The Germans I know observed the 2016 election with particular worry compared to the other three American elections I experienced from here. Things were different in 2000 when I studied abroad; in 2008, when I immigrated here and again in 2012. It is the escalation of worry over time that became my barometer for how people reacted and what fears they had, by extension, for Germany.
My lasting impression from 2000 was ridicule as the Florida recount wound through politics and the courts. There was headshaking all around and great wonder how the United States could have such a patently weird system, from voting machines to the Electoral College. Later, Barack Obama’s election seemed to bring about a loud, collective sigh of relief. A comedian on late-night TV gleefully shouted “peace, happy, pancake!” in direct translation of a German expression (Friede, Freude, Eierkuchen!). Everybody was so pleased, they could even laugh about it and themselves. The world had been righted again. The mood was dampened in 2012 but Obama’s repeated victory reassured people that figures like Sarah Palin had been just a fluke.
This time, the sense that the United States has ridiculous politics and absurd, if not downright stupid and illogical, priorities has been strong and deep. Disappointment with what Obama was unable or unwilling to do, and collective derision about widespread, if not majority, American positions turned into something else. (They [re-]elect politicians who hate providing people with health insurance? All that climate change denial in the face of scientific expertise and abundant evidence? Mass shootings and police violence? Such dissatisfaction with an economic situation that is wealthy compared to most of the rest of the world?) Friends, acquaintances, and colleagues asked, “Tell me, what’s up with this Trump character? Does he actually stand a chance? What is this? Who are these voters?” I have never before been asked to explain the USA so frequently in a country where many people pride themselves on their knowledge of their major ally. Germany continues to face its collective historical guilt on a scale that is unique worldwide and the blatant racism and xenophobia of not only the Trump campaign, but many Republican candidates, were inexplicable here. It highlighted all the negative things from recent American history that people would rather see outweighed by the USA’s generally positive character. The fact that Bernie Sanders’s positions would seem radical drove home the point that the US is more deeply conservative than many Germans usually feel like admitting.
Brexit was unthinkable from here, but the election of Trump was an escalation of nearly unfathomable proportions. I know Germans who cried about Brexit, but Trump’s victory seemed even too much for tears. I felt others’ shocked and horrified silence, their utter speechlessness. Colleagues sent me condolence emails, carefully asking if I was okay. Many people here orient themselves and their perceptions towards the USA. The soul-searching of the American media immediately led to soul-searching in the German media. The danger of fake news influencing Germany’s upcoming elections is being examined. The electoral prospects of Germany’s populists (the AfD) were re-examined. The close attention that was paid to the primaries and the general election is now paid to the transition, but now it’s without the underlying sense that we might as well find it entertaining. People I talk to echo my own sense of dread. Everybody misses laughing at the USA’s previous election gaffes.
The press agency DPA called a prominent curator, someone who was my own mentor as I started my career, to ask for his position. He said a version of something I’ve heard often from members of the older West German generation. It goes roughly, “Never forget that the Americans were our liberators. They showed us democracy. The freedom of our dreams is embodied in this idea of America.” When Kasper said it now, though, it sounded like a valedictory instead of a reminder of why people love our country. Kasper’s reminder had another ring to it, too, of disappointed friendship and the recognition that someone has become something you always believed they weren’t at heart.