The Rise of Populism in the U.S. and in Germany

Simon Schütz

German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA)

Simon Schütz works as the head of communication for the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA) in Berlin. Before that, he was a Responsible Editor at BILD, covering U.S. politics as well as domestic politics in Germany. In addition, he freelanced for the American National Public Radio (NPR), where he wrote mostly about current developments in Germany.

Simon graduated from Freie Universität in Berlin, with an MA in strategic political communication. He also studied at George Washington University in Washington, DC, where he primarily focused on public diplomacy and campaigning during elections and in Bordeaux, France.

A significant segment of the U.S. remains in shock over the results of its presidential election. Donald Trump is now the president-elect.

Among politicians, media pundits, academics, pollsters, and private citizens, there is intense questioning of how this happened now underway.

The goal is to determine what can be learned from the election. The answers may hold lessons for those facing major elections in France and Germany in 2017.

Those future outcomes may similarly reflect some level of populism, as did some of Trump’s popularity, and as reflected in last June’s Brexit vote.

On the face of it, the British, German, and French trends would appear to reflect increasing citizen criticism of globalization, including rejection of the role of trade agreements.

These global trends also would appear to reflect increasing opposition to what were prior policies for dealing with immigration. The conflicts in Syria and Ukraine are prime examples, resulting in the highest number of refugees since 1945. In the U.S., the voice of the alt-right denounces immigration, multiculturalism, and political correctness. Their leaders have gone largely unchallenged by Trump and his supporters and thus their influence affected the election results to some degree—although the extent of which remains unknown, as does their influence in Trump administration priorities and policies.

The success of their counterparts in Germany (Alternative for Germany), France (Front National), and Austria (the repeat of the presidential election) should be carefully compared to whatever are relevant signs and warnings from the U.S. election and Brexit.

Collectively they may foreshadow the global strength and viability of this threat. Hard work must secure sufficient consensus on solutions. Between the conflicts now faced on a national level, and those affecting the global order, there surely exists both an interrelation and a connection. Populists have been using international conflict not only as an example of failing politics, but even more to ignite and sustain fear within the people. Fear and uncertainty concerning the future are prime motivators of the voting electorate. These emotions are strategically understood, manipulated, and exploited by certain “populist” candidates—a strategy thus far often one of success.

Just because the problems identified within what is loosely referred to as populism appear mostly on the national level, does not mean that Germany and the U.S. cannot work together to minimize this threat.

Questions to be asked in both countries are key to such potential:

  • Where does the support for the populist movement come from?
  • What are its proponents’ complaints?
  • What are their demands?
  • Was there a time their supporters thought differently?
  • Was there a specific event(s) that most triggered their anger?
  • Why do many citizens feel left behind and disconnected from the elites and how can we integrate them again?

What are effective and legitimate solutions?

On the one hand, those in charge of policy cannot ignore such complaints that have been ignored for far too long, nor do politicians have the luxury of squandering time that must be devoted to seeking effective solutions. Yet to be avoided, on the other hand, are simplistic promises of solutions that although seductive in nature, are unworkable in reality. Such political expediency merely to appease vitriolic or unreasonable groups and thus protect the politician’s job will not likely work in this political climate.

Even though a majoritarian system such as in the U.S. is more likely to be taken advantage of by populist movements, a consensual system such as in Germany must also deal with the challenge of populism. Even if parties such as the AfD are most likely to be isolated in the opposition, the effects on society, political culture, and understanding of democracy must not be underestimated.

This is not the exclusive task of politics. The media plays a crucial role in terms of responsible reporting and in providing the information necessary for citizens in order to have an informed opinion on current issues.

Civil society also plays an important role within a country. It is entwined within the society, with a regular opportunity to engage directly with citizens and to identify segments of polarization within the society. Civil discourse, the engagement of a broad range of citizens, including those who feel left behind, may be one of the toughest challenges our societies are facing. Yet if soon and effectively addressed, this could be the most crucial factor in how the U.S. and Germany might partner on this goal so important to democracy.

For now it would appear that on each side of the Atlantic, both sides are preoccupied with their respective country’s domestic affairs and foreign policy, and not on their transatlantic relationship. As outlined above, the rise of populism, anti-globalization, isolationism, and nationalism are keeping politics imprisoned on a national level when critical to that success is a clear-eyed strategy consistent with global challenges. Rather than suffer from this climate, the transatlantic relationship should strive to take this opportunity to face domestic threats together, in order to enable both sides to rebalance the current U.S.-German relationship for their respective and aggregate best interests.

A longer version of this essay was published by Atlantic Expedition on December 2, 2016.


Simon Schütz is a research intern at AGI during the fall of 2016. He is currently a graduate student in the Master of Media and Strategic Communication at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. The semester in Washington, DC, is part of his Master of Political Communication at the Free University in Berlin.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.