The Germans “are bad, very bad,” Donald Trump was heard muttering to other leaders during his visit to Brussels this week. In a different era, Americans might have said that while giggling at Hogan’s Heroes, a 1960s sitcom about a German POW camp in which the inmates, led by a suave American colonel, are constantly outwitting the Germans, commanded by a disgusting but inept Nazi named Klink. These days, Mr. Trump thinks Germans are bad, very bad, for selling way too many BMWs and Audis to Americans. (Our thoughts are with those victims.) He also thinks the Germans are skimping on military spending as part of NATO. Though half German himself, Mr. Drumpf (as he would be named, if his ancestors had not changed their name) could keep adding to the list of German bads.
With his klutzy Drumpfiness, Mr. Trump thus keeps reaffirming the worst stereotypes Germans have about him, and often about America generally. From the German point of view, Trump is not just bad, very bad, but increasingly so bad that it’s good. Germans are now passing along a viral video of Trump showing up for NATO’s family photo during his Brussels visit. Coming from behind, he brusquely swats aside the unsuspecting prime minister of Montenegro, a small country hoping to join NATO. As the other leaders maintain unflappably diplomatic smirks, the American president stomps to the front line with a look of unironic egomania, buttons his jacket and dourly surveys the room.
But as shadow only exists where there is light or yin where there is yang, Germans still have a countervailing idea about America in their heads. And by pure coincidence, this idea, personified by Barack Obama, was on a stage with Chancellor Angela Merkel in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate just hours before Ms. Merkel jetted off to see Mr. Trump in Brussels. In 2008 Germans had thronged to hear candidate Obama speak in Berlin – in a state of pro-American euphoria last seen when John F. Kennedy visited West Berlin in 1963. Germans then grew disenchanted with President Obama for spying on Ms. Merkel and other things. But oh how good Obama looks now, four months into his successor’s term, sitting next to the chancellor and speaking about the need to be open, tolerant and optimistic.
And so the eternal love-hate passion that Germans have for America continues. For longer than America has existed, Germans have emigrated to it – as Mr. Trump’s grandfather did in 1885 – to seek bliss in their American dream. And all the while Germans have also looked down on America as a land of garish and uncultured glitz, as though all of it looked like, well, Mr. Trump’s faux-Baroque penthouse in Manhattan. This vantage of time gives solace. Provided Mr. Trump does not accidentally end the world and history itself, Americans and Germans will still be there long after he is gone, loving and hating each other as only the best couples can.