Imagine this scenario: A new Chinese ambassador is sent to Washington. Brash and arrogant, he comes from the extreme Maoist wing of the Chinese communist party. A month after his arrival, he gives an interview to the People’s Daily, noting with satisfaction the rise of the far left in Western politics.
“There are a lot of Marxists throughout the West who have contacted me to say they are feeling there is a resurgence going on,” he says, adding that he hopes, in his new position, to be able to “empower” far-left parties. Mentioning that he admires Jeremy Corbyn, the far-left British Labour Party leader, he continues: “I think there is a groundswell of Marxist policies that are taking hold because of the failed policies of American capitalism.”
Imagine the reaction.
But flip the ideology around, and that is precisely what Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, just told Breitbart News. “There are a lot of conservatives throughout Europe who have contacted me to say they are feeling there is a resurgence going on,” he said. “I absolutely want to empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders. I think there is a groundswell of conservative policies that are taking hold because of the failed policies of the left.”
Note the context: Grenell was speaking to Breitbart, the website whose comment section was the original breeding ground for alt-right white nationalism. Grenell was very clear that the kinds of “conservatives” he admires are not the ones in Angela Merkel’s centrist Christian Democratic party, which is currently ruling Germany in a coalition with centrist social democrats (authors, presumably, of the “failed policies of the left,” the same policies that have made Germany the strongest economy in Europe). On the contrary, the one politician he named — “I’m a big fan” — is Sebastian Kurz, a center-right politician who has criticized Merkel, borrowed language from the radical right and currently rules Austria in coalition with the Freedom Party, a nativist, pro-Russian and anti-pluralist party.
In Germany, the equivalent of Kurz and the Freedom party is not Merkel. The equivalent is the Alternative for Germany, a nativist, pro-Russian and anti-pluralist party whose leader has just said that the Nazi era was nothing but “bird s–––,” an easily dismissed episode in the successful thousand-year history of Germany. Elsewhere in Europe, the equivalents are the other members of what might be called the Populist International, the nativist, pro-Russian and anti-pluralist parties that are indeed growing in strength in some countries. Just in case anybody missed Grenell’s point, Breitbart’s helpful headline clarified it: “Trump’s right hand man in Europe wants to empower European anti-establishment conservatives.”
Later, as the interview drew rapid, negative attention in Germany and elsewhere, Breitbart changed the headline, dropping the phrase “anti-establishment.” Hordes of social media enthusiasts also rose in Grenell’s defense: He wasn’t insulting Merkel! He meant no offense! But of course he was, and of course he did. These kinds of games are precisely how the radical right communicates with its supporters. Its propagandists nod, wink and put a new spin on old words — swapping “globalist” for “Jewish,” for example, as in “international globalist conspiracy.” Grenell’s hints were intended for Breitbart’s readers: They know this game, and they know that when Grenell says “empowering other conservatives throughout Europe,” he doesn’t mean that he supports the ruling coalition in the country where he is serving as U.S. ambassador. I repeat: It means that he supports their opponents.
If Grenell has been sent to Germany in order to destabilize Merkel’s coalition, then a case can be made in his support: Maybe this is U.S. policy now; he’s just carrying it out. If Grenell has been sent to Germany in order to destabilize the Atlantic alliance, then he’s doing well at that, too: Most of the Populist International is strongly anti-American, pro-Russian and opposed to NATO. Grenell’s first action, on his first day in his new job, was to tweet an order to German companies doing business in Iran, telling them they should “wind down operations immediately.” This, too, was badly received.
But if those are not his orders — and I’m sure someone will now deny that they are — then a different set of questions has to be asked. Why is the U.S. ambassador to Germany giving an interview to Breitbart? Why is he involving himself in partisan politics? For that matter, why is he an American ambassador at all?