When Barack Obama revealed that his last phone call as President was to Angela Merkel, reaffirming their alliance and friendship of the last eight years, he wasn’t just saying goodbye. He was handing over his baton. The German Chancellor isn’t just the leader of Europe, she is now the de-facto leader of the free world.
The thrice-elected, soft-spoken former scientist from East Germany, armed with a doctorate in quantum chemistry, doesn’t just carry the weight of Germany and Europe on her shoulders, but that of defending freedom and liberalism across the world.
This is not an attempt to be provocative or exaggerate for effect. Donald Trump cannot claim the mantle of “leading” the free world by default. America’s military might is not the only criteria necessary.
The title also requires the President to be committed to the values of liberal democracy. But unlike his predecessors since the Second World War, it is already clear that Trump has no such inclinations. He is heading, at terrifying speed, in the opposite direction.
Do I even have to make the case for this? Since his inauguration Trump has undermined and ignored judges, even though an independent judiciary and a separation of powers is key to a democracy.
But the ban on immigrants highlighted something far more draconian. If a President can abruptly restrict the rights of US residents without bothering with lawmakers or even government departments, he is in effect an autocrat. That is exactly what Trump did and will continue to do so. His actions don’t just undermine the rights of all Americans, they undermine the institutions that support American democracy.
Then there is Trump’s assault on international trade and cooperation. He is already threatening Mexico, China and now the EU. Who will be next? We can debate whether globalisation benefits people equally, but only a fool would deny that international trade is a global good. And it can only work if done on an equal, rules-based footing. But Trump doesn’t care for those, he is ripping up international agreements so he can bully smaller countries into submission. That sets a dangerous precedent for the entire world.
And lastly there is the Trump administration’s hostility towards the media. Regardless of its bias, a thriving democracy needs a media willing to challenge the government. Trump isn’t just hostile to criticism, in his warped world it must be driven by lies and vindictiveness. He is wracked by deep insecurity. When his chief aide Steve Bannon says the media should “keep its mouth shut” – they mean it. They don’t want a free media criticising them at all. These are words that dictators use, not democrats.
The US President isn’t motivated by protecting liberal democracy or freedom, his sole ideology is Trumpism: corporate autocracy with a populist facade. And he surrounds himself with white nationalists even more hostile to liberal democracy than he is.
Having grown up in communist East Germany before re-unification, Angela Merkel is the polar opposite. She doesn’t just recognise the sounds of autocracy, she chose to escape it.
This is why she has stood up to Trump’s bullying and bigotry, saying on Monday that the “necessary battle against terrorism” did not justify putting “groups of certain people under general suspicion”. The British government in sharp contrast has been slavish and spineless.
It’s now abundantly clear that the free world needs a new leader. With respect to Justin Trudeau, Canada simply isn’t powerful enough. It has to be Angela Merkel.
Her opponents know this, which is why the pro-Trump, pro-Putin, far-right forces are lining up against her. We know this. And she knows it. It’s time the most powerful woman in the world embraced her new role. The world needs her.
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