By Christina Lee
Results from yesterday’s parliamentary elections in Germany are in, and they could spell big changes for the future direction of migration policy in Germany. Although the dissolution of the Grand coalition between the CDU and SPD, as well as the re-entrance of neo-liberal FDP into the Bundestag will certainly have a major impact, the story of the evening for people interested in migration is the success of the anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, who arrive in parliament for the very first time as the third strongest party with close to 13% of the vote.
This is a major achievement for the young party, which started in 2013 as a Euroskeptic, neo-liberal party and has shifted to making opposition to immigration, diversity, and people who are Muslim the focus of their campaign (our summary of their manifesto can be found here). While many are explaining the party’s success as a backlash to the status quo or as a sign that German society is moving to the right on the issue of migration, we at Migration Voter are equally convinced that the AfD has managed to harness some very powerful methods for gaining and keeping public attention, tricks that they learned by following the success of the right-wing political movement in the United States.
During the election campaign, the AfD stood out very markedly from their peers by their confrontative and combative style. On their webpage and in social media marketing blasted on facebook and twitter they urged Germans to “take their country back” and depicted the CDU’s Merkel in a burqa or measuring “ordinary” Germans against refugees (and weighing refugees more). They used vibrant, jokey ads mocking Islam and multiculturalism while highlighting women and children, and moved away from the more sober and alarming advertisements they used in the last election, exhorting voters against the Euro and warning of Germany’s imminent destruction.
As the Spiegel revealed, their “meme”- based social media strategy was likely influenced by their engagement of the US-based PR firm Harris Media, a group that formerly worked on the election campaigns of US Republican Donald Trump and the British anti-immigrant, Euroskeptic party UKIP. As the company touts on its homepage, their founder has been called “the man who invented the Republican internet’ and has been involved in campaigns in favor of fracking and natural gas and opposed to Syrian refugees and solar energy.
The shift towards lighter, meme-worthy advertisements coincided with a press strategy that seemed aimed at garnering any attention, even negative. Like Trump during his campaign in 2016, the AfD barraged the media almost daily with controversial statements and events geared towards grabbing headlines. This would lead to interviews and greater coverage until the next controversial remark would appear and start the cycle again. For instance, AfD candidate for Berlin Beatrix von Storch invited the controversial ex-UKIP representative and right-wing media personality Nigel Farage to come speak at a private campaign event, where he led the crowd in cheering for Donald Trump and Brexit and harshly mocked the media, Merkel, SPD candidate Martin Schulz and former US President Barack Obama.
Another example came a few days later when a conspiracy theory-laden email, apparently written by co-lead candidate Alice Weidel, leaked to the press. In it, she (allegedly) writes in 2013 that Germany has been “overrun by Arabs, Sinti and Roma” as a result of policy pursued by the government, “pigs”.. who “are nothing other than marionettes of the victorious powers of the second world war, whose task it is to keep down the German people.” The full letter was published in Welt am Sonntag to objections from Weidel, who initially threatened to sue and later stopped claiming that the document was false (after it had been in headlines several days.)
Just as the firestorm around Weidel was dying down, her co-candidate Alexander Gauland’s taboo-shattering statements at a meeting with supporters broke out in the press, in which he stated (in an apparent dog-whistle to the extreme far-right) that Germans “have a right to be proud of the achievements of the German soldiers in two world wars.” This resulted in another round of media condemnations, accompanied with headlines and interview requests for Gauland.
In all these cases (and these are only a few examples), the AfD was itself publicizing the “gaffes” as evidence that the mainstream media was attacking them and attempting to harm them before the election.
Tea-party Crowd Infiltration
The AfD doesn’t seem to just be taking inspiration from President Trump, however. The actions AfD used to protest pre-election rallies of Merkel were extremely reminiscent of the tactics used by Tea Party organizers to get attention for their movement opposing Obamacare.
As investigative journalist Jane Meyer writes in her book Dark Money, which covers the rise of anonymous forms of political financing, Tea party protestors were instructed in how best to disrupt town hall meetings about health care in 2009, creating the illusion of a mass outbreak of anger by ordinary citizens that had in fact been carefully arranged in advance by professionals.
“The anger appeared spontaneous. But the investigative reporter Lee Fand discovered that a volunteer with [Koch sponsored org] FreedomWorks was circulating a memo instructing Tea Partiers on how to disrupt the meetings. Bob MacGuffie, who ran a Web site called RightPrinciples.com, advised opponents to “pack the hall.. spread out” to make their numbers seem more significant, and to “rock the boat early in the Rep’s presentation… to yell out and challenge the Rep’s statements early.”
Of course, there is nothing illegal about protesting in this way, but it is a distinctive style of protest that is particularly misleading to outsiders. That is why it is interesting that the AfD, with help from other groups, engaged in such a similar tactic in protesting Angela Merkel at her campaign appearances. Opponents of the Chancellor were told about events and given free rides to them on buses provided by the AfD, NPD and local right-wing groups (including some outlawed ones), reports Die Zeit, and were instructed on how best to gain attention: spread out, be loud, and actively seek out reporters. It worked. Numerous reports showed Merkel being booed and whistled at by angry crowds on the campaign trail.
“A maximum of ten percent of the attendees make noise, but they are so conspicuous that they subsequently determine the picture.”
It is common on the left and the right to lament the outsized influence of money on American politics, and there have been numerous articles and books written exploring the way that anonymous billionaire donors shape US elections. One way, which ProPublica explains in detail, is to donate anonymously to tax-exempt 501c3 organizations. Under US law, 501c3 organizations must report how they spend their money, but not necessarily where they receive it from. So long as the organization works for “public welfare”, the donations are also tax deductible, even if used for political lobbying and materials such as flyers, billboards and campaign ads. These non-profits are, in theory at least, not supposed to directly engage in politics. However, in recent elections, they have spent millions on advertisements supporting their candidates.
In Germany, the state partially finances election campaigns, which tend to be much cheaper and shorter than American election campaigns. Nevertheless, the AfD seems to have taken inspiration from American politics in a way that is quite unusual for Germany, by funding large portions of their campaign through anonymous donations funneled into a non-profit association.
As the non-profit watchdog group Lobby Control reports, AfD is the only party that has a registered association (e.V) providing millions in support from anonymous donors.
Since spring 2016, it has been taking part in election campaigns by an opaque association – with measures such as large-scale billboards and internet spots worth several million euros . Who is behind the association is unclear; traces lead to the Swiss PR agency Goal AG. The donors deliberately use the association as a legal gap to remain anonymous. This is an unprecedented dimension of non-transparent electoral campaign support in Germany.
The supporting organization engages in campaigning for the AfD via newspaper inserts, billboards (as seen on their website) as well as internet ads and video spots. These and the AfD’s own fundraising have been effective at ensuring a massive online presence for the AfD- an upcoming analysis from Oxford that Der Spiegel previewed will apparently demonstrate that fully 30% of tweets about the election were in favor of the AfD.
A Successful Strategy
In sum, it is difficult to dismiss out of hand that the AfD may have taken some inspiration from Donald Trump and other right-wing movements in the US. In messaging and in tactics, the AfD appears to have liberally borrowed ideas and even occasionally slogans (such as the “Make Germany Safe Again” hat Beatrix von Storch was sporting in a recent twitter selfie.) Undeniably, these tactics have been extremely successful, helping take the party from the fringes to the third largest party in parliament.
What remains to be seen is whether the combative tactics of the campaign will translate well to governing. Unlike in the US, a multi-party system like Germany makes coalition building a practical necessity, and the AfD will need to build more proactive policies into their platform if they want to be anything more than an angry opposition. But here as well there is a US model, for we can see that by bashing the media and creating now altercations with public figures and even other world leaders, President Trump has managed to maintain his base’s support. Whether the AfD achieves its aims is one thing, whether it is able to retain power now that it has gotten some, is another.