The pictures from Donald Trump’s romp through Europe, which show a long parade of political and spiritual leaders looking visibly uncomfortable in his presence or even snickering to themselves as he spoke, make the point more forcefully than a thousand think pieces: Most Europeans are horrified by the president. They cannot stand his ignorance or his bellicosity, his plebeian manners or the constant bragging about his wealth. And yet, for all of their loudly proclaimed indignation, the barely concealed secret is that Trump makes them, well, happy.
In representing everything Europeans hate about America, Trump simultaneously confirms everything they want to believe about themselves. After all, Europeans have always looked down on Americans in the manner of a learned uncle who cannot conceal his jealousy at the banker nephew with that hot babe on his arm. In other words, they suffer from what psychologists call an inferiority superiority complex.
On the one hand, Europeans are deeply convinced that the world would be a much better place if only ghastly countries such as Iran, Zimbabwe, and the United States could be a little more like Germany or Sweden. This snobbism expresses itself in the arena of world politics: For example, Europeans tend to think that the world would be much safer if every country spent as little on its military as Denmark—conveniently forgetting that it was U.S. military might that kept their own continent peaceful for the past 70 years. But it also expresses itself in the realm of culture and cuisine: When an unsuspecting American friend dared to eat popcorn at a garden party held by my mother in Italy one summer, for example, five different guests walked up to her in quick succession. “American way of life,” each of them sneered.
This deep belief in the continent’s superiority makes it all the more infuriating that even the most patriotic of Europeans has to admit to its inferiority on a number of counts. There is that pesky little matter of the two world wars, of course. But the envy and the embarrassment go deeper than that: America is richer and more powerful. It is the world’s center for fashion and for science, for pop culture and for technological progress. The past may belong to Europe. But the future, it seemed for most of the postwar era, would undoubtedly belong to America.
And that is precisely why Trump’s election has been so soothing for the European soul. Who could seriously deny that Europeans are more cultured than Americans when faced with this ugliest of ugly Americans? Who can maintain that Europe’s political problems are much deeper than America’s when presented with the sheer chaos in Washington? And who, today, can still be so sure that the future of the American republic is much brighter than that of European democracy?
There need not be anything wrong with taking a little mischievous pleasure in the failings and humiliations of one’s friends, I suppose. Yet the schadenfreude many Europeans feel when they look at Trump is dangerous—for it helps to make the continent even more complacent about the degree to which freedom and democracy are now embattled in Europe as well as America.
Europe, of course, has its own share of authoritarian populists to reckon with. And while the populist leaders of Poland, Hungary, Serbia, Macedonia, and Russia are admittedly rather more competent than Trump, their greater political skill should hardly give us succor. On the contrary, the fact that Trump is an ideologue by instinct but not by ideology may be one of the best reasons to hope that American democracy will somehow survive the next four years.
Populists in Central and Eastern Europe have, by contrast, already managed to compromise the institutions of their countries to such a degree that it is doubtful they can ever be removed by free and fair elections. Myriad aspirants in Western Europe now stand at the ready to emulate their playbook.
There is another parallel between Europe and America: The collaboration of mainstream politicians who claim to be impeccable democrats is a big part of the reason why populists could enter government. In the United States, this collaboration took the shameful form of GOP leaders who privately fulminated against Trump yet publicly stood by his side. Most European leaders have not been quite so crass; in fact, it is precisely because the mainstream right sided with centrist Emmanuel Macron over far-right extremist Marine Le Pen that the French managed to avoid disaster in their presidential elections a few weeks ago. Yet establishment leaders in a number of European countries, including Austria and Denmark, have struck U.S.-style pacts with the devil, entering uneasy coalitions with far-right populists to gain power.
More broadly, the European right has been very willing to work closely with populists so long as they were just across the border, especially in the continent’s east. As a result, European leaders have not only proven shamefully passive as Viktor Orbán dismantled Hungarian democracy and begun to shut down Central European University. Outrageously, they still have not expelled Orbán’s Fidesz party from the People’s Party grouping in the European Parliament, which is dominated by mainstream center-right parties like Germany’s Christian Democrats. In other words, out of cowardice or convenience, the very same Angela Merkel who is widely hailed as the new leader of the free world remains the political ally of a man who is in the process of destroying Hungarian democracy.
Finally, many Europeans see Trump’s extreme rhetoric against Muslims and his promise to build a wall along the Mexican border as confirmation of their long-held suspicion that America is vastly more racist than Europe. But this is an all too convenient way to forget that hundreds of attacks on refugee homes took place in Germany every year for the past years; that the inflow of refugees has abated in part because European governments have built hundreds upon hundreds of miles of border fortifications; or that they are so desperate to keep the refugees out that they send vast sums to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, another sworn enemy of democracy, to block the desperate Syrians and Iraqis at Europe’s doorstep.
It is tempting to engage in the narcissism of minor differences between Europe and America. Perhaps I myself have indulged in this guilty pleasure in parts of this essay (and, being both an American and a European citizen, I hope I have managed to dish it out equally to both sides). But our friendly competition should not distract us from a far more serious point: Citizens are deeply disenchanted with democratic institutions on both sides of the Atlantic. As a result, democracy is now under threat on both sides of the Atlantic. Finally, even in this most serious of hours, political elites are failing to stand up for their principles on both sides of the Atlantic. On the only metric that really counts at the moment, Europe and America are, sadly, very much alike.