Bangkok Post

THE FAR-RIGHT CULT OF TRUMP

Among Ger­man con­spir­acy the­o­rists, ul­tra-na­tion­al­ists and neo-Nazis, the US pres­i­dent is sur­fac­ing as a ral­ly­ing cry, or even as a po­ten­tial ‘lib­er­a­tor’

- KA­TRIN BENNHOLD Political Extremism · U.S. News · US Politics · Germany News · European Politics · Politics · Bundestag · Donald Trump · Berlin · United States of America · Germany · Angela Merkel · Kassel · United Kingdom · Alternative for Germany · White House · European Union · Europe · Youtube · Facebook · Vladimir Putin · Russia · Russian Empire · Telegram Messenger · Bill Gates · New York City · Joe Biden · Joe · FBI · Konstantin von Notz · Hanau · Thomas Haldenwang

Just be­fore hun­dreds of far-right ac­tivists re­cently tried to storm the Ger­man Par­lia­ment, one of their lead­ers revved up the crowd by con­jur­ing Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

“Trump is in Ber­lin!” the woman shouted from a small stage, as if to ded­i­cate the im­mi­nent charge to him. She was so con­vinc­ing that sev­eral groups of far-right ac­tivists later showed up at the US Em­bassy and de­manded an au­di­ence with Mr Trump. “We know he’s in there!” they in­sisted.

Mr Trump was nei­ther in the em­bassy nor in Ger­many that day — and yet there he was. His face was em­bla­zoned on ban­ners, T-shirts and even on Ger­many’s pre-1918 im­pe­rial flag, pop­u­lar with neo-Nazis in the crowd of 50,000 who had come to protest Ger­many’s pan­demic re­stric­tions. His name was in­voked by many with mes­sianic zeal.

It was only the lat­est ev­i­dence that Mr Trump is emerg­ing as a kind of cult fig­ure in Ger­many’s in­creas­ingly var­ied far-right scene.

“Trump has be­come a saviour fig­ure, a sort of great redeemer for the Ger­man far right,” said Miro Dit­trich, an ex­pert on far-right ex­trem­ism at the Ber­lin-based Amadeu-An­to­nio-Foun­da­tion.

Ger­many — a na­tion gen­er­ally sup­port­ive of a gov­ern­ment that has han­dled the pan­demic bet­ter than most — may seem an un­likely place for Mr Trump to gain such a sta­tus. Few West­ern na­tions have had a more con­tentious re­la­tion­ship with Mr Trump than Ger­many, whose leader, Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel, a pas­tor’s daugh­ter and sci­en­tist, is his op­po­site in terms of val­ues and tem­per­a­ment. Opin­ion polls show that Mr Trump is deeply un­pop­u­lar among a broad ma­jor­ity of Ger­mans.

But his mes­sage of dis­rup­tion — his un­var­nished na­tion­al­ism and tol­er­ance of white su­prem­a­cists cou­pled with his scep­ti­cism of the pan­demic’s dan­gers — is spilling well be­yond Amer­i­can shores, ex­trem­ism watch­ers say.

In a fast-ex­pand­ing uni­verse of dis­in­for­ma­tion, that mes­sage holds real risks for West­ern democ­ra­cies, they say, blur­ring the lines be­tween real and fake news, al­low­ing far-right groups to ex­tend their reach be­yond tra­di­tional con­stituen­cies and seed­ing the po­ten­tial for vi­o­lent rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion.

Mr Trump’s ap­peal to the po­lit­i­cal fringe has now added a new and un­pre­dictable el­e­ment to Ger­man pol­i­tics at a time when the do­mes­tic in­tel­li­gence agency has iden­ti­fied far-right ex­trem­ism and far-right ter­ror­ism as the big­gest risks to Ger­man democ­racy.

The au­thor­i­ties have only re­cently wo­ken up to a prob­lem of far-right in­fil­tra­tion in the po­lice and mil­i­tary. Over the past 15 months, far-right ter­ror­ists killed a re­gional politi­cian on his front porch near the cen­tral city of Kas­sel, at­tacked a syn­a­gogue in the east­ern city of Halle and shot dead nine peo­ple of im­mi­grant de­scent in the west­ern city of Hanau. Mr Trump fea­tured in the man­i­festo of the Hanau killer, who praised his “Amer­ica First” pol­icy.

In Ger­many, as in the United States, Mr Trump has be­come an in­spi­ra­tion to th­ese fringe groups. Among them are not only longestab­lished hard-right and neo-Nazi move­ments, but also now fol­low­ers of QAnon, the in­ter­net con­spir­acy the­ory pop­u­lar among some of Mr Trump’s sup­port­ers in the United States that hails him as a hero and lib­er­a­tor.

Ger­many’s QAnon com­mu­nity, barely ex­is­tent when the pan­demic first hit in March, may now be the big­gest out­side the United States along with Bri­tain, an­a­lysts who track its most pop­u­lar on­line chan­nels say.

Matthias Quent, an ex­pert on Ger­many’s far right and the di­rec­tor of an in­sti­tute that stud­ies democ­racy and civil so­ci­ety, calls it the “Trumpi­fi­ca­tion of the Ger­man far right”.

“Trump has man­aged to at­tract dif­fer­ent mi­lieus, and that’s what we’re see­ing here, too,” Mr Quent said. “We have ev­ery­thing from an­ti­vaxxers to neo-Nazis march­ing against corona mea­sures. The com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor is that it’s peo­ple who are quit­ting the main­stream, who are rag­ing against the es­tab­lish­ment.”

Mr Trump, he added, “is the guy fight­ing the lib­eral-demo­cratic es­tab­lish­ment”.

For some on the far-right fringes, Mr Trump’s mes­sage has been es­pe­cially wel­come at a time when Ger­many’s home­grown na­tivist party, the Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many, or AfD, is strug­gling to ex­ploit the pan­demic and has seen its sup­port dip to around 10%, ex­perts say. Na­tion­al­ist pop­ulists in Ger­many have long wel­comed the pres­ence of one of their own, as they see it, in the White House. Mr Trump’s lan­guage and ide­ol­ogy have helped le­git­imise theirs.

The AfD has re­peat­edly para­phrased Mr Trump by call­ing for a “Ger­many first” ap­proach. But the pres­i­dent is pop­u­lar in more ex­trem­ist cir­cles, too. Car­o­line Sommerfeld, a promi­nent ide­o­logue of a con­tin­gent known as the “new right” with close links to the ex­trem­ist Gen­er­a­tion Iden­tity move­ment, said she had popped open a bot­tle of cham­pagne when Mr Trump won the 2016 elec­tion.

The QAnon phe­nom­e­non has added a new kind of fuel to that fire. QAnon fol­low­ers ar­gue that Mr Trump is fight­ing a “deep state” that not only con­trols fi­nance and power, but also abuses and mur­ders chil­dren in un­der­ground pris­ons to ex­tract a sub­stance that keeps its mem­bers young. Ger­man fol­low­ers con­tend that the “deep state” is global, and that Ms Merkel is part of it. Mr Trump, they say, will lib­er­ate Ger­many from the Merkel “dic­ta­tor­ship”.

The far-right mag­a­zine Com­pact, which has printed Mr Trump’s speeches for its read­ers, had a gi­ant Q on its lat­est cover and held a “Q-week” on its video chan­nel, in­ter­view­ing far-right ex­trem­ists like Bjorn Hocke. On the streets of Ber­lin last weekend there were Q flags and T-shirts and sev­eral ban­ners in­scribed with

“WWG1WGA”, a coded acro­nym for Q’s hall­mark motto, “Where we go one, we go all.”

Hard num­bers are dif­fi­cult to dis­cern, with fol­low­ers of­ten sub­scrib­ing to ac­counts on dif­fer­ent plat­forms, an­a­lysts say. NewsGuard, a US-based dis­in­for­ma­tion watch­dog, found that across Europe, ac­counts on YouTube, Face­book and Tele­gram pro­mot­ing the QAnon con­spir­acy counted 448,000 fol­low­ers.

In Ger­many alone, the num­ber of fol­low­ers of QAnon-re­lated ac­counts has risen to more than 200,000, Mr Dit­trich said. The largest Ger­man-lan­guage QAnon chan­nel on YouTube, Qlobal-Change, has over 17 mil­lion views and has quadru­pled its fol­low­ing on Tele­gram to over 124,000 since the coro­n­avirus lock­down in March, he said.

“There is a huge Q com­mu­nity in Ger­many,” Mr Dit­trich said, with new posts and memes that dom­i­nate the mes­sage boards in the United States im­me­di­ately trans­lated and in­ter­preted into Ger­man.

The fu­sion of the tra­di­tional far right with the QAnon crowd was some­thing new, Mr Quent said. “It’s a new and dif­fuse kind of pop­ulist re­bel­lion that feeds on con­spir­acy the­o­ries and is be­ing supplied with ide­ol­ogy from dif­fer­ent cor­ners of the far-right ecosys­tem,” he said.

One rea­son the QAnon con­spir­acy has taken off in Ger­many, Mr Dit­trich said, is that it is a good fit with lo­cal con­spir­acy the­o­ries and fan­tasies pop­u­lar on the far right.

One of them is the “great re­place­ment”, which claims that Ms Merkel and other gov­ern­ments have been de­lib­er­ately bring­ing in im­mi­grants to sub­vert Ger­many’s eth­nic and cul­tural iden­tity. An­other is a pur­ported na­tional cri­sis called “Day X”, when Ger­many’s cur­rent or­der will sup­pos­edly col­lapse and neo-Nazis take over.

A third the­ory is the be­lief that Ger­many is not a sovereign coun­try but an in­cor­po­rated com­pany and oc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory con­trolled by glob­al­ists. This be­lief is held among a fac­tion known as Re­ichs­burger, or “cit­i­zens of the Re­ich”, who or­ches­trated the brief storm­ing on Par­lia­ment on Aug 29. They do not recog­nise Ger­many’s post-World War II Fed­eral Repub­lic and are count­ing on Mr Trump and Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin of Rus­sia to sign a “peace treaty” to lib­er­ate Ger­mans from their own gov­ern­ment.

An­other rea­son for QAnon’s spread is that sev­eral Ger­man celebri­ties have be­come mul­ti­pli­ers of the con­spir­acy, among them a for­mer news pre­sen­ter and a rap­per and for­mer judge on Ger­many’s equiv­a­lent of “Amer­i­can Idol”.

One of the big­gest fig­ures spread­ing the QAnon con­spir­acy is At­tila Hild­mann, a ve­g­ancelebrit­y-chef-turned-far-right-in­flu­encer with more than 80,000 fol­low­ers on the Tele­gram mes­sag­ing app. He has ap­peared at all ma­jor coro­n­avirus marches in Ber­lin, vent­ing against face masks, Bill Gates and the Roth­schild fam­ily — and ap­peal­ing to Mr Trump to lib­er­ate Ger­many.

“Trump is some­one who has been fight­ing the global ‘deep state’ for years,” Mr Hild­mann said. “Trump has be­come a fig­ure of light in this move­ment, es­pe­cially for QAnon, pre­cisely be­cause he fights against th­ese global forces.”

Ger­many’s do­mes­tic in­tel­li­gence agency has warned of the risk of far-right ex­trem­ists us­ing the pan­demic for their own pur­poses. This past week the agency’s chief, Thomas Halden­wang, said that “ag­gres­sive and dis­rup­tive far-right ele­ments” were the driv­ing force be­hind the protests over coro­n­avirus re­stric­tions.

But ex­trem­ism ex­perts and law­mak­ers worry that the se­cu­rity ser­vices are not pay­ing close enough at­ten­tion to the vi­o­lent po­ten­tial in the mix of QAnon dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns and home­grown far-right ide­ol­ogy. In the United States, some QAnon be­liev­ers have been charged with vi­o­lent crimes, in­clud­ing one ac­cused of mur­der­ing a mafia boss in New York last year and an­other ar­rested in April af­ter re­port­edly threat­en­ing to kill Joe Bi­den, who has since be­come the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. The FBI has warned that QAnon poses a po­ten­tial do­mes­tic ter­ror­ism threat.

In Ger­many, lan­guage rem­i­nis­cent of QAnon was used in the man­i­festo of the gun­man who killed nine peo­ple with im­mi­grant roots in the west­ern city of Hanau in Fe­bru­ary. “We have al­ready seen that this con­spir­acy has the po­ten­tial to rad­i­calise peo­ple,” Mr Dit­trich said.

There are an es­ti­mated 19,000 Re­ichs­bürger in Ger­many, about 1,000 of them clas­si­fied as far-right ex­trem­ists by the do­mes­tic in­tel­li­gence ser­vice. Many of them are armed. “At a time when some peo­ple are de­ter­mined to de­stroy demo­cratic dis­course with all means pos­si­ble,” said Kon­stantin von Notz, a law­maker and deputy pres­i­dent of the in­tel­li­gence over­sight com­mit­tee, “we have to take such a phe­nom­e­non very se­ri­ously.”

Trump has be­come a saviour fig­ure, a sort of great redeemer for the Ger­man far right. MIRO DIT­TRICH AN EX­PERT ON FAR-RIGHT EX­TREM­ISM AT THE BER­LIN-BASED AMADEU-AN­TO­NIO FOUN­DA­TION

 ?? PHOTO: AL DRAGO/THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel and Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump at a Nato meet­ing in Wat­ford near London on Dec 4, 2019.
PHOTO: AL DRAGO/THE NEW YORK TIMES Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel and Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump at a Nato meet­ing in Wat­ford near London on Dec 4, 2019.

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