For some reason, Donald Trump has taken to describing Hillary Clinton as “America’s Merkel.”
On some level, this line of attack is puzzling: How many American voters even have opinions about German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a fairly bland figure of the center-right, let alone strongly negative ones?
Merkel has become something of a pet hate for the alt-right, a group that has developed outsized influence within the Trump campaign despite being essentially a group of white supremacist losers posting to 4Chan from their parents’ basements. So maybe that’s where Trump got the idea to tie Clinton to Merkel’s liberal asylum policies, which led many refugees from the Middle East to come to Germany.
This Merkel-Clinton comparison isn’t very apt because the scale of refugee flows to Germany is so much larger than anything Clinton is proposing here. Clinton wants to admit an additional 55,000 Syrian refugees a year (up from 10,000), while Germany admitted about a million refugees (from all countries) in 2015, despite having about one-fourth the population of the United States.
But there’s an unintended way in which the Merkel-Clinton comparison is very apt: Merkel has been Chancellor of Germany for 11 years and, so far, it looks like she can stay however long she wants, because her opposition is too divided and inept to beat her.
In a surprising way, the rise of extreme parties in Germany has strengthened the establishmentarian center. The splintering of support toward parties that cannot be given power means there is no way to form a government without giving Merkel power.
Germany’s left is split into three parties, and the leftmost one (containing many ex-Communists) is considered too toxic to admit into a national government. There is real discontent within Germany about the refugee influx, and so a similarly unacceptable hard-right party is rising in Germany’s polls, but because it’s drawing votes from all parties and not just Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, her poll lead remains substantial.
Clinton is benefitting from a similar effect: the manifest unacceptability of Trump is driving a substantial number of conservative establishment figures, from Meg Whitman to John Negroponte, into her arms. It’s also driving a huge shift of college-educated white voters, long a core Republican constituency, toward her.
The question is whether this is temporary. If Trump loses but continues to push the Republican party in the direction of quasi-fascism and overt racism — perhaps through a new media company he could form with his friends Steve Bannon and Roger Ailes — the equilibrium of approximate electoral parity between the two parties could be broken.
If Trump succeeds in making the Republican party Trumpy for an extended period, the Democrats could be left with the support of much of the center-right establishment and a durable presidential electoral majority for an extended period.
This sort of realignment would be a disaster for the more responsible elements of the center-right, which would be left without a vehicle to get their policies enacted. It wouldn’t get Trump’s forces into power either, though it would give them the public platform they crave, and it would probably make figures like Trump and Ailes and Sean Hannity a lot of money in the process of losing.
Less obviously, this realignment would also be a huge disappointment for the hard left. With a new influx of centrists in to the Democratic coalition, it would be easier for establishment Democrats to fend off insurgent challenges like the one mounted by Bernie Sanders, and Democrats could worry less about keeping the hard left happy enough to show up and vote Democratic in November.
The big winners would be Clinton and other mainstream forces in the Democratic party, just as the big winner from the paralysis of Germany’s left has been Merkel. Of course, voters who want the government to enact policies of the establishment center-left would also be winners.
So yes, in a way, Clinton is likely to become America’s Angela Merkel. But things considered, being Angela Merkel is a pretty good thing — and if Clinton achieves it, she will owe Trump a lot of thanks for making it possible by breaking the Republican party.
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