How did an East German pastor’s daughter scale a mountain of resistance as a triple outsider: a woman, a scientist, and an East German? Not by waiting politely for her turn. Merkel prevailed in a world stacked against her through a combination of persistence, preparation, calculation, and a well-curbed ego. And it’s a model other women—and men—can copy.
None of the many strutting demagogues on the world stage—Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—has managed to shake Merkel’s self-possession. Not even America’s humiliator in chief can shake a woman so well prepared for male antics. “Don’t say I never gave you anything,” Trump said to her, at a G7 conference last summer, tossing Merkel a Starburst he retrieved from his pocket. The sole reaction Merkel allowed herself was a pair of extremely raised eyebrows. When, in 2007, during a meeting at his Black Sea residence, Putin unleashed his black Labrador—knowing she was once bitten and twice shy of dogs—her face was an iron mask. “He needs to do this to prove he’s strong,” she later told her staff. Having grown up under the same totalitarian regime that produced Putin, she is aware of his KGB training. She sees anger as a wasted emotion she simply cannot afford to indulge. For drama, Merkel goes to the opera—which she does a great deal.
Another lesson from the Merkel manual is to out-prepare the man across the negotiating table. She lets men (it’s still usually men) bluster uninterrupted until they run out of steam. When her turn comes, her calm command of facts reduces their grandiloquence to its simplest components. Merkel does not counter bombast with bombast, but with deflation.
Yet another rule in the Merkel playbook is to treat high office as a job, not as identity. She keeps talking to Putin and to Trump and the others because she sees that as her job. So insults and attacks, however personal and low, are not about her. Sometimes even Merkel has found this a tough rule to follow, as when a German politician called her “an old bird from the East.” “I can’t help where I’m from,” she said, stung by the taunt. But mostly she brushes off such insults. She treats social media’s nastiness as being about her office, not her.Moreover, she has starved the tabloids and the internet of juicy material. She does not tweet. Not a whiff of scandal has touched her two decades in public life. Neither tell-all memoirs nor leaks have seeped from her office.
Merkel clearly enjoys power. Power is a way to get things done: passing minimum wage, closing Germany’s nuclear power plants after the Fukushima explosion, promoting marriage equality, keeping the EU and the U.S. united in sanctioning Russia for invading Crimea, as well as rescuing the euro in 2008. In 2015, in her typically undramatic way, she announced, “Wir schaffen das,” we can handle this, thereby allowing 1 million refugees from the wars of the Middle East a chance to restart their lives in German society. To a remarkable extent, Germany has handled it, though the AfD sits in the Bundestag as a result.
Merkel does not seem to crave the trappings of power. She has no private jets, yachts, or mansions. Her security personnel are instructed to hang way back. (I’ve observed her shop for shoes: the image of a middle-aged lady trying on footwear, not a hint that this is the world’s most powerful woman buying six identical pairs of sensible black flats.) She and her scientist husband live in the same apartment, across from Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, that they’ve lived in for decades. Only his name is on the buzzer. Her modest country house in her native Brandenburg is no paparazzi magnet. And here is another remarkable feat for one of the world’s most famous people: She has ferociously fought for, and has been largely granted, the right to a private life. Her closest staff was not sure where she spent her annual August break last year. (Mostly in her country house.) So, another formula for political longevity: If you are not constantly in the public’s face, chances are people won’t tire of you quite as fast. Even in her own country, Merkel is a figure of some mystery.
Persistence is a key component of the Merkel model. Merkel refuses to give up on even bad actors. She knows when Putin lies to her. He claimed, as his military moved into Crimea, that the “little green men” were not his militia. “We have eyes, Vladimir!” an exasperated Obama exclaimed, and stopped engaging him. Merkel persisted. In a single week in February 2015, Merkel shuttled among nine cities, on two continents, in search of peace.
She’s applied the same approach to Trump. Armed with maps and charts, she patiently explained to the American president how many jobs German car manufacturers create in South Carolina, and why NATO is about shared values, not merely dues paid into an account. In her view, even if only 10 percent of her message gets through, that’s better than giving up on Berlin’s most important relationship, its historic mentor and the midwife of German democracy, the United States.
But perhaps her greatest deficit is as a communicator. She simply lacks that vital instrument of leadership: the ability to galvanize the people with a stirring message, or to fully explain why she makes certain decisions on their behalf. Angela Merkel has compensated for this lack by winning her people’s trust that she is working soberly and seriously on their behalf. Still, we are in unfamiliar and rough political waters on both sides of the Atlantic now, and it is unclear if her calm and steady-as-she-goes style is long sustainable. In a year or two, Merkel will leave the world stage, seething with populist-fanned passions. Nevertheless, the Merkel model should inspire both women and men in politics. And women, who have too few role models for political success, can look to Angela Merkel for inspiration.
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