World Europe First Look

Trump critic Frank-Walter Steinmeier to be Germany's new president

A special assembly elected the popular politician, who says he rejects those who seek to 'make politics with fear.'

German President-elect Frank-Walter Steinmeier leaves after the first round of voting of the German presidential election at the Reichstag in Berlin on Sunday.
Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters
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Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democrat who has openly criticized President Trump for what he says are fear-mongering political tactics, was elected Germany's new president in a landslide victory on Sunday. 

A special assembly made up of 630 members of the parliament's lower house and an equal number of representatives from Germany's 16 states elected the former foreign minister, awarding him 931 of the 1,260 total votes. He will take over from Joachim Gauck, a 77-year-old East German pro-democracy activist who did not seek a second term. 

The president of Germany holds very little executive power. But it is nonetheless an influential position, as he or she is seen as a moral authority and figurehead of sorts for the country, and bears the responsibility of hosting visiting dignitaries. According to protocol, Mr. Steinmeier will be considered Mr. Trump's German counterpart, despite the disparity in political and policymaking power between the two.

When asked in August about the rise of right-wing populism in Germany and around the world, Steinmeier responded by denouncing those who "make politics with fear," citing the nationalist Alternative for Germany party, supporters of Britain's exit from the European Union, and "the hate preachers, like Donald Trump at the moment in the United States." 

On Nov. 9, the day after Trump's election victory, Steinmeier openly expressed disappointment with the outcome. 

"The result is not what most German would have wished," he said, as reported by Bloomberg. "I don't want to sugarcoat anything. Nothing will be easier, many things will become more difficult." 

While European officials across the board lamented the failed candidacy of Hillary Clinton, Trump's election struck a uniquely worrisome chord for Germans, as Elizabeth Pond reported for The Christian Science Monitor on the same day: 

It would thus be hard to exaggerate the dread of a Trump victory among both European elites and populaces. In Germany, the continent’s largest and most influential country, some 73 percent supported Clinton and 80 percent thought that a Trump victory would hurt transatlantic relations, according to Forsa and ZDF TV opinion polls just days before the election. 

Even these high negatives don’t begin to express the angst in Europe about Trump, as felt most viscerally by Germans haunted by their nation’s history of succumbing in the 1930s to a Führer whom they initially scorned as a clown.

Brookings Institution Fellow Constanze Stelzenmueller – a German who since childhood has admired the America that rescued Europe and the Germans from the atrocities of Hitler, from post-World-War-II devastation, and from the threat of the 20-plus Soviet divisions that stayed on for half a century after the war in (eastern) Germany – expressed her foreboding about “this dystopian US election” most trenchantly. She noted Trump’s Star of David tweet, which “would have meant instantaneous, irredeemable disgrace” in today’s Germany but was hardly noticed in the US. And as a Harvard-trained student of the US Constitution and rule of law, she deplored Trump’s broad hints to his supporters to use their guns on Clinton or “lock her up.” 

"If it can happen here [in America], it can happen anywhere," Ms. Stelzenmueller told the Monitor. "Certainly what sets Trump apart from any major US politician – let alone presidential candidate – in living memory is his overt, chilling contempt for the fundamental principles of the Constitution. That is familiar to a German in the worst possible way."

In his acceptance speech Sunday, Steinmeier spoke of Germany's responsibility to fight for stability around the world after having overcome its own dark history of wars and totalitarianism. 

"Isn't it actually wonderful, that this Germany, our difficult fatherland, that this country has become an anchor of hope in the world for many," he said. 

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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