To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The New Yorker's Cautionary Tale About 'Germany's Donald Trump‘ Is Also A Warning For Hillary On Open Borders: 'It Can Happen Here'

Last month when Libertarian presidential contender Gary Johnson couldn’t name a single foreign leader he admired, Hillary Clinton was more than ready to share who was her fave. According to Politico, Clinton initially “burst” into laughter when asked the question, clearly playing for the gaggle of reporters aboard her campaign plane in Chicago. “Oh let me think,” she chuckled coyly: 

One of my favorites is Angela Merkel because I think she’s been an extraordinary, strong leader during difficult times in Europe, which has obvious implications for the rest of the world and, most particularly, our country.

Politico added that that “Clinton praised the German chancellor’s ‘leadership and steadiness on the Euro crisis,’ while adding that ‘her bravery in the face of the refugee crisis is something that I am impressed by.’” Clinton explained that she and Merkel have known each other since the 1990s and spent a lot of time together. “And I hope I’ll have the opportunity to work with her in the future," the Democratic nominee quipped. According to Politico, the remark was a “swipe” against Donald Trump, who had taken to ridiculing Merkel on the campaign trail as a way of underscoring the looming “disaster” that Clinton’s Merkel-esque positions on immigration and asylum would bring to the US.

Clinton’s feelings about Merkel were hardly surprising. Merkel’s pledge to take in over a million Muslim refugees, most of them from Syria won Merkel the Time magazine 2015 “Person of the Year” Award, with Merkel being hailed as “Chancellor of the Free World.”  Merkel’s pledge also closely mirrors, in spirit if not in literal detail, Clinton’s own open door immigration policy, which includes amnesty for the more than 11 million illegal immigrants in the country right now, as well as doubling the annual number of legal immigrants that the US absorbs to two million. 
What was surprising was Clinton’s seeming obliviousness to the fact that Merkel’s decision to admit so many Muslim refugees had fed a huge right wing backlash against her and her governing party, the Alternative For Germany abbreviated as the AfD. Among some of the steps Merkel had taken to slow the AfD’s growth and electoral momentum was Merkel’s widely publicized admission just ten days that she now wished she had played things quite differently.
According to the September 19 edition of the Financial Times Merkel confessed that:

If I could, I would rewind time by many, many years so that I could better prepare myself and the whole government and all those in positions of responsibility for the situation that caught us unprepared in the late summer of 2015.

The FT noted that

The chancellor also distanced herself from her phrase — ‘Wir schaffen das — we can do it’ — which captured Germans’ belief last summer in their capacity to integrate the newly arrived refugees. She said it had become “a simple slogan, almost an empty formula” that underestimated the scale of the integration challenge.

The admission was aimed at winning back voters who have flocked to the rightwing, populist Alternative for Germany party, which has made big inroads this year by criticising Ms Merkel’s open-door approach to refugees. 

Writing in this week’s New Yorker, historian Thomas Meany explains the political dynamics behind Merkel’s penitent volte-face, as well as upsurge of popular disenchantment with her immigration policies which is behind the backpedalling. In a piece about what the headline declares to be “The New Star of Germany’s Far Right,” Meany focuses on the meteoric rise of the AfD and its 41 year old standard bearer, Frauke Petry, who is described as “a mother, a scientist, and the leader of the country’s most successful nationalist phenomenon since the Second World War.” 

The New Yorker piece is a cautionary tale about the politics of immigration here, highlighting the parallels between the social, cultural and economic forces that are driving the nationalist surge behind Donald Trump and and what is propelling the Alternative For Germany, as well as right wing parties elsewhere in Europe. But it also should be a must-read for Hillary Clinton, who unaware of, or in denial about, the mess that Angela Merkel has made strikes poses that unintentionally undercut her supposed superiority on policy issues. And if they can jam it in between time spent on Twitter, campaign reporters might give it a look-see too. Most of the reporters who wrote about that moment on Hillary’s campaign plane seemed either not to know, or thought it wasn’t worthy to mention, that Merkel’s pro-refugee, pro immigrant policies had backfired on her. It’s not as if Trump hadn’t drawn attention to this. Back in September, in a campaign speech in Charlotte North Carolina, he’d very specifically referenced it. But like most of the things Trump says about immigration, it was written off as just yet more nativism, instead of a reasonable appreciation for just how much third world immigration any western democracy can stand before its social fabric begins tearing. As Frauke Petry tells Meany, Hillary Clinton is “almost like a copy of someone like Merkel—someone who just keeps on with the same policies that led to the trouble in the first place.”

Meany explains that the AfD is pretty fresh on the German political scene, having won its first seats in regional parliaments in 2013 but that it has since surged. 

Earlier this year, support for the AfD reached fifteen per cent in national polls, three times more than for any previous right-wing party, and well beyond the five-per-cent threshold required to enter the Bundestag after next year’s national elections. In a recent election in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, where Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has her constituency, the AfD got more than twenty per cent of the vote, edging Merkel’s party—the center-right Christian Democratic Union—into third place. A week ago, the AfD won its first seats in the state parliament of Berlin, traditionally a social-democratic stronghold, in an election that brought the C.D.U.’s worst ever result in the city.

It’s part of a trend sweeping all of Europe.  

Populist parties have been flourishing across Europe, and are already in power in Hungary and Poland, but a far-right resurgence in Germany is uniquely alarming, both because of its history—the postwar constitution was designed to curb populist influence—and because of its dominant position on the continent.  “It’s my hope that the future will bring a Chancellor named Petry,” the leader of Austria’s Freedom Party recently said. That hope is still far from fruition, but the AfD is already the most successful far-right phenomenon in Germany since the Second World War.

Merkel’s insistence that Germany’s history gave it a moral obligation to respond to the humanitarian crisis has been the single biggest source of the AfD’s rise and growth, Petry says. “You could say we are Merkel’s children,” she tells Meany. The catchphrase, “We can do this” was “a call for national solidarity that achieved the opposite,” Meany writes. “The phrase electrified the German right, which accused the Chancellor of selling out the country in order to burnish her cosmopolitan image abroad.” Indeed, within weeks of Merkel’s "Welcome to Germany" announcement, voters began to flock to the AfD, many of them from Merkel’s own party.

Meany goes on to explain that for decades, “the German far right has been a limited force, with easily recognizable supporters—nicotine-stained ex-Nazis in the sixties and seventies, leather-clad skinheads in the eighties and nineties.” Petry is something different, he says, “a disarmingly wholesome figure—a former businesswoman with a Ph.D. in chemistry and four children from her marriage to a Lutheran pastor.” Her speaking style is dull, with “ornate sentences and technocratic talking points.” Like most German politicians, Petry's style observes what Meany wryly describes as "the national moratorium on charisma. Her flat affect, however, belies “the extremism of the AfD’s views.”

At the start of this year, Petry said that, in the face of the recent influx of refugees (many of them fleeing the war in Syria), the police might have to shoot people crossing the border illegally. In April, the Party said that head scarves should be banned in schools and universities, and minarets prohibited. Party members called for a referendum on whether to leave the euro; for the expulsion of Allied troops, who have been stationed in Germany since 1945; and for school curriculums that focus more on “positive, identity-uplifting” episodes in German history and less on Nazi crimes.

Most contentious of all was her declaration “Islam does not belong in Germany,” which, Meany reports, promoted Aiman Mazyek, the head of the Muslim Central Council, to publically compare the AfD to the Nazis. Indeed, while the AfD has many moderate members, “for whom the AfD is basically a protest vote,” there is a “dark core” of true believers” who believe that the “reproductive strategies” of Africans are diluting the ethnic-German population. Petry has so far functioned a link between the party’s moderate and extremist wings, but the party itself is moving further right. The radicals are in the ascent.  

This new German nationalism reflects an important shift in the zeitgeist, Meany explains.

For decades, Germany was proud of not being proud—of confronting its past openly and of accepting the principle of collective guilt. It developed a political identity based on allegiance to the laws and norms of the state, rather than on any cultural or ethnic sense of Germanness. As a result, patriotic displays that would be uncontroversial in other countries, such as flying the national flag or saying that you love your country, were taboo in Germany. But, as the memory of the Third Reich recedes and the last generation of perpetrators and victims dies out, the nation has begun to see itself differently. The AfD is attracting voters who want Germany to become a normal country again, with an unashamed sense of nationalism.

Encouraging the nationalist shift was the publication of a right wing tract called “Germany Abolishes Itself,” which was authored by a member of the executive board of the Bundesbank, Thilo Sarrain.

The book, which appeared in 2010 and sold more than a million and a half copies, argues that everything from high immigrant crime rates to low test scores among Muslims could be partly traced to genetic factors.       

Meany mentions the book as he describes a weekly event in the city of Dresden, where a few thousand nationalist protesters, a combination of skinheads and parents with little kids, take to the streets for what they call an “evening stroll.”  

Banners with Angela Merkel’s face filled the streets: there was “Fatima Merkel,” in a head scarf, and “Adolf Merkel,” wearing a Nazi armband but with a euro symbol in place of a swastika. “Homeland, Freedom, Tradition!” the crowd chanted. “Ali Go Home!”

The protest is the work of a movement called pegida—an acronym that stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West—which arranges similar demonstrations across Germany. It is not officially allied with the AfD, but the groups share many supporters.

Although the AfD attracts a disproportionate number of men--- 85 percent ---Meany says that “there is no truly typical AfD supporter.” He describes a diverse cross section of Germans including architects, doctors, corporate managers and pilots nursing a variety of grievances. One of the marchers was carrying a yellow pennant with a picture of a brown leather shoe, which a forty-something construction engineer told Meany was the symbol of the Peasants War of 1524. The engineer used the term Vaterland without irony or apologies. As they passed by a group of teenagers loitering outside a MacDonald’s, he lamented those who “just sit there while the nation slips away from them.”

Meany stresses that a series of dramatic events over the last year linking refugees with terrorism, crime and Islamic cultural estrangement was the match that lit the AfD’s populist explosion, putting the nation on edge. 

On New Year’s Eve, in Cologne, roving groups of Middle Eastern and North African men sexually assaulted and robbed hundreds of women as they celebrated in the city center. The German Federal Criminal Police Office drew an analogy with cases of group sexual harassment in the Arab world—the ones that occurred during the Tahrir Square protests are the most famous instance—and the crimes were quickly established in the public imagination as a specifically Islamic phenomenon. In July, there was a weeklong spate of violent attacks, unconnected with one another but involving perpetrators of Muslim heritage: a teen-age Afghan refugee pledging loyalty to isis wounded four people with an axe on a train near Würzburg; an Iranian-German gunman killed nine people at a shopping center in Munich; in Reutlingen, a small town near Stuttgart, a machete-wielding Syrian refugee murdered a pregnant Polish woman at the kebab shop where they both worked; and a Syrian asylum seeker blew himself up outside a night club in the Bavarian town of Ansbach, injuring fifteen people.

Meany reports that the official government reaction has been a to minimize the violence by leaving the dots unconnected in such as a way as to ignore that the incidents were very much a function of Merkel’s ill-considered invitation to displaced middle easterners.   

The response of Merkel’s government, and of most of the German press, has been measured, emphasizing the unique aspects of each attack: the Munich shooting turned out to be a case of right-wing, rather than Islamist, extremism; the kebab-shop murder a crime of passion; the Syrian asylum seeker a psychiatric case.

The German press has been an active enabler in this kind of official gaslighting, Petry charges, which, shades of American-style PC,  is consistent with what she says is a liberal tendency to suppress politically inconvenient truths.“Big German media are always careful about what they report,” she scornfully explained to Meany, adding that “Our political opponents absolutely avoid acknowledging the factors of illegal migration and open borders in these attacks.”

Retaliatory mob violence is on the rise. Meany reports that the German Interior Ministry estimates that overall violence against foreigners increased by more than forty per cent last year, including six hundred and sixty-five assaults on asylum shelters, which Meany says represents an average of almost two a day, as well as fifty-five cases of arson, and more than a hundred attacks on individuals. The attacks on immigrants are concentrated in the economically stagnant, mostly Eastern, towns where the government has located a disproportionate number of its refugee shelters as a way to stimulate the local economy. “The most notorious attacks (by angry German nationalists on refugees) have been in Saxony, Petry’s state,” Meany notes.

At the start of this year in Chemnitz, neo-Nazis beat and trampled a thirteen-year-old Tunisian girl. In Bautzen, a small town close to the Czech border, a large crowd cheered when a refugee shelter went up in flames. In Clausnitz, another crowd attacked a bus transporting refugees to a shelter.

The attacks take place in a sinister atmosphere of municipal complicity. The police keep interventions to a minimum, and prosecutions are rare, in part because few witnesses come forward.  

A left wing critic of the AfD tells Meany that Petry’s party “uses the refugee crisis to foment a propaganda of fear in the minds of its followers. Insults and daily Islamophobia have led to the desecration of houses of worship, and bullying in the streets.” 

Petry vociferously rejects the accusation. The day after the Clausnitz attack, she gave a press conference during which she said that refugees on the bus incited the locals my making offensive, possibly obscene gestures at them. When Meany told her that “the AfD affiliation of the attackers was well established,” she became flustered. “That’s not true!” she kept saying. “There were no AfD members connected with any of the attacks, or whatever you are calling them.” Dismissing any link between AfD rhetoric and populist violence, Petry takes refuge in a kind of feckless logic. “We have to distinguish between the causes and the symptoms,” she says. “In order to get rid of the symptom, you have to get rid of the problem. After all, if there were no immigrants there would have been no protests.”

Facing the nationalist backlash in the voting booths and in the streets, Merkel and other CDU politicians have been trying to push the angry genie back into the bottle. Meany says that

Following the sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s eve, Merkel made a series of moves that expedited the deportation of refugees who commit crimes and cut a deal with the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to reduce the number of Syrians crossing into Europe. After the recent attacks, Merkel’s Interior Minister, Thomas de Maizière, called for a ban on burkas in a wide range of public contexts—an appropriation of the AfD’s party line. The government also announced a new Integration Law, which gives the state the power to determine where refugees can live and requires them to learn German and to take classes on the country’s history and culture. The underlying assumption—that immigrants don’t want to learn the language—is a widespread belief in the AfD, and the C.D.U.’s embrace of it represents an about-face: such programs have been underfunded for years.  

So far, Merkel’s tack to the right “has done nothing to halt the AfD’s rise, and politicians in other parties have been alarmed at how much power the AfD now has to shape government policy. Some analysts see the AdF pushing Merkel’s governing Christian Democrat Union to the right and it being only a matter of time before it enters into some kind of coalition with the CDU that gives it a role in forming a government where it will be able to exercise real power. Meany explains that  

In a recent election in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, where Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has her constituency, the AfD got more than twenty per cent of the vote, edging Merkel’s party—the center-right Christian Democratic Union—into third place. A week ago, the AfD won its first seats in the state parliament of Berlin, traditionally a social-democratic stronghold, in an election that brought the C.D.U.’s worst ever result in the city.  
As Petry sees it, Merkel’s moralistic fervor on the refugee question was an extension of a political culture that was overburdened by liberal pieties and was in fact anti-democratic in being “disdainful of the views of ordinary Germans.” She told Meany that “I myself am not morally good. I’m just a human being. I try to stick to the rules. And I think there is a majority of Germans who agree with me.”

The report ends with Petry whipping out her phone to quote something to Meany from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “The good have always been the beginning of the end." Saint Hillary, as the late Michael Kelly called her in a 1993 Times Magazine profile, should take heed.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016