BAIERBRUNN, Germany — It was a welcome fit for a king: A fawning crowd in traditional garb, three rounds of gun salutes and a brass band playing a royal march.
Markus Söder, 51, Bavaria’s noisy new premier, got out of his car, complimented a woman in a dirndl, patted a couple of police horses, threw some sound bites about border security at the cameras, then strode into the beer tent to address the people of Baierbrunn, a small village near Munich.
“If Germany is strong, it’s because Bavaria is strong,” Mr. Söder intoned from the stage in his Frankish lilt, to approving cheers. “There should be big signs all over Berlin saying ‘Thank You, Thank you, Thank you, Bavaria!’”
“And because we’re strong,” he roared over more cheers, “we take the liberty to have an opinion!”
Few outside of Bavaria know Mr. Söder (pronounced Zoo-der). Lately, attention has focused on Horst Seehofer, another Bavarian and the German interior minister whose threat to resign over a border issue created a political crisis this week.
But Mr. Söder as much as anyone is the reason Chancellor Angela Merkel, who once staked her legacy on welcoming hundreds of thousands of migrants to Germany, finally capitulated and agreed to turn back migrants already registered elsewhere in Europe at the Bavarian border with Austria — something Mr. Söder has been demanding for months.
The “opinion” Mr. Söder has voiced on behalf of Bavaria is that he wants to put a stop to what he calls “asylum tourism” and to “defend” Bavarian and Christian values. Last month he ordered Christian crosses to be hung in all state government buildings in Bavaria. This month he launched a Bavarian border force even though migrant numbers are sharply down.
Next are the “transit camps,” a term first coined by Victor Orban, Hungary’s semi-authoritarian prime minister, along the border with Austria (although there is talk now of holding them in ordinary police stations).
To his critics Mr. Söder is Germany’s Trump, a fear mongering populist who is taking Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union, the longtime ally of Ms. Merkel’s centrist conservative party, to the far right and colluding with nativists in neighboring countries to overthrow Europe’s liberal order.
To his fans, he is a man of the people, the son of a builder and a father of four who likes to eat at McDonald’s, understands the anxieties of ordinary Bavarians and has what it takes to win back voters from the real populists, the Alternative for Germany, known by its German initials, AfD.
Mr. Söder, who holds regular citizens’ office hours to hear from voters directly, has made it his mission to lure back voters from the AfD, which has been gaining ground in Bavaria ever since its 500-mile land border with Austria became the main gateway for migrants into Germany in 2015 and 2016.
Though the number of new arrivals is back to pre-crisis levels, Mr. Söder, sounding a lot like the AfD, is warning that Germany’s migration crisis is coming back and that vast areas of the country have already become lawless no-go areas.
“People expect the state to show strength,” he said in an interview before his recent beer tent appearance. “Migration and the question of cultural identity have posed a new question and you can’t answer that with old recipes.”
His new recipe — ahead of hard-fought state elections in the fall — includes a striking disregard for facts. He sides with President Trump (rather than official German crime statistics) when he claims that migration is producing a crime wave. In fact, crime in Germany is at a 25-year-low.
Lies, Mr. Söder scoffs.
“We have whole cities where law and order has withdrawn from neighborhoods,” he said, citing Berlin and cities like Duisburg in the old industrial heartland in northwestern Germany.
“How can the state judge crime statistics in Duisburg when there are no police anymore?” he said.
He also rejects the notion that the actual migration crisis has subsided. In 2016, when the numbers reached their zenith, more than 62,000 people sought asylum in Germany on average every month. This year, that average has fallen to little more than 15,000 — the lowest since 2013. And the number of those registered elsewhere in Europe amounts to only a few hundred so far this year.
But Mr. Söder insists that “the numbers are going up,” though, again, he cannot cite any supporting data.
“New alternative routes are being planned, for example via Albania,” he said.
How did he know?
“Everyone is reporting this, you can sense a revival.”
Had he actually seen an increase in migrants at the German border?
“No, not yet,” he said. “But it’s only a question of time.”
The world Mr. Söder paints is the same one Mr. Orban and other European populists have been sketching out — a world where mostly Muslim immigrants are threatening to undermine Christian Western culture, and where a conservative revolution is needed to unseat the liberal governments that have allowed them in.
“Germany made a historic mistake in 2015, by leaving the borders open,” Mr. Söder said. “Germany split Europe.” Germany, not Bavaria, he stressed. “Bavaria was against it,” he said.
“We talk about Islam all the time and don’t realize how insecure we are about our own roots,” Mr. Söder said. “In Bavaria, we stand up for our values.”
Before taking the top job three months ago, Mr. Söder ran a number of ministries in Bavaria, most recently the Finance Ministry, which includes the “heimat” brief, an attempt at celebrating identity and a sense of cultural belonging, as well as diverting public investment from urban centers to rural areas to combat globalization fears.
It proved to be a good fit for Mr. Söder, who was applauded even by some opponents for several tangible successes: He moved several government offices out of big cities (the ministry itself ended up in his native Nuremberg), invested millions in faster internet for rural areas and helped struggling communities pay the bills for public services.
“Heimat,” he says, “is the antidote to globalization.”
In a state where folklore is politics and politics is folklore few disagree.
But some are uneasy about a revival in ostentatious celebrations of Bavarian customs at a time when the language about migrants has hardened. “It has a feel of exclusion,” said Wolgang Jirschik, the mayor of Baierbrunn, who listened to Mr. Söder in the beer tent the other night.
“He says he wants to calm people’s fears and at the same time he fans them,” Mr. Jirschik said. “Markus Söder has the ability to go right up to the limit of what is sayable before it becomes far-right ideology.”
Others see it differently. “Söder is no Trump,” said Thomas Dopfer, an accountant, who was also listening. “He has a sense of what preoccupies people, and most think being tough on migration is the only way to fight the AfD.”
He has always been a shrewd communicator. In the beer tent recently he spoke for nearly an hour without notes. A near-teetotaler, he drinks diet soda or water, unless there is camera — then he will nip on a beer as well.
Strikingly tall — he stands about 6 feet, 6 inches tall, he is famous for his elaborate and themed disguises during carnival every year. One year he went as Marilyn Monroe, this year
as a Bavarian king.
Mr. Söder, who once worked in television, knows how to tell a good story, including his own. He talks often about his modest roots in a working-class district of Nuremberg, less often about marrying the daughter of a wealthy businessman.
He became a conservative at 16 out of “conviction,” in a neighborhood that had historically voted left. While his friends worshiped soccer players and pop stars, Mr. Söder hung a poster of the arch-conservative Bavarian leader Franz Josef Strauss on the wall of his bedroom. Growing up near American Army barracks, Mr. Söder says he has always been a fan of the United States, “the land of unlimited opportunities.”
“In school you were either for Strauss or against Strauss, for America or against America,” he recalled. He was always, as he put it, “pro-Bavarian and pro-American.”
Long before migration became a hot-button issue, Mr. Söder built his reputation of a provocateur. German children should be called “Klaus” not “Kevin” he once said. Another time he proposed to have the entire Green Party sent for a drug test.
These days he expresses “ respect” for Mr. Orban, a regular guest of honor in Bavaria, and for the Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, a fellow conservative who leads a coalition with the far right Freedom Party in Vienna.
Mr. Söder thinks that is not a big deal. Germany, he said, should stop being the “world champion of political correctness,” he said.
“There was a time when the Austrian government was sanctioned temporarily because it has a coalition with the Freedom Party,” he said. “Today, it’s normal.”
The Freedom Party is an ally of the AfD and other far-right parties in Europe. So, could an alliance between the conservatives and the AfD become ‘normal’ in Germany, too?
“I don’t think so,” said Mr. Söder, who then paused, and added more firmly: “Never.”
Follow Katrin Bennhold on Twitter: @kbennhold