The same questions about Donald Trump keep coming up in Berlin, where I am promoting my recently released critical biography of the American president-elect. Business leaders, journalists from six countries and random people I have engaged ask such strikingly different questions than Americans that I feel like I just escaped from “The Twilight Zone.”
Again and again people in Germany ask:
How dangerous is Trump?
How soon will Trump start his first war? Where?
How afraid should we be?
The honest answer, I keep responding to these and many other questions, is that we do not know. That’s because Trump has a documented history of making promises he later revealed he never intended to keep, of saying contradictory things, of just making stuff up, of erratic behavior and of public statements indicating he has no idea how constitutional government works.
Facts vs. Post-Facts
There is an important lesson here about how Europeans deal in facts, while many Americans have embraced a post-factual world in which what they wish to be true matters more than what is verifiably so.
In Germany everyone I spoke with dealt in facts, though from a wide variety of perspectives. But in America I have encountered a growing minority of people for whom conspiracy theories and fake facts that strangle rational debate are a kind of political and social kudzu, spreading fast over trees, stealing the light and the nutrients from the soil until only the parasitic vines survive.
Germans, Austrians, Swiss, Lebanese, Danish, English and expatriate Americans all asked nuanced questions premised on facts, mostly facts taken from “Die Atke Trump,” which translates as ”The Trump File,” the German-language version of my book “The Making of Donald Trump.” Several people who’d read it asked me to please write a follow-up soon.
One fact surprised many of those I met in Berlin: that Trump has proclaimed himself genetically superior and so smart that he is his own best advisor on foreign policy and can learn everything he needs to know about missiles in 90 minutes.
Issues of racial superiority, of course, still hang over Germany decades after the end of the watershed event in human history, World War II. It was a subject those I spoke with wanted to understand – and then move on to other issues.
What also surprised many here was my answer to an often-asked question about how much coverage my book got in America, especially coverage of Trump’s deep involvement with the confessed cocaine trafficker Joseph Weichselbaum, who supplied Trump with helicopters for his casinos.
When I answer that the three American commercial broadcast networks never mentioned my book, nor any of the facts in it (though some cable shows did), both the business people and journalists here are wide-eyed. How can that be? That story, after all, was all over German national television news, newspapers, magazines and other fact-based news media.
Trump and Russia
And what, they ask, of Trump and the Russian oligarchs? Surely, they ask, it was big news during the election. Not really, I replied, hardly a word and then in disjointed fashion that did not resonate with most people.
Trump and Russia are big concerns here and with good reason.
Just what Putin will do once his ardent admirer takes office Jan. 20 is on the minds of many in Germany because of the invasions of Ukraine and the seizing of Crimea, events Trump denies occurred. That Trump has advanced a major Putin objective, weakening the NATO military alliance, is well understood here and gives rise to questions about how fearful Germans and other Europeans should be.
Worries here stem from Putin’s aggressive military posture as he tries to rebuild the old Soviet empire and from German dependence on natural gas from Russia. No one here says they will be surprised if Putin seizes more territory, some of them citing Georgia and other southern parts of the old Soviet Empire.
Putin needs the hard foreign currency earned by selling carbon fuels to Germany and other European nations. Oil and natural gas companies account for more than 98% of the profits reported by big Russian companies, an indication of how much Russia, like Saudi Arabia, is a one-note economy.
Still, Putin could make life miserable with price manipulations. Short disruptions in natural-gas supplies could interfere with Germany’s manufacturing industries. America is the largest buyer of exported German goods from luxury cars and the German share of Airbus jets to industrial equipment.
I told a few people that I have an advance copy of an investigative piece on Trump and Russian oligarchs, who all owe their continued riches and their lives to remaining in Putin’s good graces. The author, an occasional source of mine, is an American with extraordinary business credentials and a decades-long track record of reporting on financial corruption that subsequent events revealed was both spot-on accurate and years ahead of the curve. His article, to be published soon in a public policy journal, makes it clear that – even at 12,000 words – it is far from comprehensive, limited to verifiable facts that could be distilled from a public record that in Russia is especially scanty.
The Germans are cynical about the oligarchs. Several asked at a hotel where I spoke, and President Obama stayed days before, if I knew that the outgoing president and Chancellor Merkel spent three hours talking. Some suggest that Merkel must emerge now as the leader of the West, assuming she wins a fourth term as Chancellor.
What Americans Ask – and Don’t Ask
How different these questions are from those I get in the U.S. On the morning that Trump won newsrooms from New Zealand, New Delhi, London, Toronto, Santiago and other foreign locations lit up my phone. Only one mainstream American journalist called, Evan Dawson, a radio talk-show host where I live in Rochester, N.Y., followed a day later by a two cable-television talk-show producers.
Over the last four months several times producers for cable and local shows have asked that I not bring up anything about Trump’s dealings with American Mafiosi, Russian mobsters or his admission of sales tax fraud three decades ago. They expressed fear of a Trump lawsuit.
In America I have been asked plenty of smart and nuanced questions, but many that were vague or asked by journalists who said they didn’t have time to read my book so would I just fill them in.
Some fellow Americans have asked questions that are such utter nonsense they are scary.
The first came at a garden party last summer, posed by a man with a college degree and a solid career record: Why was the mainstream press covering up all the murders Hillary Clinton is responsible for? I thought the question was about Benghazi, where a long and costly House investigation came up with nothing. “No, no, no,” I was told; Hillary Clinton has a squad of hit men and they have called about 50 people and the MSM (mainstream media) is covering it up.
I promised to look into it. I quickly found internet “news” sites that reported on the supposed Clinton hit squads. This nonsense was easily knocked down by, among others, a website that truth-squads rumors, Snopes.com, as you can read here, here and here.
Since then maybe a dozen others have raised similar questions. On call-in radio shows and in public talks other wild and crazy questions have been asked by people who sometimes cited as their source InfoWars or Brietbart.com, both rich with easily proved nonsense. That Trump named Steve Bannon, the very smart financier who chaired Brietbart, as his strategic chief, raises questions about whether misinformation will become a Trump Administration strategy and, if so, how the mainstream press will address it. Or perhaps they will ignore it and just hope Americans can figure matters out for themselves.
No one in Germany has asked me any questions about imagined Clinton death squads or other crazy conspiracy theories.
But they did again and again pose questions about whether American may lose its position as the leader of the world, and whether it will soon team up with Putin in an aggressive, perhaps militaristic, way. Good questions. The only answer I could give was that we won’t know until after Donald Trump becomes president.