Bemusement has given way to alarm in Europe’s capitals as the bombastic billionaire business magnate from New York, Donald Trump, gets ever closer to securing the Republican presidential nomination.
It’s not just his rhetoric and bile that worry many Europeans. His complete unpredictability is an even greater concern, and that’s something Chancellor Angela Merkel, for one, probably cannot abide.
She had to battle former U.S. President George W. Bush on many fronts, not least on climate policy. But she always knew where he stood. She once complained that even the introverted Barack Obama was harder to fathom.
But how would things be with a President Trump?
“Trump could make people in Europe yearn for the days of George W. Bush,” said Jürgen Trittin, a Green and member of the Bundestag's foreign affairs committee.
That’s a strong statement given Europe's antipathy for the Republican president who ordered the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
It’s customary for elder statesmen and women to stay out of foreign elections but Mr. Trump’s wild populist rhetoric has prompted some in Europe to subtly suggest Americans resist the lure of the firebrand business magnate.
When asked recently who he would pick between Mr. Trump and Bernie Sanders, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble opted without hesitation for the Vermont senator who calls himself a democratic socialist.
And Mr. Schäuble’s a staunch conservative, a member of Ms. Merkel's conservative Christian Democrat party.
When asked to comment on Mr. Trump, Mr. Schäuble said: “We in Europe need the leadership of a strong America. And that’s why I hope the American people in their wisdom will take corresponding decisions.”
Trump could make people in Europe yearn for the days of George W. Bush. Jürgen Trittin, A German Green and member of the Bundestag's foreign affairs committee
Germany’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, speaking in Washington on Tuesday, warned of a “politics of fear” in the United States.
On Super Tuesday, Mr. Trump, 69, and Democratic contender Hillary Clinton, 68, emerged as the clear front-runners to succeed Democratic President Barack Obama.
To be sure, most European leaders are stopping short of direct criticism of the kind voiced by Mexican Foreign Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu, who recently called the U.S. tycoon “ignorant and racist.”
Mr. Trump's boast that if elected he would build a wall between the United States and Mexico -- and make the Mexicans pay for it -- even provoked Pope Francis last month to comment: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”
Invigorated by his wins on Super Tuesday, Mr. Trump lashed out at Ms. Merkel’s open-door policy towards refugees, saying: “We have a big big problem – radical Islamic terrorism – big, big problem, not only for us but look at Germany, Sweden. It’s a disaster.”
But officials in Berlin said the main problem is that he keeps contradicting himself and has no discernible foreign policy or economic program apart from vague plans to cut taxes and a latent mistrust of the transatlantic free trade pact being negotiated between the European Union and United States.
Mr. Trump wants to cut the top nominal personal income tax rate on individuals to 25 percent from just under 40 percent.
He also wants to slash the nominal corporate tax rate by 10 percentage points 15 percent, like the rate in Ireland, and to deport illegal immigrants who he blames for being the cause of stagnating U.S. wages. He also wants to impose punitive tariffs on Chinese imports to boost U.S. industry.
Economists estimate his tax reform plans could cost $10-12 trillion over the next decade. It’s unclear how he would plan to pay for it.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has publicly voiced his support for Ms. Clinton. Sweden’s center-left coalition government has said it’s “concerned” about Mr. Trump’s progress in the primaries.
But some politicians are warning that Mr. Trump shouldn’t be demonized.
“At the end of the day Europe and the U.S. will have to continue working together,” said Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a German who is vice president of the European Parliament.
The Grand Old Party of Lincoln and Reagan would be a different party with a President Trump. Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, Vice President, European Parliament
Mr. Graf Lambsdorff admitted transatlantic relations would be more difficult with Mr. Trump in the White House. “The Grand Old Party of Lincoln and Reagan would be a different party with a President Trump,” he said.
The chairman of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, German conservative Elmar Brok, noted that Mr. Trump has voiced sympathy for Russian President Vladimir Putin — who immediately returned the favor and voiced support for Mr. Trump. That is not a popular stance in Europe given Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists in Ukraine.
But what is perhaps most unsettling to Europeans -- and to millions of Americans alike -- is the realization that few people actually know what specific policies or measures Mr. Trump would pursue if he moved into the Oval Office.
Part of that uncertainty stems from the fact that Mr. Trump has no real record in public office. His few politically related statements during the arc of his real estate and television careers have sent mixed signals, and suggest that he may in fact govern more moderately than his rhetoric suggests.
One thing driving Mr. Trump's momentum that few Europeans -- and up to now millions of Americans -- have failed to grasp is that Mr. Trump is loudly saying many things millions of Americans have thought privately for years.
He shocked the Republican Party establishment recently by saying that President George W. Bush used "weapons of mass destruction'' as an excuse to invade Iraq, a conflict that lasted more than a decade and cost thousands of American lives.
Although Mr. Bush and the Republican hierarchy have maintained that the war was initiated on reliable intelligence, many Americans regardless of party welcome Mr. Trump's willingness to call a spade a spade.
In his meteoric rise through the early campaign calendar, Mr. Trump has exploited his skilled television instincts and rhetorical footwork to steal the spotlight from a horde of bland-by-comparison Republican wannabes.
Yet few Americans or Europeans with ties to Washington have confidence to predict what a Trump administration would mean for America, or for Europe.
On the surface, Mr. Trump suggests he may accelerate America's isolationist move, building a wall along the southern border, and through his negotiating prowess, somehow pry concessions from the Chinese and other trading partners to generate more American jobs and profit.
Similarly, he has voiced skepticism with TTIP, the transatlantic trade proposal endorsed by most of European and U.S. businesses but strongly opposed by special-interest groups that fear a weakening of local jobs, health and safety laws.
If Mr. Trump were to actually follow through on many of his policies, "it would lead to an ice age, not just with Germany but with Europe," Ralf Stegner, deputy parliamentary leader of the German Social Democrats, told the business weekly WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt.
But whether one can take Mr. Trump literally at his word remains an open question. As the host of a successful television show, "The Apprentice,'' Mr. Trump regularly put his labor prospects under extreme forms of pressure, to see how they performed in the crucible of the spotlight.
In his own dealings as a New York City real estate developer, he employed similar bluster to cut through the city's notorious red tape and labor quagmire to erect hotels and casinos on the East Coast that would have been politically impossible for others.
Perhaps an instructive anecdote about Mr. Trump and how he operates is an event that helped build his early reputation as an up-and-coming, can-do force in New York City politics.
In the 1980s, New York City was financially struggling, more dangerous than today and seemingly broken. A symbol of the city's sad state was the Wollman ice skating rink in Central Park, which was closed in 1980 for what was supposed to be two and a half years of standard repairs.
By 1986, the rink was still closed amid a murky union-contractor dispute.
Mr. Trump, then an aspiring real estate mogul, boasted publicly that he could fix the rink at his own expense quickly. Public pressure forced the mayor, Ed Koch, against his own wishes, to give the job to Mr. Trump.
Within a few months, the rink was magically restored -- Mr. Trump never exactly described how he was able to get both sides to work together -- but it didn't matter. Politically, he was on his way. To this day the rink is run by the Trump organization.
It's also been co-branded: its web page calls it Trump Central Park Wollman Skating Rink.
Moritz Koch is a U.S. correspondent for Handelsblatt and Matthias Brüggmann is the newspaper's international correspondent. Kevin O'Brien, who grew up in the Bronx, is the editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition. To reach the authors: [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected]