The director of the Washington office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Bastian Hermisson, gave a rousing speech at the Green Party convention in Münster a few days after the election victory of Donald Trump. It received more attention than the speeches of the party VIPs.
Herr Hermisson, you warned massively of the consequences for Germany after the election of Donald Trump. Are you still as concerned as in your speech at the convention in Münster? Or has that subsided?
The concern has not become less. In the face of Trump’s personnel decisions and his style of approaching government affairs, one must be equally worried and vigilant. He conducted his election campaign skirting around all institutions, and indications are now that he wants to conduct government affairs skirting those institutions. Trump brings an extreme narcissism to this office that distinguishes him and appears to have more interest in petty Twitter controversies than in security briefings. He rejects the democratic control function of the media and denies every transparency, such as the intermingling of his business interests with office concerns. Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, seems to be his model in many regards.
Apart from that, how is the mood of the German community in Washington more than a month after the election?
On the one hand, it is necessary to see what becomes reality out of the campaign bluster. On the other hand, there is by all means apprehension about some of the foundations of transatlantic relations, such as alliance policy and the question of commitments in the framework of NATO, or climate policy. These are existential political questions for Germany.
Regarding consequences, are the conditions in both countries even comparable?
In many regards, they are not comparable, thank God, from the German perspective. While American politics have become increasingly polarized, the parties in Germany have moved more and more toward the center. We also have greater stability in the media landscape, especially when it comes to publicly regulated institutions. In the U.S., the established media don’t even reach a relevant part of the population any longer.
You said in Münster that if nothing else, the Green Party must leave its communicative bubble. What did you mean by that?
It is not just a matter of the Greens, but our entire society. It isn’t a bad thing to communicate with kindred spirits. In the U.S., however, many Trump voters are only communicating in their own information bubble. There, the established media have lost their function as information brokers. That is a danger if these people only frame their world view from strongly biased information, and partially from fake news and lies.
And that is not so in Germany?
In Germany, society is not so strongly divided, but by us, too, there are parts of society that apparently don’t feel represented by the democratic parties, that mistrust professional media, and that isolate themselves. In order to reach them, the progressive-thinking parts of the population, including political parties, are challenged to come out of their own sphere of discourse and actively reach these people, online and offline — even if that is taxing. We must listen to them, find out what unites us and argue clearly, where we — with all due respect and empathy — see democracy and fundamental values questioned.
What does that mean concretely?
That begins with conversations with one’s own neighbors, or reading media and Facebook comments that have different opinions. Going to the country for vacation instead of flying halfway around the world. Becoming involved in local clubs and initiatives. For political parties, it is a matter of reaching as wide a public as possible and not only one’s own constituents — in speeches and also with new formats. Hillary Clinton, for example, took a listening tour through the entire United States. From that, a series of political initiatives came into being that had not been considered before. That was correct, even if she didn’t win the election.
In Germany, there is also the self-critical assertion that the left is, as it were, responsible for the drift to the right through too much political correctness. Do you agree?
People must ask themselves what they can improve in order to strengthen societal cohesion and maintain open societies. But the left’s self-criticism goes too far in some places. The concept of “political correctness” as a battle cry of the right is nothing more than respect for one’s opponent and the human dignity of all. That mandates not designating Mexicans as rapists, as Trump did. Discrimination against groups cannot be tolerated in a democracy.
What can be tolerated?
It takes greater effort to differentiate between what is politically wanted and what is politically necessary. When I say, “We have to go,” my five-year-old son says, “No, Papa, we don’t have to. You want to.” I think, in democracy, too, there are things that one wants. There are other existential things that must be.
Another theory goes that the left insisted too much on the rights of minorities and too little on social, that is to say, material equality.
In the U.S., the social question is central. There is a growing discrepancy between poor and rich, and a dramatic economic split between rural regions and urban centers. But I think it is wrong to play social progress off against cultural progress. Whoever asks critics where the promoters of cultural progress have gone too far receives no concrete answers. In equality for women? There are still grave pay differences between men and women. Or marriage for all? That is still not reality in Germany — although it costs nothing for the socially disadvantaged. I think it is a matter of cultural progress in terms of equality before the law and equal chances in society. Primarily it’s about making it clearer that it is not a matter of the implementation of group interests, but instead a matter of equal rights for all.
But isn’t it a problem despite this that people who live in Georgetown or Prenzlauer Berg who are doing well tell people for whom it is going badly in Detroit or Marzahn that they should keep pace with social changes? And that these people perhaps think, “Leave us in peace with your crap. We have completely different worries.”
If that alone stood in the foreground, it would perhaps be so, but it was not the case in Clinton’s campaign. She had comprehensive suggestions for social reform. The picture of the Democrats that emerged was nevertheless one that hardly took the white working class into consideration. The question is, then, how anti-discrimination can better be communicated as part of a comprehensive inclusion. It cannot play those economically left behind against the socially oppressed. It is, however, also clear that what we held to be self-evident for a long time is no longer self-evident in parts of society, including Germany: a common Europe, the ground rules of our democracy, basic rights. The societal consensus about this must continually be worked on and justified anew.
Will a German Trump thrive for us if all that does not succeed?
Probably not in 2017. That is connected to the stability of our institutions, but the question is to what extent an increasing right nationalistic discourse in Europe will cause the established parties to take on such positions and question the cornerstones of the Federal Republic of Germany, such as firm entrenchment in the European Union.
In conclusion, a personal question: How long have you actually been in the U.S. now?
Currently for two years. Altogether, I have spent six years of my life here; they were among the best years.
Have you observed a tendency to flee since Trump’s election?
American friends have expressed such feelings. I do not have them. It is necessary now more than ever to stand up for democracy, constitutionality and freedom in this country, and my children are German-American dual citizens. It is a matter of their futures.