

On this front, there are reasons for cautious optimism.

The defeat of the far-right populist Geert Wilders in the Dutch elections in March was a promising start. Then in France’s presidential elections in May, Emmanuel Macron, an unapologetic fan of the EU, scored a decisive victory over Marine Le Pen, who had threatened to leave the bloc.

The selection of former European parliament president and crowd pleaser Martin Schulz to challenge Angela Merkel in Germany’s upcoming elections makes it a near certainty that the continent’s most powerful economy will continue to be led by a Europhile.

The third and most important thing Europe must do is launch a major PR campaign.

Ignorance of what the EU does and what it stands for remains embarrassingly widespread.

Here it can learn a thing or two from Donald Trump, who leaves little need to speculate about what it is he believes.

With European identity abstract by definition, social media provides an ideal opportunity to present the spirit, if not the nuts and bolts, of European identity.

If there was any doubt before, Britain’s decision to leave the EU confirmed that Europe is in disarray. But hitting rock bottom is often what it takes for a family to pull together. After all, the only way to withstand the outrageous demands of a screaming toddler is with a united front.

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Drinking at the fountain of the AfD’s youth

Being right-wing in Berlin is like turning up to a steak house and announcing you’re a vegetarian. At best, it’s a mild provocation and at worst, downright offensive. Being young and right-wing is akin to adding that you can’t have the burger buns either, because you’ve decided to go gluten-free.

A primal curiosity for the proverbially maligned vegetarian prompted me to make my way to the leafy district of Zehlendorf on Thursday evening for a meeting of the youth branch of the far-right AfD (‘Alternative for Germany’) party.

Grilling_Steaks_(with_border)

Image: Wikipedia Creative Commons by BuBBy

Getting to this point had been no walk in the park. Unsurprisingly, the ‘Junge Alternative’ (‘Young Alternatives’) do not disclose the location of their monthly meetings on the Internet. Instead, they ask prospective attendees to send an e-mail to the party to register their interest. I got through that step and when I wrote to thank the individual I’d been dealing with (he turned out to be one of the group’s three deputy chairpersons) he replied that the “license fee should, after all, be justified.”

It was accompanied by a winky emoticon but the implication was clear: he’d Googled me and discovered the identity of my employer. After all, I’d never mentioned being a journalist.

It was only a mild provocation but it foreshadowed the offensive he was to launch when we met in person.

From the outside, the façade seemed like a highly unlikely meeting point for Germany’s right-wing youth. A generous, gated two-storey house in a residential area, it was the kind of nondescript place you might imagine one of your posher friends to have grown up in.

The meeting took place in a backroom, which had been converted into a bizarre kind of pub. The young man I’d been communicating with via e-mail was standing behind the bar. He was wearing suspenders.

People came and went but there were about a dozen of us at any given time. If I had to guess, morbid curiosity had attracted at least three others to the event. The rest were hard-core members. I’d expected some formalities but soon realised the evening was to offer something far more enlightening: a drinking session.

These are the fragmented stories of four individuals I spoke to over the course of the evening.

The first was a young woman from Swabia, who’d welcomed me and shown me where to hang my coat when I arrived.

(For readers outside Germany, Swabia is a region in the south-west associated with either good old-fashioned values or bourgeois pettiness, depending on where you stand politically. The stereotype of Swabians as hardworking but miserly is common in Germany and casual racism directed at Swabians is alarmingly widespread in Berlin. An airport bus run by the BVG transport company even features the slogan “Dear Swabians, we’ll gladly take you to the airport.”)

This young woman found her move from Swabia to Berlin a challenge. “I found it hard to get used to everyone being late,” she told me. “Where I come from, things happen on time. You turn up when you’re supposed to, you eat lunch at 12 pm. It’s how it goes.”

She struck me as a sensitive, conscientious type and I can imagine the brashness and condescension she encountered in the capital felt like an affront. “I used to be in the CDU,” she said. “But I felt completely betrayed by them.” She was referring to Angela Merkel’s decision to open the door to refugees.  “Without borders, we are no longer a country.”

In late 2015, she applied to join the AfD. Weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, a wave of sexual assaults took place in Cologne. They appeared to have been coordinated and carried out by both asylum-seekers and refugees.

The police’s slow response and apparent reluctance to release information about the origins of the suspects caused consternation and eventually led to the resignation of the city’s police chief.

“It was at that point I knew I’d made the right decision to join the AfD,” she said.

Another young man I talked to had come to the party as a Christian who felt it provided a safe platform to express his conservative values.

“I feel like these days, the traditional family structure is hardly represented anymore,” he said. “You know, mother, father, child… I’m not saying that alternative structures like homosexuality are necessarily wrong but I feel like the conventional way no longer gets a look in.”

An opponent of abortion, he said the AfD allowed him  to air his views freely, even if they didn’t necessarily reflect the party line. He also told me he believes the state should provide subsidies for families who choose to keep one parent at home to look after the children.

In the context of what he perceives as a movement to strip people of their right to feel proud of where they came from, he mentioned his reverence for his grandfather, who had a clock-making business which the post-war East German Communist regime tried to suppress.

Like the young woman I’d talked to, he seemed like someone who felt the modern world was denying him the right to hold fast to his values.

The third person I spoke to was by far the most intriguing. He immediately piqued my interest because his German, both fluent and a tad academic, had a hint of an accent I couldn’t identify. He turned out to be an American and an enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump. “I was behind him from the very start,” he said. “He is the best thing ever.”

Having studied German, he moved to Berlin in 2012, where he now works for the AfD. When I asked him what it was specifically that he did, he responded politely that it was nothing personal, but he didn’t want to tell me in case it was “all over Deutsche Welle tomorrow.” I assured him that I was at the meeting in a personal capacity and not on behalf of DW but, wisely perhaps, he insisted on keeping his job description under his hat. Fascinatingly, being a foreigner (and ineligible to vote in national elections) in a notoriously anti-immigrant party did not seem to faze him.

In the interests of not playing into the hands of my suspender-wearing correspondent, I have deliberately kept a description of our encounter to last.

As I mentioned earlier, he’d done his research on me, and laid his cards out on the table pretty early on.

I, for my part, had kept mine closer to my chest. I knew he was a law student who’d stood for regional elections last year and that one of his main concerns appeared to be a decision by Humboldt University to change the name of their Student Union from Studentenwerk to Studierendenwerk at a cost, he claims of €800,000. The subtlety is lost in the English language, but the new term neutralises the gender of the word from “union of male students” to “union of those who study.”

He also lamented the loss of what he described as deutsche Erholungskultur, roughly translated as the culture of German recreation in the city’s central Tiergarten park to what he termed ‘bunter’ Krawallkultur, or ‘colorful’ riot culture.

As far as Internet research went, it was one-all.

At the beginning of the evening, I was treated to an unsolicited appraisal of my journalistic credentials. “I don’t like your work,” he said. “It’s boring and one-sided.”  I was genuinely baffled by what he was referring to but on reflection, I suspect he may have found this article I wrote about my experience of welcoming refugees coming off trains at Schönefeld airport or perhaps this video report featuring a soundbite expressing the opinion that refugees could help boost the Greek economy.

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Aleppo in 2013. Source: Wikimedia Commons Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Flickr) http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/

While others I spoke to appeared to have arrived at the party following a personal journey of increasing disenchantment, this young man spoke with totalitarian-style conviction. “You’re either born right-wing or you eventually see sense,” he said.

He maintains that German culture is in the process of being eroded. I asked him several times if he could define the term. He said it was too complex. But he is sure it is being destroyed.

When it came to Syria, he denied that Bashar al-Assad is bombing his own people. This was the only point at which I mildly lost my cool. “Are you serious?”

“He’s bombing Islamic State,” he said, dripping with derision. “And you deny that civilians are dying?” I asked. He eventually conceded that ordinary people were likely to have been caught up in the process.

Still, he maintained that vast swathes of Syria were perfectly safe. “What about Aleppo?” I asked. “Do you think the harrowing images we are seeing are doctored? Overblown?”

“A tiny part is under bombardment,” he said, and told me a story about a refugee he knew who recently returned to Syria and apparently posted pictures of himself having a jolly old time at the beach. “It certainly makes you think,” he said.

When it comes to recruitment, he was keen to advertise the attractions of being a member of the Young AfD.

grafitti

Graffiti I spotted at the train station on the way home.. It says: “Why must my son beg? Because he is German.”

Addressing the three individuals I suspected to be open-minded sceptics, he said: “we provide training in public speaking, we go climbing… we go for beers.” He went on to describe the ‘Junge Alternative’ as “more radical” than its parent and spoke in somewhat scathing terms about the “boring people in their 50s” who come knocking on the youth wing’s door for help navigating the Internet.

Despite riling against the various “extremist” Leftist movements at his university, he did make some concessions:

“If I go drinking with a Communist, we often find after a beer or two, that we’re not actually that far apart.”

When it comes to common ground within the party though, or the elusive “alternative”promised in its name, there was little evidence of either on display.

My dominant impression was of a group of youngsters with profoundly conflicting sensibilities. From a conservative Christian who reveres his clock-making grandfather to a disaffected punctual Swabian and a chirpy American taking on a nationalist cause in a foreign country, this was a group of various misfits bound together by little more than the sense that the world is moving in a direction that doesn’t suit them.

That, however, is no reason to dismiss their potential.

All it might take to gain mainstream approval for a gluten-free, vegetarian option in the steak house, is another terrorist attack on German soil, perpetrated by someone with a foreign-sounding name.

Remember all those headlines about Merkel making a refugee girl cry?

Last July, the world’s media directed its wrath towards Angela Merkel after an 11-year-old refugee girl burst into tears at a government-sponsored event in the northern city of Rostock.

The girl, whose family had fled from Lebanon, was outlining her situation to the chancellor. Smiling nervously and in perfect command of the German language, she explained what it was like to live in constant fear of deportation. Tentatively, she told Merkel she too had dreams.

Merkel listened, nodded and promptly committed PR suicide: she told the truth.

“Politics is hard,” she said. “And you’re an incredibly likeable person.. but there are thousands more living in camps in Lebanon.. we can’t take everyone in.”

Moments later, the girl had begun to cry.

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It was glorious headline fodder.

“Merkel makes refugee girl cry,”wrote the mass-circulation Bild. “Angela Merkel is ice cold,” other news outlets announced.“Merkel reduced girl to tears,” said Britain’s Daily Mail.

Merkel’s attempt to comfort the weeping refugee girl by patting her even gave way to the ironic and scathing hashtag, #Merkelstreichelt (Merkel strokes).

Oh, how things have changed.

Eight months after the encounter with 11-year-old Reem, Angela Merkel’s stance towards refugees is now widely considered the gold standard in moral leadership, setting her apart from all other world leaders. Those who support her open-door policy consider her a beacon of hope in an otherwise depraved world. Those who oppose it at least acknowledge the political sacrifice she is making in order to stick to her convictions.

The image of the ice-cold chancellor has been all but erased.

It’s worth pointing out that last July’s exchange took place against a backdrop of headlines about Germany’s tough-line approach to negotiations for a third Greek bailout.

Now even in this regard the narrative has flipped, as Merkel leads calls for more solidarity with countries like Greece that find themselves on the frontline of the refugee crisis.

Merkel’s encounter with Reem, the girl from Lebanon, was notable in two respects.

First, it was a departure from her usual careful media strategy, which is to say as little quotable as possible. The German chancellor is known to make hard work for journalists who have to sift through long sentences of little concrete substance in search of a suitable sound bite.

More than anything though, the intervening months have proven that when Angela Merkel “made a girl cry” last year, the media hung her for being artless, not heartless.

How the Iron Lady boils an egg: why private moments matter in politics

If I learnt just one thing from watching The Iron Lady, it’s that despite popular belief, politicians are people too. Margaret Thatcher might have sent missile ships to the Falklands and vowed never to negotiate with terrorists, but she still boils an egg, fills black sacks for Oxfam and asks her daughter to fasten the catch at the back of her dress which she can’t reach.

The snippets of Maggie’s domestic life are definitely the most moving parts of the film (which, in case you are wondering I would highly recommend). It’s impossible not to feel something as you watch the forgetful but resolute old lady plonked awkwardly on the floor in an uncomfortable cotton dress, trying to prise open a DVD case and twitching as she eavesdrops on conversations her daughter has with her carer.

It made me think that if Britain has its iron lady in ‘Maggie’, then Germany has found her equivalent in ‘Angie’.

Like Thatcher, Merkel is frequently portrayed as emotionless and inexpressive and ultimately, as Maggie was, “out of touch”.

A recent article published on Spiegel Online seeks to redress the balance. In it, journalist Dirk Kurbjuweit, who has spent many years accompanying Merkel on her trips, documents a series of moments, unrelated to the financial crisis, nuclear power, or the future of the Euro, in which Merkel shows herself as something more than a political machine.

As a Human Being in fact.

They are ordinary moments.

Once, she laughed uncontrollably and snorted while telling a story about the Lithuanian Prime Minister, who was detained by the Belarusian police while out cycling disguised as a tourist.

Another time, after her defence minister Guttenberg resigned following revelations that he had plagiarised passages of his doctoral thesis, she made an uncharacteristically emotional speech. During it, she kept tugging at a loose thread on her sleeve.

She makes her husband breakfast every morning.

Some, especially the French, might inquire as to why on earth it matters what a politician does behind closed doors. Can they not sew their buttons in peace? Have they not got the right to entertain several lovers without the world having to know about it?

The French media in particular thinks personal privacy is sacrosanct.

Back in November, at the G20 summit Obama and Sarkozy were having a chat. The Israeli Prime Minister came up in conversation.

“I can’t stand him anymore, he’s a liar”, said Sarkozy, to which Obama replied, “You may be sick of him, but me, I have to deal with him every day!”

The problem with the conversation was that their mikes were on. A couple of journalists heard the whole thing. Instead of rushing to their editor with their enormous scoop, they stayed quiet, in the belief that this was a private conversation, and would be damaging to report.

Nothing was said for a few days until the French website Arret sur Images published their remarks. As soon as international journalists got their hands on the clip, it went global and the mainstream French media reported it too.

Why is this important?

Because it reinforces the point that politics is a drama encompassing the full spectrum of human emotions.

We must never forget that it’s the behind-the-scenes conversations over strong cups of coffee and dog-eared files that end up directing events on the world stage.

Political decisions, like any other are made on the spur of the moment, and under the influence of powerful personalities. If your leader is more eager to be liked than to do what’s right, it matters. If they are impulsive or inexpressive or icy, it will affect their governance. Personality counts.

It’s one thing to believe in protecting private comments from the public glare but it’s another to detach entirely the personal from the political.

Research has shown that politicians get elected on the strength of their personality rather than on their policies.

It’s not surprising.

People are interested in people. They are less interested in policies. Policies may be more important, but ultimately it’s people, not machines that make them.

It’s futile to remove the personal from the political. We can rationalise emotions but we can’t remove them. Margaret Thatcher’s style of governance was probably affected a great deal more by the values of her stiff-upper lip upbringing than by the pages of briefs and pieces of advice she got from various channels during her premiership.

The media have a choice to make between objectifying and subjectifying. Objectifying is talking about Hillary Clinton’s bum, while subjectifying is telling us how her mouth twitched when her daughter failed a maths test.

The future of journalism is uncertain: the overwhelming speed at which news now travels has eliminated much of what the job used to entail.

There is a new opportunity though and it requires us to slow down, to reflect and to write with insight rather than haste.

Demanding of our journalists to be emotionally astute as well as politically sharp will lead to a more complex picture of what is anything but a straightforward job: making decisions that affect millions of lives and the future of our planet.

Journalism may sustain its integrity into the future by maintaining a fine balance between the personal and the political. When it comes to reporting from the private realm, it must replace sensationalism with psychological realism.

It’s what’s missing in the constantly updated, hyper-evolving virtual media landscape.

Unless we begin to privilege the mundane everyday, politicians will stay “out of touch” with it, and the public will continue to see them as little more than worn out political machines; inanimate and inept.

How Maggie boils an egg matters, but you’d really better go and see the film to find out.