To appreciate how shocking President Donald Trump is to modern German sensibilities, consider the “America First!” slogan that so cheers his supporters. Then ponder how Germans—and indeed voters across Europe—would react if an avowed law-and-order nationalist were to seek the office of Bundeskanzler with the slogan: “Germany First!” Several issues divided Mr Trump and Chancellor Angela Merkel at their first meeting in the White House on March 17th. At an often awkward press conference in the East Room, the two leaders politely disagreed on everything from immigration to free trade and the value of seeking multinational agreements. Their comportment could hardly have been more different. Mrs Merkel was every inch the cool, reserved physicist-by-training, at moments giving her American host the icy stare of a Mother Superior told a dirty joke. Mr Trump was dyspeptic, defensive and visibly irritated by press questions about his latest controversial tweets.
But the real dividing line between the two involved the nature of political leadership. Mr Trump, being Mr Trump, presented himself as a tribune of the people, heeding and acting on public demands to end “unfair” treatment of America. He catalogued some of those resentments. He said it is time for members of the NATO alliance to pay their “dues”—countries “must pay what they owe”, he grumbled—though as members of NATO, governments do not technically “owe” anything but have merely made political commitments to spend the equivalent of 2% of GDP on defence. He cited public demands for tighter controls on immigration in the name of “national security,” adding that: “immigration is a privilege, not a right.” He condemned previous free trade deals and spoke of the need for American workers to come first from now on.
Mrs Merkel’s response was subtle but brutal. She noted that free trade agreements have “not always been that popular” in Germany, and referred to protests in her own country relating to free trade pacts that the European Union has either signed with foreign partners or wants to sign. She recalled the specific fears raised by an EU pact with South Korea, and the predictions that the German car industry would suffer from increased competition and more open markets. Instead, she said, the pact with South Korea “brought more jobs” and both sides won. “I represent German interests,” she said at one point, just as the American president “stands up for American interests.” Listen carefully and Mrs Merkel was telling Mr Trump that she, like every leader in the world, has domestic politics to think about. Left unspoken was the point that it is easy, even dangerously easy, to let such distinct national interests provoke a clash. Her core message to Mr Trump was that real political leadership involves seeking a co-operative solution that leaves everyone ahead, and that international relations do not have to be zero-sum.
Mrs Merkel had no desire to pick an open fight. She has long experience with swaggering male leaders who like to throw their weight around, from President Vladimir Putin of Russia to the former French leader, Nicolas Sarkozy. The German press corps that covers the chancellor has long swapped tales of the dry, off-the-record jokes that she cracks at the expense of such men, often under the cover of self-deprecation. After one European summit in Brussels at which the hyper-active Mr Sarkozy had been more manic than usual, Mrs Merkel told her press corps: “I think I am the most boring person that he has ever met.”
The German leader also came prepared. She is an atypical “Playboy” reader. But that magazine’s interview with Donald Trump in 1990 is one clue studied by Team Merkel before their first meeting. In that preview of his “America First” views, nearly 30 years ago, Mr Trump accused allies of subsidising exports while free-riding on American security, growling: “I’d throw a tax on every Mercedes-Benz rolling into this country.” The president remains an unlikely Merkel ally. He scorns detail, has praised Britain’s decision to leave the EU, obsesses over trade balances (Germany ran a $53bn trade surplus with America last year), and has called her decision to admit more than a million refugees into Germany “catastrophic”. He has appalled the German government with his open admiration for the iron-fisted nationalism of Mr Putin, his hints that he might lift sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, and his suggestions that NATO is obsolete.
At their press conference Mrs Merkel managed to persuade Mr Trump to state his “strong support” for NATO. She also heard the American leader praise Germany’s schemes for job training and retraining, and apprenticeships in industry. Earlier, she had introduced Mr Trump to bosses from firms like Siemens and BMW, who talked up their American factories and investments. That was smart. Apprenticeships are a big part of Germany’s global brand, and an impressed-sounding Mr Trump noted from the podium that his government is “in the process of rebuilding the American industrial base.”
The most awkward moments involved Mr Trump’s repeated claims that he was spied on as a candidate by the Obama administration. Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress have said no evidence exists to support Mr Trump’s tweeted claim of two weeks ago that his telephones at Trump Tower were tapped—a very serious claim. Undaunted, the president sent out his press secretary, Sean Spicer, on March 16th to read out a list of news reports, some of them from far-right conspiracy theorists, which support the idea that the current president was spied on by his predecessor. Mr Spicer stood in the White House briefing room and noted that a conservative retired judge, Andrew Napolitano, had claimed on Fox News television that a British spy agency, GCHQ, secretly intercepted Mr Trump’s communications at Mr Obama’s request.
The British government reacted with unusually open anger, calling the claim “utterly ridiculous”. At the Merkel-Trump press conference German reporters asked Mr Trump if he regretted making that claim. Mr Trump replied, in effect, that the buck does not stop with him. “We said nothing,” the president said. “All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television.”
Mr Trump then sought to lighten the mood by referring to the kerfuffle that followed the revelation, in 2013, that American spooks had tapped one of Mrs Merkel’s mobile telephones. Turning to his guest, he said: “At least we have something in common, perhaps.” The look that the chancellor shot back blended incredulity with horror. For Washington-based observers, increasingly used to the idea of an American president who makes baseless claims and attacks other leaders without shame, her dismay was a useful reminder. This is not normal.