Angela Merkel is the last politician you’d expect to go viral.
The German chancellor is typically careful and measured. She’s consistently worn the same haircut and pantsuit combination for years. Her hands are regularly folded into what observers call the Merkel diamond. She rarely strays from her script.
Enter President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladmir Putin, two men known for their showboating and sometimes threatening antics that predictably go viral. When Merkel shares the world stage with them, something seems to change — and she suddenly finds herself at the center of internet intrigue and humor.
This week at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, for example, photographers caught Merkel holding her head in her heads, perhaps in despair, as she encountered Trump. A separate video captured her appearing to roll her eyes hard at Putin in mid-conversation.
The social media captions practically wrote themselves: Merkel, she’s just like us! Even one of the most powerful leaders in the world has to deal with mansplaining! And no, she’s not above rolling her eyes, either.
While we don’t know exactly what happened right before photographers focused their lenses on Merkel, the images make convenient memes for our dark political times.
“If you’re looking to someone on the international stage who believes in democracy and international cooperation, she’s the biggest and most powerful avatar of that,” says Louise K. Davidson-Schmich, a professor of political science at University of Miami who’s studied Merkel’s career and leadership.
The fact that Merkel and Trump are “polar opposites” helps create an easy narrative for American liberals to indulge. She’s so fastidious in her decision-making, says Davidson-Schmich, that she only performed physics experiments at her high school in East Germany after she’d determined it wouldn’t waste her classroom’s limited resources. Trump, meanwhile, flirts with diplomatic crises daily on Twitter.
Merkel learned under communism the value of not drawing attention to yourself. Trump’s braggadocio has endangered his most cherished policy objectives, like his “Muslim travel ban” and the Obamacare repeal. And where Merkel’s worldview is fundamentally shaped by science, Trump weds himself to alternative facts that serve his ego.
“They’re the antithesis of each other,” says Davidson-Schmich.
So when she shows up in public, head cradled in her hands, Merkel instantly becomes the hero that Trump opponents can worship. Hillary Clinton may effectively taunt Trump and the GOP on Twitter and in interviews, but she can’t wield the same elder stateswoman power before a global audience. That may also play to her advantage in Germany, where Trump’s popularity is dismal. Merkel’s party, after all, is up for reelection in September.
“I’m not sure she’s so calculating that she would put her head in her heads to score electoral points, but I’m sure she doesn’t want pictures floating around of her looking like she’s having a good time with Trump,” says Davidson-Schmich.
Merkel also happens to be one of two women representing permanent members of the G20 summit (the other is UK prime minister Theresa May) — and has long been a formidable opponent for Putin. She speaks Russian and doesn’t seem permanently unnerved by Putin’s efforts to intimidate her, which have included bringing a labrador to one of their meetings even though the chancellor is known to fear dogs.
If she finds a little public revenge in rolling her eyes at Putin and accidentally launching a viral gif, the internet is definitely going to burst into deafening digital applause.
“If that party is pulling away, that’s a big loss for the bedrock of western democracy.”
Though Merkel remains the West’s most powerful champion of human rights, refugees, and climate change, she’s certainly not a perfect embodiment of liberal values. Last week, she voted against legalizing same-sex marriage in Germany, a detail that doesn’t fit easily into a 140-character tweet mocking Trump.
But, then again, not much substance is breaking through the viral noise. The Europeans are negotiating a trade deal with Japan, and the U.S. is shockingly watching from the sidelines. A draft statement from every country in the G20 but the U.S. “takes note” of Trump’s decision to withdraw America from the Paris Climate Agreement. Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, has officially signaled there’s been a fracture in its longstanding “friendship” with the U.S.
“If that party is pulling away, that’s a big loss for the bedrock of western democracy,” says Davidson-Schmich. “To my mind, it’s a huge negative for the United States.”
That may never go viral, but at least for now there’s Merkel, head in hands, as inspiration and comedic relief.