Election Day in America, from Berlin

Happy Election Day, everyone! This is the first U.S. presidential election in my adult life I’m not covering, and the first election night I’m not working. It’s a strange feeling.

But because I couldn’t resist writing about the election, I wrote about my experience living abroad throughout most of Trump’s tenure—and the idea that he’s inescapable in Germany, especially for Americans. From the granular coverage of U.S. politics to the fact that, as an American, I’m constantly asked to explain what’s happening and various aspects of American politics and public policy, I’ve gotten an education in what the rest of the world thinks of us and how that has changed over the last

(Der Artikel würde auch hier beim Tagesspiegel auf Deutsch veröffentlicht.)

I’ll be watching as long as I can tonight with my boyfriend and two friends here in Berlin, complete with an array of extremely American foods and plenty of wine…

A month in Gelsenkirchen, and the complicated story of integration in Germany

In August and September, I spent four weeks living in Gelsenkirchen, a city of about 260,000 in the populous Ruhr region. I came because it’s the far-right Alternative for Germany’s stronghold in western Germany, and I wanted to understand why this former coal and manufacturing city supported the AfD at a disproportional rate.

For ICWA, I wrote a portrait of the city: From a tiny village in the mid-19th century to a booming coal town to a place today known for its high unemployment and low incomes, Gelsenkirchen is a complicated place. It also has a great deal of promise, and many residents devoted to making life better in big and small ways.

For Foreign Policy, I focused specifically on the challenges and opportunities of integration in Gelsenkirchen, a complicated city with a complex mix of nationalities and communities. At the heart of this debate over whether Germany has succeeded in integrating newcomers is an even more fundamental question: What does it mean to be fully integrated, and who is responsible for aiding that process?

CEU’s dual challenges

Targeted by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Central European University was forced to move its campus from Budapest to Vienna. As of this fall, nearly all its degree programs will be taught from Vienna. If that wasn’t enough, the university had to manage this costly and complicated move in the midst of a global pandemic; many of its students weren’t yet able to make it to campus.

The current situation is all the more painful for a university founded with the mission of promoting open societies—and the pandemic has provided nearly as big a challenge to the university’s core mission as Orbán’s efforts to demonize it.

My fellowship has recently set up an editorial partnership with Slate, so my reporting on CEU was published there—my first piece for Slate! You can read a longer version of the story here, on ICWA’s website.

Hallstatt, packed with Austrians

Hallstatt, a picturesque town in the Austrian Alps, has long been a prime example of overtourism: In pre-pandemic times, the town of 780 received as many as 10,000 visitors per day. Local officials had begun putting in place new measures to combat the worst effects of the crowds—and then the pandemic hit, emptying out tourist spots across the world.

Back in June, on my way home from a vacation at nearby Attersee (which is beautiful), I went to Hallstatt to see how things were recovering after the pandemic-related restrictions were lifted. Like many, I’d seen the idyllic photos of Hallstatt and had long wanted to see it in person—but was always turned off by the idea of fighting massive crowds there.

It seems many Austrians had the same idea I did: When we were there, on a hot Saturday afternoon, the town was pretty packed. Unlike in normal times, however, most of my fellow visitors were Austrians: Instead of a mix of many languages in the streets, we mostly heard (Austrian-accented) German.

This is not the only tourist spot in Europe experiencing an influx of tourists from nearby: With the specter of a second wave hanging over reopening in many countries and the fast-changing dynamics of the pandemic, many seem to be opting to rediscover their own respective countries instead of venturing further afield this year. Austria’s government is even explicitly running a slogan aimed at its citizens and residents: “A good summer is waiting for you: Discover your own country.”

I wrote about my Hallstatt experience for POLITICO Europe, which you can read here. And last month, I also described the tricky return to almost normal life in Austria for ICWA, available here.

Viktor Orbán’s pandemic politics

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s efforts to transform his country into an “illiberal” state have been well-documented: From working to curtail independent media to overhauling the electoral system to demonizing refugees and NGOs, he’s made significant progress toward that goal.

The coronavirus pandemic has given him political cover to make additional changes. For Foreign Policy, I wrote about how Orbán has used the pandemic response to go after mayors in opposition-led cities and towns. And for ICWA, I looked more broadly at how the international focus on an emergency powers law was a bit misplaced. The real Covid-related changes in Hungary—controversial legislation passed with little fanfare, efforts to undermine opposition mayors and the takeover and mass resignations at the online news portal Index—were more under-the-radar.

As Zselyke Csaky of the democracy watchdog Freedom House told me: “These less-clear changes that people were not necessarily focusing on were the ones that were more insidious and more dangerous in some way.”

Coronavirus and the far right

We are living through unprecedented times here in Germany and across the globe: The coronavirus outbreak has driven all of us inside our homes and paralyzed entire economies and societies until the virus is contained.

For far-right leaders currently in power, like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, the crisis has provided an opportunity to push through new authoritarian measures. But for those in opposition, like Germany’s AfD, the coronavirus has taken away the political spotlight they so depend on—and has made them, at least for the time being, somewhat irrelevant in the political discussion.

This comes, ironically, in spite of the fact that such parties have (temporarily) seen some of their wildest policy dreams come true in recent weeks: The return of borders within Europe, and the increased influence of nation-states seeking to protect their own citizens.

As Berlin-based political consultant Johannes Hillje told me: “This crisis is not like the other crises that the AfD has benefited from, the euro crisis and the refugee crisis. Both crises had an enemy which was an outsider … but now it’s a virus, and it’s spreading from within. The default populist narrative—us versus them, insiders versus outsiders—doesn’t work anymore.”

I wrote about this in a dispatch for Foreign Policy, which you can read here. And late last month, as we were just settling into lockdowns across Europe and much of the world, I explored similar topics for ICWA.

Thuringia and the AfD’s talent for political chaos

One vote in one state parliament in Germany may not seem like the kind of action that could trigger a massive bout of national soul-searching and topple Angela Merkel’s preferred successor.

But that’s exactly what happened earlier this month, after lawmakers from two right-of-center parties in the eastern state of Thuringia voted with the far-right AfD to topple the state’s left-wing governor. The vote, breaking a major taboo in Germany on collaborating with the far right in any form,

Parties like the AfD may not, in the short term, have any hope of running a national government. That said, they have an outsize impact on the political discussion here precisely because they’re good at exploiting existing political tensions, using it to create political chaos—and then, in turn, benefiting electorally from that chaos.

In my first piece for CNN Opinion, I looked at that phenomenon, and what it might mean for mainstream parties hoping to combat the far right’s influence. You can read the piece here.

Germany and the legacy of 1989

This week, Germany celebrates the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event which led to the country’s reunification and helped usher in democracy across Eastern Europe.

Despite the lack of a literal wall today, eastern and western Germany remain in many ways divided: the East still faces significant economic, societal and infrastructural challenges, and eastern Germans remain underrepresented at the highest levels of politics, media and business. But what’s more, and most relevant to my current research, is the political divide: The populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is demonstrably stronger in the East than in the West.

After my month in Görlitz this summer, I’ve spent the better part of this fall focusing further on the AfD’s appeal in eastern Germany. In its campaign across three eastern German state elections this fall, the party explicitly pitched itself as the party best equipped to take up the legacy of 1989—to bring about a Vollende der Wende, or “complete the revolution.” Traveling to Gera, an AfD stronghold in the state of Thuringia, I watched these strategies in action from far-right leader Björn Höcke. I wrote about it here, for the Institute of Current World Affairs.

And throughout October, I interviewed young Germans born in 1989—some from eastern Germany, some from the West—to understand the extent to which differences in upbringing, family experience and identity remain today. Like me, these Germans turned 30 this year; they’re the same age as post-Berlin Wall Germany.

Throughout my conversations for this piece, I sought to understand to what extent eastern Germans, and their children and grandchildren, have fully worked through their experiences. How long does it take for such a process to take place? Though young people from both parts of Germany feel increasingly European, they notice that invisible divides do still remain. That piece, also for ICWA, is available here.

(I also worked on my first-ever audio feature on this topic, which you can listen to here; it’s the second part of the latest episode of The Cable podcast).

The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, lit up at night for a recent event

The die-hard fans of Austria’s FPÖ

FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl takes selfies with supporters at the party’s campaign kickoff in Pasching, Upper Austria

In May, leaked video from the Spanish island of Ibiza showed Heinz-Christian Strache, then leader of Austria’s populist far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), offering state contracts in exchange for election help from a woman he believed was the niece of a wealthy Russian oligarch.

Strache quickly resigned, and the so-called “Ibiza affair” triggered the collapse of Austria’s government and early elections on Sept. 29. But in spite of that scandal, the FPÖ’s support seemed to remain remarkably stable throughout the summer—it was polling only about one percentage point lower than its pre-scandal average—so I spent a few weeks in Austria trying to understand why.

That exploration took me from an Alpine village in the state of Carinthia to a glitzy shopping mall in Upper Austria to a biergarten in Vienna’s Prater amusement park. I talked to the party’s die-hard fans about why they stuck by it—and even stuck by Strache in many cases. The explanations I heard were varied: some said it was all overplayed by the media, some said all politicians do such things, others argued that Strache had left the party so it was all already dealt with. In many ways, the party’s rhetoric—pioneered by the late Jörg Haider, the charismatic FPÖ leader who transformed it into an anti-immigration force in the 1980s—has helped inoculate its supporters against its own scandals.

You can read my piece for ICWA on that resilient voter base here.

In the final week of the campaign, however, things changed. A second Strache-related scandal, this time involving alleged misuse of party funds for personal purposes, dominated headlines. That second scandal seemingly proved too much for some FPÖ voters: the party won a disappointing 16 percent, nearly 10 points lower than its result two years ago.

For The Atlantic, I went to the FPÖ’s election-night party and talked to the people who still stood by it—and looked at the idea that, even after a disappointing result, the party has a remarkably high electoral floor. That story is available here.