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America is one of Germany’s favorite jokes, and for good reason: with our race relations, violence, healthcare and education systems, Presidential candidates and civil strife, we’d be laughable if we weren’t such a tragedy. In the last few months, we Americans have often heard from Germans how Donald Trump is just a few steps away from Hitler, and your warnings are taken quite seriously (as a Jewish journalist, I’ve been harassed by Trump’s actual Nazi supporters, and while I’d make the argument that the Trump movement is a bit more like Milosevic’s Serbia or Hutu Power in Rwanda, I understand why you’d choose Hitler as your example). But this isn’t a one-way street: Donald Trump’s America is surely just a couple steps from Hitler’s Germany, but today’s Europe is just a couple false steps from Trump’s America.
There is no visible profile, one cannot generalize but naturally people are looking for signs nonetheless
The attackers in Cologne were an international mix, including German and US citizens. In Paris, all identified attackers were French or Belgian citizens, and the driver in Nice was French. The shooter in Munich appears to be a German, a follower of the nationalist, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland) party which has been making in-roads in German politics the past year, and it appears that his rampage had targeted solely those with immigrant backgrounds. There’s also Anders Breivik in Norway (who also apparently inspired the Munich shooter) and the Englishman who murdered MP Jo Cox shortly before the Brexit vote. There was indeed a Syrian refugee last week who attempted a suicide attack which killed no one but him, but there was also a German last month with a similar idea.
There is no visible profile: the attackers have been white and they’ve been brown, they’ve been English, German, Syrian, French, Norwegian, American – one cannot generalize them into groups to reduce the danger. But naturally people are looking for signs nonetheless. And this is America’s biggest problem. I’m writing to you as your neighbor, living in Germany for the past four years, to address a dangerous shift I’ve witnessed in Europe over the past year, and in Germany over the past month.
Mistrust has been transformed into xenophobia and misanthropy, which Trump has used to great success
America was once considered a land where many nationalities, races and ethnicities could live and work together, but in the last couple generations something went sideways on us. (Of course this former “melting pot” status is a whitewashing of history, especially for Black Americans). After years of shooting sprees and serial killers and church sexual abuse and police violence and government corruption, all sensationalized by the press, data suggests Americans have become increasingly mistrusting of one another.
In 2013, less than a third of Americans thought that the majority of the population was trustworthy, according to a poll by the Associated Press. 66% don’t trust cashiers, drivers, travelers, or the general public. Three years later, that number is surely higher. According to a 2016 Gallup poll, Americans don’t trust our government (only between 6% and 36% do) or the criminal justice system (23%), nor do we trust the church (41%), the press (20%) or our schools (30%). On the street, nobody knows who has a weapon, but legally anyone could, so we watch out for people on the sidewalk. Democrats don’t trust Republicans, Blacks don’t trust Whites, the poor don’t trust the rich, women don’t trust men, and in every case vice-versa. With this mistrust, violence and hate have grown in general (it’s always been there in a targeted form, but it has evolved into the general formless mass we see today). Americans don’t trust anyone outside of our little in-groups, and we transformed this mistrust into xenophobia and a wider misanthropy that Donald Trump has used to great success.
Europe today is its own wonderful “melting pot”, especially with the Schengen Treaty, but also with the work arrangements with Turkey that changed the continent’s monochromatic nature, and the enormous “welcome culture” of Germany in the refugee crisis. Europe is not simply multicultural but also largely integrated, like America in our so-called “melting pot” glory days (though admittedly facing the same problems). But similar to America, after attacks in Nice and Paris and Munich, after the New Years attacks in Cologne and other insecurity (most perpetrated by EU citizens), a fear of The Other is growing in Europe and Germany, based not in reality but in panic and sensationalism.
Chancellor Merkel fought against this panicked Othering in a press conference Thursday: “Dire is the general insecurity. The concern when I see someone: what’s behind them, can I recognize it? That’s why the state must fulfill its function to establish trust to the greatest extent possible. And we’re working on that… Fear cannot be the advisor of political action.” All Europeans should take this warning seriously.
Please, as America must learn from Germany and not elect Donald Trump, look at our modern example and don’t make the same mistakes. It’s only a tiny hop from closing your borders to building a wall. From fear to mistrust, from mistrust to misanthropy, and from there a German Donald Trump is only a few false steps.
Quote from Chancellor Merkel is author’s own translation.