The storming of the Capitol in Washington was the scandalous low point of Donald Trump’s presidency. But despite his electoral defeat it remains his movement a danger. Germany too must learn from this.
Anger is seldom beautiful, but sometimes it’s just ugly: like on Wednesday when an angry mob stormed the Capitol. And many rioters apparently believed that with the devastation of parliament, the result of a democratic election would also be swept away.
As much as Donald Trump has been the innocent since then, there must be no doubt: He incited the masses to the action not only shortly before the storming of the House and Senate. No, the president, who actually swore an oath on the constitution, has been agitating against it again and again since he took office. The escalation in the US capital was foreseeable, for too long people were incited with false information about a fraud in the US presidential election. Donald Trump was a fire accelerator for the USA who, during the years of his presidency and before, repeatedly poured fuel into the fire, further divided the country in order to benefit politically.
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However, it would be too easy and too dangerous to look down on the United States now. Because the developments that can be observed in America also exist in Europe, among other places – even if not yet to this extent. That is why Europe and Germany should understand the escalation of violence in Washington and the danger posed by a president like Trump primarily as a warning: resist the beginning!
For that to happen, you have to understand what actually happened in the US. How did it get to the point where Trump got more votes than any other losing presidential candidate in November? How did he manage to steal millions of people’s trust in democratic processes? How did he get people to storm the Capitol? There are innumerable answers to this. However, three aspects seem to be crucial:
1. Poverty as a fire accelerator
Like many Western democracies, the United States has changed rapidly over the past few decades. Change unsettles almost everyone. But for many conservatives in particular, developments went too fast. They see the fact that many things are different than before as a threat to their identity – and that of their nation. At the same time, the liberal market economy of the USA lacks a buffer to cushion the changes.
The Trump mob invades the Capitol: the police must recapture the building. (Source: AP / dpa)
For example, large branches of industry became less important. For example, more and more raw materials were imported, steel and coal workers were no longer needed. The United States is a liberal market economy that barely slows down capitalism. As a result, prosperity is unevenly distributed, more and more people are at risk of poverty, and there is no social security. They felt forgotten by the politics of both parties.
While a generous welfare state mitigates hardship in Germany, for example, there is no comparable protection in the USA. Anyone who becomes unemployed as a result of structural change in the steel industry, for example, has to see how they can get back on their feet. If this does not succeed, or only at poorer conditions, one often feels sooner or later forgotten by the actually hated state.
2. Conservatives, right-wing radicals and devout Christians
What is a natural part of the program of more conservative parties in Germany is sometimes decried as “progressive” in the USA. The Union is no longer fighting gay marriage and the right to abortion, but the Republicans are. Also because there is a considerable number of voters who are very conservative. 68 percent of Republican voters associate themselves with the “pro-life” movement, which rejects rubbing. And: Only 39 percent support the permission of gay marriage.
This also has to do with the fact that religion is often even more important in US society – 25 percent of citizens are practicing Christians, for whom faith plays an important role in their lives. And those people for whom homosexuality and abortion are unchristian and for whom Barack Obama as the first African American president is an enemy, also need a political home.
The only question is whether one party tries to integrate these groups into society as a whole (as the popular parties CDU and CSU try) or to split them off from the rest of society, as the Republicans do again and again. The conservative regular voters, however, would not have been enough to win Trump in the 2016 presidential election. He also tied disappointed workers to himself.
Iowa: Evangelical Christians pray for Donald Trump during a protest. (Source: imago images)
His “America First” ideology appealed to those who felt forgotten by Republicans and Democrats and feared for their own prosperity. There are many of these people in Germany too. This is not only borne out by the decline of the SPD, but also by the fact that the AfD also scores in those social classes in which there is great concern about losing status.
3. Identity through a radical movement
The ideology founded by Trump aims to present itself as the real voice of the people and thus as something like the true representative of the people. That was and is only successful because Trump was strategically clever. He posed as an anti-establishment politician who did not abide by the written and unwritten laws of politics. At the same time, it was clear to him that it would probably not be enough just to stage himself against the representatives of politics. He also had to destroy trust in the established media in order to gain sovereignty over the interpretation of events and facts. That is why he branded internationally recognized media such as the “New York Times” as “fake news” and repeatedly presented “alternative facts”.
“Proud Boys” demonstrate in front of the Capitol. Trump had previously ensnared right-wing extremist movements again and again. (Source: dpa)
However, this also worked so well because the classic media in the USA also reflect the division in the country. Many US citizens no longer believe that they are being informed neutrally. That is not fundamentally wrong: It is not only stations like “Fox News” that are clearly positioned politically. It is arguably true of CNN and others, albeit in a less clear-cut way.
There is no comparably divided media landscape in Germany, but here, too, a certain section of society is evidently looking for information beyond the traditional media. In the Federal Republic of Germany, 18 percent of the population agreed with the statement in 2020: “The population in Germany is systematically lied to by the media.”
A Trump movement in Germany too?
Through these two pillars, Trump not only won voters, he also won loyal and fanatical supporters. This movement gives people who feel partially left behind by society an identity, a sense of belonging. In order to secure the following of his supporters, Trump deepened the division in US society, critical media and the political opponent were no longer the opposition, they became the enemy. Large sections of this movement believed that Trump was portraying himself as the greatest president of all time. With the lies about fraud in the US presidential elections, he added fuel to the fire of suspicion, so that part of the movement became radicalized.
Joe Biden in a speech after the riots in Washington: The elected US president wants to fight the division of the country during his term in office. (Source: AP / dpa)
These radical excesses and this deep gap in society do not yet exist in Germany. There are different reasons for this: The welfare state in the Federal Republic of Germany offers people more protection, society as a whole is more progressive, and people are not as religious as they are in the USA.
But the Trump years and the political success of the US president could become a blueprint for populists and anti-democracy all over the world. There is also a breeding ground for this in the Federal Republic of Germany: The gap between rich and poor is widening, distrust in the media is growing and, especially in structurally weak regions, significant parts of the population feel forgotten by the prevailing politics.
Germany mustn’t look the other way
The need to fight social divisions is therefore not unique to the USA. For example, the corona pandemic in Germany led to a movement that is reminiscent of Trumpism in various ways. “Thinking outside the box” sees ruling politics and the established media as the enemy, gives people an identity, the belief that they are fighting for something right. This movement also legitimizes right-wing radical groups in its ranks, thereby moving them further into the center of society. The attempted assault on the Reichstag building in August was only the preliminary stage of the assault on the Capitol in Washington.
That is why society in Germany must fight the cracks within the population, otherwise a politician like Donald Trump threatens in the end, who uses the anger and distrust for himself politically. The first step to prevent this sounds easy, but it is very difficult, especially in the pandemic: We must not meet anger with anger, because that makes the cracks widen. In the end, only the extremists benefit from this.