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The Collapse of German Centrism

Rhetorical Concessions Alone Won’t Swamp the Populists’ Momentum

Police and far-right protesters in Chemnitz, eastern Germany, September 2018 Kevin Voigt / Xinhua / eyevine/ R​edux

In the late summer of 2015, when it seemed that the flow of refugees into Europe might never abate, German Chancellor Angela Merkel held a press conference. She’d just visited a refugee center near Dresden when she uttered what she surely thought was a throwaway line. “Wir schaffen das,” she said, or “We’ll manage this.” In its banality, the phrase seemed equally far removed from Barack Obama’s “Change We Can Believe In” and Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” Whereas politicians in the United States traffic in the aspirational language of marketing, political debates in Germany are couched in the language of trivial chores. You could say “Wir schaffen das” about the laundry, the grocery shopping, or taking out the trash. The phrase was typical of a politics that has long tried to bury ideology under layers of administrative detail. 

Merkel’s detractors, however, pounced on the

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