By Vikram Chaudhuri
With the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States, many liberal pundits found themselves in shock as a man who blatantly disregarded our constitutional norms and questioned America’s place in the global order was elected President of The United States. This led to some liberals dubbing German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the new “Leader of the Free World.” The contrast between Trump and Merkel made by the English speaking punditocracy is easy to make although, as it will be shown later, is a faulty one to make. As Trump pledged to temporarily bar Muslims from the United States, Merkel invited refugees arriving in Europe, many of whom are Muslim. However, Merkel’s stance was not born out of liberalism, but based on what she perceives to be in Germany’s national interest. For example, she contributed to the imposition of harsh austerity measures on Greece in order for the Greeks to receive a bailout package from the European Commission, European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, a policy Germany had significant influence in creating. The austerity cuts to Greek government programs were deep and inflicted heavy costs for Greek citizens. By the same token as her refugee decision, Merkel was acting out of what she perceived to be Germany’s self-interest. Merkel’s reasoning behind her refugee policy was that Germany has an aging population and young workers with high birth rates are needed to fill in jobs as more Germans reach retirement age. The refugee crisis was a blessing in disguise for Germany from the perspective of addressing future labor shortages.
Merkel is willing to change her tune based on public sentiment. When German public opinion was favorable to helping refugees, Merkel declared that “We can do it” in response to the potential difficulties that could come with absorbing so many newcomers. As public opinion has turned negative on immigration, Merkel has been willing to propose drastically authoritarian measures such as a ban on the burka, the traditional head to toe covering worn by ultraconservative Muslim women. Regardless of one’s stance on women wearing such garments, such a measure can be seen as pandering to the German far right who have rallied hard against the new influx of refugees as a threat to German culture. It is hard to imagine such a proposal being enacted in the United States due to how blatantly unconstitutional it would be. When one dives into Merkel’s career, it becomes harder to conceive of her as a liberal.
One of liberalism’s foremost values is secularism, the separation of Church and State. Merkel has lamented that there is too little Christianity in Germany today. These are not the words of a progressive liberal but rather of a conservative Lutheran. Moreover, Merkel’s political party, the Christian Democratic Union, centers around Christian values and is a bulwark of mainstream German conservatism. As expected from a mainstream conservative, Markel has publically declared marriage to between a man and a woman. This is a position we might expect to hear from someone like Vice President Mike Pence. This belies the portraits of Merkel in the English speaking world as a defender of liberal values, such as when she lambasted Vladimir Putin’s Russia for its anti-LGBT policies. At the time, she was trying to stonewall on the legalization of gay marriage in Germany. When gay marriage finally came up for a vote in the German Bundestag or parliament, Merkel voted against it.
With the aftermath of the Charlottesville violence, President Donald Trump has been criticized for a failure to appropriately condemn neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Yet Merkel has faced a neo-Nazi related scandal of her own. Between 2000 and 2006, a neo-Nazi organization, the National Socialist Underground, murdered 9 immigrants. The German police failed to properly investigate these murders which they lazily attributed to gangland feuds. After the murderers were caught, Merkel promised a thorough investigation about how they were able to operate for so long. However, German security agencies obstructed the parliamentary investigation to protect their own image. Politicians on the investigative committee reported that files on specific people of interest had been destroyed by security agencies. The committee also uncovered a failure by the authorities to question people when murders happened in the vicinity of known neo-Nazi bars. Furthermore, it was found that security agencies had paid informants associated with National Socialist Underground who were protected from scrutiny. With German taxpayer money, these informants were able to fund neo-Nazi activities. Up to forty informants were discovered to have been associated with the core trio who committed the murders. Moreover, it was found that the security agencies were aware of the trio’s ties to nazism and their procurement of weapons during the occurrence of the murders. Merkel’s promise for an account of the truth was broken and although there is no evidence that she was directly involved in any coverups and misconduct; she ultimately bears responsibility for government function While she certainly does not offer sympathy and defense for the behavior of neo-Nazis, unlike Trump, her unwillingness to push for accountability shows a concern for the government’s image take a higher priority than understanding how neo-Nazis eluded and took advantage of the security agencies and making changes to ensure that it never happens again. Furthermore, it shows that promises especially to families of those murdered by the National Socialist Underground are too inconvenient to follow through with when the political heat turns up. Playing politics and preserving her government take precedence over any values that one would expect from the “Leader of the Free World”.
While many feel revulsion towards Donald Trump and his actions as President, it is erroneous and uninformed to rebrand foreign conservative leaders such as Angela Merkel into champions of liberalism and progressivism. Criticisms of the President must not devolve into false lionization of figures who become more questionable the more one critically evaluates them. Liberals who oppose Trump should look to people who actually ascribe to their values and not sink to the intellectual dishonesty that characterizes Trumpism. The opposition must have the intellectual high ground over the government. For conservatives who are opposed to Trump should give Merkel a second look for an example of relatively stable conservative politics. Overall, the discourse around Merkel in English speaking media usually mischaracterizes her and it’s important to have the proper understanding of foreign leaders. Merkel is a shrewd politician excellent at working for partisan and national interests but should not be seen as as a beacon of liberal values by either her admirers or her detractors.