Merkel needs to hang onto power before she can fight Trump
German Chancellor Angela Merkel knows what it’s like to be underestimated. Her political party, the Christian Democratic Union, was a stodgy old boys’ club when she first joined in the early 1990s, and most of her rivals tended to dismiss or ignore her, the pastor’s daughter with the chemistry degree — even as she passed them on her way to the top. What bothers her now, more than a decade into her tenure, is the opposite problem — the burden of being overestimated.
Merkel has President Barack Obama to thank for much of that. During his last official visit to Europe in mid-November, about a week after Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential race, Obama spent hours preparing Merkel for the likely consequences of Trump’s victory. Intentionally or not, the outgoing U.S. President also gave the impression of “passing the baton” to the woman he called his closest foreign ally, leaving her to defend the liberal establishment that Trump and his cohorts in Europe had set out to dismantle. Many commentators even began referring to Merkel as the new leader of the free world, a title that she dismissed as “grotesque” and “absurd.”
This was not false modesty. The problems that her government faces at home — from the integration of refugees to the rise of right-wing populism — do not leave the Chancellor with much strength to keep the West united. Merely staying in power beyond next year will be enough of a challenge for Merkel, and even some of her closest allies tell TIME that their government lacks the means and the mentality to lead. But whether she is prepared for it or not, this role may fall to Merkel by default.
The wave of popular revolts against the establishment has been picking off her Western allies like ducks in a shooting gallery. Four of them have fallen in the past six month alone: French President François Hollande, with an approval rating in the single digits, announced this month that he would not seek re-election in the spring; British Prime Minister David Cameron resigned in June after the U.K. voted to leave the European Union; Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi pledged to do the same after voters rejected his constitutional reforms this month; and, in the most astounding upset of the year, Trump’s victory has left Obama’s liberal legacy in tatters.