by Brooks Riley
In the last year, two extraordinary events have indelibly changed the immediate course of history, for better or worse. In an utterly surprising move, Germany, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, spontaneously accepted over a million refugees, most of them from the war in Syria, only slightly changing the demographic landscape of that rich, stable, mature and responsible democracy, but making a much bigger splash.
This year, for reasons that are still unclear, America’s Top Wild Card has all but bagged the Republican nomination.
The two events are unrelated, and yet they serve to make one ponder the nature of nationhood and expectation. The two protagonists of these events could not be more different. So too their nations.
Trump has succeeded in the land of the free-for-all, a place where narcissism is rewarded with undivided attention. Trump has just about won the Republican nomination, not because he’s the best man, not because he knows jack all about governing, government, foreign policy or any other policy, not because he’s rich, not because he’s got a new vision, not because he’s promised the moon, not because he wants to help the poor, but because he’s loud. He’s so loud that we can hear him all the way over here on the other side of the Atlantic.
He has always been loud, always looking for attention, a poor little rich boy who probably didn’t get enough of it when it mattered. Narcissism usually has its roots in some chronic childhood slight. Whether it’s the father or the mother who’s at fault doesn’t matter. Now we’ve got this big old baby begging for more on a national scale.
Trump has been around a long time. For as long as I can remember he’s been a risible figure on the New York party scene, a local show-off who put his syllable on buildings and a series of trophy wives. He was never taken seriously before, and the fact that he is now being taken seriously points to a deep sickness in the American psyche, an infantilism that projects the mechanisms of The Apprentice, or America’s Top Model, or from earlier times, Queen for a Day on the future destiny of the nation. Reality has been left behind in the blurred lines between TV and life.
Someone I knew who had worked for a soap opera production company once told me that weddings were a no-no in a soap opera, the reason being that the TV station would be inundated with wedding gifts for the fictional newlyweds, from fans who were unable distinguish fact from fiction, reality from TV.
Now that we’re at a point where a minor TV celebrity is actually posing as a serious candidate for an office that ought to embody intelligence, experience, knowledge, maturity, and leadership abilities, we have to ask ourselves where it all went wrong, before it’s too late.
Angela Merkel is in all ways the opposite of Trump. She’s intelligent, and clever too, she’s experienced, she governs slowly but thoroughly, she’s a scientist, with a scientist’s bent for getting to the bottom of a subject. She’s got a sense of humor—what demagogues like Trump and Erdogan never do–and she’s not vain or narcissistic. When she makes a mistake, she admits to it (the Böhmermann affair). Above all, she’s a statesman, that rare form of leader who transcends party politics for the greater good.
What she’s never been is a Mom, although that is her nickname here (Mutti), probably emanating from that other deep German yearning, to be taken care of by a Mutter der Nation or ‘mother of the nation’.
Nearly one year on, her stunning action is paying off. The refugees are being slowly but surely woven into the national fabric. Don’t believe everything you read to the contrary: The problem with journalism is that it always reports on the exception, never the rule (Why do you think Trump got so much attention?). The refugee crisis is not a crisis here, and with the help of a majority that has pitched in to help, it is less of an issue than it was a few months ago. True, the AfD, a right-wing minority nationalist party, has emerged, but the longer things continue to go smoothly the shorter its shelf-life will be. In spite of the huge extra costs for the refugees, Germany’s prosperity is still on the rise, so much so that the conservative finance minister has just recommended a reduction in taxes.
Is there something to be learned from these two events, some connection that could show the way toward a shift in political awareness?
Two countries—one of them accepting a million refugees in a flash, the other wanting to throw millions out on their bums.
It all boils down to why someone ever runs for the office of President in the first place: Is it to boost the ego or is it to change and improve the country? I used to deride German professional politicians, who join a party at a young age and work their way up the ranks. They were too removed from the people, too caught up in the machinations of their respective parties. Their perennial Parteitage, seasonal party conventions faithfully covered in the press, were a source of mild amusement for me.
But seeing the ascendency of those whom Roger Cohen in the New York Times calls the ‘know-nothings‘—and Trump is surely one of them—I’ve changed my mind.
A professional politician is well acquainted with a variety of issues, a knowledge that is built up over time and is under constant review according to present realities. An ego-driven ambitious politician will soon discover that he cannot proceed up the ladder without a well-informed strategy for improving the country and a firm knowledge of the facts, however they are to be interpreted. Personality and charisma are irrelevant to the issues, as they should be.
In America, on the other hand, it is the cult of personality that defines politics. A brilliant, knowledgeable wimp will always lose out to a charismatic know-nothing—a perilous situation for a country the size of America with its military might and increasingly dysfunctional two-party system.
Some journalists are suddenly rushing to say that it’s okay if Trump wins as long as he’s got good advisers. Somehow I’m not convinced, envisioning a scenario where an expert with years of experience and know-how is suddenly fired for cracking a joke or using more than one syllable.
Once in a while, charisma is accompanied by intelligence and honorable intentions. Obama was such a man, even if he was thwarted at many turns by the Republicans. If Trump wins the election, we will miss Obama for a long time to come.
Today I read of a woman receiving death threats for wearing a cap that said ‘America was never great‘. What is this obsession with greatness? Why does America have to be great? Why can’t America just be good? Good to its people, helpful to its disenfranchised, fair to its transgressors, inviting to the tired and poor from other lands? If America ever was great, it was because it opened its doors and its heart, not because it had the biggest military or the highest fences or the most guns. Is Trump’s idea of greatness tearing down everything good that has happened, and returning to a status quo with few benefits for the average citizen? The Republican Party itself has evolved into a party with no solutions of its own, just the destruction of solutions achieved by others. This is the club Trump has joined.
The last time a country put a premium on greatness, hundreds of millions died as a result. But that very country’s remarkable turnaround over the last 70 years has made it paradoxically greater than it could ever have imagined. Germany is great today in part because it doesn’t give a fig about greatness. (As German comedian Jan Böhmermann once put it, ‘we’re proud of not being proud.’)
The issue is partly semantic: The word ‘great’ used to mean ‘big’, as in Great Britain, or Great Barrier Reef. That it came to mean ‘all-powerful’ or ‘wonderful’ is one of those unfortunate twists of usage that leads to misunderstandings. The German language provides two words for ‘great’: gross, as in big, grossartig as in wonderful. America may be gross but for many Americans right now it is not grossartig.
Greatness cannot be self-proclaimed; it is a compliment that can only be bestowed by others, not by a nation on itself. That’s why I could call Germany great (as in wonderful) with impunity: I’m not German. But why should I? And why should it matter? The reason Trump has gotten as far as he has is that the country has itself become narcissistic, its obsession with its own greatness (as in all-powerful) the dangerous symptom of a national pathology that can only do harm. Narcissism is always about a deficit of self-esteem. With the wrong person at the helm next year, the rest of the world could be in for a nasty surprise.