This is red meat for Trump, not to mention Steve Bannon, whose recent European tour was meant precisely to bolster nationalist, right-wing, xenophobic parties like Germany’s AfD. Trump’s bogus claim about increased crime rates may have been quickly debunked—just another easily dismissible idiocy for those who actually know. But it may also have fanned fear among those voters upset by an array of issues connected to refugee and immigration policy. His false assertion about increased criminality as a result of immigration may in fact have deepened the anxiety precisely of those voters unsure about casting a vote for the CSU or the AfD this fall.
Objections from within the CSU to Seehofer’s hardline stance against refugees and asylum seekers are few indeed. But one such opponent is Hans Maier, former president of the party’s Catholic Central Committee. Maier has said publicly that he no longer recognizes the “C” in the CSU moniker. The party has, he says, given in to a “climate of cowardliness and fear. Instead of the party leaders holding firm against it, they are chasing after it. They are afraid of the AfD.” Maier advocates for policies based on the Gospels, the Ten Commandments, and the teachings of Jesus—on the simple notion of Christian charity. Self-designated “Christian” political parties (including Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Union), he insists, must stand up for the persecuted. But his is an isolated voice in contemporary politics.
Let us be candid: there is a connection between immigrants and crime—even if it is based more in emotion than in fact. The most horrific recent crime in Germany was the murder last month of a fourteen-year old girl known in the press only as “Susanna from Wiesbaden,” perpetrated by a twenty-year-old rejected asylum seeker from Iraq, a certain “Ali B.” This is the kind of crime, like the public assaults on numerous women in Cologne during the 2016 New Year’s celebrations, that tends to cement in the public’s mind the image of certain immigrant men as almost inherently criminal. Spectacularly abhorrent crimes have a way of undoing whatever consolation the actual data offer. Trump understands and exploits this dynamic very well. By staging events with family members of those killed by undocumented immigrants in the United States, he seeks to obscure the larger truth that native-born Americans commit crimes at higher rates than immigrants. By referring to these victims as “angel families” (who of course merit our sympathies), he deftly demonizes immigrants. His intrusion into German politics, in other words, is nothing more than an extension abroad of what he is doing at home.
Ironically, it was Horst Seehofer himself—in his role as interior minister—who last month made the announcement about Germany’s historically low crime rate. The message has not gained much traction. As the Deutsche Welle put it in a recent headline, “Germany: Crime rate drops, but fear rises.”
In 2015, Germany did a truly great thing by acting generously in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Chancellor Merkel rallied her fellow Germans with the encouraging words, “Wir schaffen es!” (“we can do it!”). By appealing to Germans’ deeply held ideals and values—rooted in their own experiences of war and expulsion—rather than to their fears and resentments, she did exactly what a real leader should. Since then, however, she and the federal refugee agency known as BAMF have come in for some harsh criticism. With her own conservative coalition partners from the CSU closing steadily in upon her, Merkel is truly in crisis, and in desperate need of an ally’s support.
Instead, President Trump poured gasoline on the embers of Germany’s anxieties. With his lie about rising criminality, he has unduly sought to influence elections in a foreign country; attempted to bolster the prospects of the AfD; and undermined the government of a country whose democratic institutions the United States has painstakingly cultivated since the end of World War II. But the stakes are higher even than this. Commentators worry about a “domino effect” in Europe if Seehofer and Soeder have their way. If Germany closes its borders unilaterally, others will have no choice but to do the same. And that would be another crisis for Europe, not just Germany. Surely, Trump’s mendacious meddling cannot be made responsible for all this. But it sure hasn’t helped matters.