Why should Appalachians care about Germany’s recent election? Because it looked a whole lot like our own 2016 presidential election. And that’s a bad thing.
Appalachian voters were a primary force propelling Donald Trump into the White House. Trump won West Virginia with nearly 70 percent of the vote – his largest margin of victory in the U.S. Feeling ignored by Washington and left behind by an economic revolution that values high-tech skills over blue-collar labor, Appalachians responded to Trump’s campaign of economic nationalism. They wanted to believe – maybe even if in their hearts they knew better – that Trump could bring back to America the high-paying heavy-industry jobs of yesterday that put them in the middle class.
That’s the “economic anxiety” part of the Trump victory that is often reported. But there was some percentage of Trump voters that elected him for uglier reasons, because he fed their fears that many of America’s problems were caused by Others. People not like us. Chinese businesses taking our jobs. Latin American gangs threatening our families. Muslims, Mexicans and even the American media.
Almost no one believed Trump would win, partly because few wanted to believe America would yield to the worst angels of its nature. But polls and pundits alike underestimated the deep division much of red America felt from Washington and how ready they were to roll a grenade under the whole political establishment.
This is where Appalachian politics looks like Europe’s. The polls didn’t predict Brexit, either, a campaign that was rife with anti-immigrant imagery and messaging and blamed the U.K.’s economic woes on the European Union and an increase in foreign migrants. Hard-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen lost the French presidential election in May, but still scored 34 percent of the vote, meaning 34 percent of the French people either endorsed or were not all that bothered by her party’s history of racism and anti-semitism. Nationalist movements, some tinted with racism and xenophobia and others based on it, have been sprouting across Europe.
But Germany, everyone thought, was Europe’s firewall against the new nationalism.
Since its defeat in World War II, Germany has been a global model of liberal democracy, largely thanks Germans’ collective national shame for the Holocaust and the war. There’s even a word for it: “Kollektivschuld.”
Denying the Holocaust is illegal in Germany (and 15 other European nations). So is any Nazi symbolism. There has always been a hard-right, highly nationalist fringe of German politics, but it has never been a factor in national politics.
Until the September 24 vote in Germany.
The AfD, or Alternative for Democracy party, scored an eye-popping 13 percent of the German vote. Describing the AfD is complicated, given that the group is internally divided into hard-right and more moderate-right factions, but its platform included “taking Germany back” from the tide of foreign refugees.
The election success of the AfD gives the right-wing for the first time a real voice in the German parliament. No one saw this coming. A belief in German exceptionalism to the anti-immigrant virus that has infected much of the West was blind to events on the ground in Germany, in the same way many American pollsters and political operatives missed, or didn’t want to see, the growing fear and frustration of white American voters to similar threats.
Since the Syrian civil war began, Germany has opened its doors to refugees, not only from Syria but from the surrounding region that have been displaced by the conflict. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, sometimes called “Europe’s Mayor” for her senior, steady-handed leadership on the Continent, welcomed the refugees on humanitarian grounds, often when other European nations would not.
But there has been a cost to Merkel’s welcome.
Since 2015, more than 1.5 million migrants have entered Germany. It’s a cohort that does not look like most Germans, did not speak German and does not worship like Germans. There are now nearly 5 million Muslims living in Germany, accounting for nearly 6 percent of the country’s population of 83 million. By comparison, there are little more than 3 million Muslims in the much larger U.S., accounting for only 1 percent of the population.
Among the millions of law-abiding Middle Eastern and Syrian refugees seeking to live peacefully in Germany have inevitably been bad actors and terrorists who have cynically slipped in with those fleeing conflict.
Germany suffered a wave of terror attacks in 2016, including those committed by immigrants from Afghanistan, Iran and Syria. Some have been claimed by ISIS. This has given heft to the AfD’s anti-immigrant message and it resonated with voters.
In the wake of the German election, there has been much concern that Germany as a whole is making a hard pivot back to extremism. It is the heavy, but probably necessary, burden of both Germany and Japan that any political shift, even the slightest, toward militarism, nationalism and race-based politics will raise international alarms.
So Merkel and the German ruling classes have a problem. They must figure out how to continue to behave morally toward refugees and migrants fleeing for the safety of Europe while still securing their borders against terrorists. This is the same problem the U.S. faces with migrants from Latin America and elsewhere.
As alike as German and West Virginian voters are on a number of topics, one that starkly divides them is the direct impact of immigration on their lives. With a spike of 1.5 million new migrants over the past two years, Germans have daily experience with migrants in their lives. This does not condone punitive anti-migrant laws or actions, but it makes the German reaction more understandable.
West Virginians do not have this experience. With only 1.5 percent of its residents foreign-born, West Virginia is among the whitest states in the union. Any threat of foreigners coming to take West Virginians’ jobs or threaten West Virginia communities is only rhetorical, not real.
Rather, West Virginians should encourage a greater foreign presence in the state, from healthcare workers and addiction specialists in McDowell County to researchers at West Virginia University. Last week, Japanese auto giant Toyota announced a $115 million investment in its Buffalo transmission plant and the addition of 250 new jobs at the Wood County facility of its subsidiary, Hino Motors Manufacturing.
This is the positive impact of the global economy. And these are jobs created by foreigners for West Virginians – many of whom voted for Donald Trump.
Frank Ahrens, a West Virginia native, is a public relations executive in Washington D.C. He was a Washington Post journalist for 18 years and is the author of “Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan.”