FRANKFURT — Eight years ago, a U.S. presidential candidate named Barack Obama captivated hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters at Berlin's iconic Brandenburg Gate with a promise to tear down walls between races and nations.
Over the last year, however, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has provoked ire from German quarters after repeatedly disparaging the country.
On Monday, Trump sought to insult Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton by comparing her to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying incorrectly that crime had skyrocketed under Germany's refugee policies. Those comments, and others, have left Germans — from the highest pinnacles of business to the grungiest parks — transfixed on the U.S. presidential election.
Unlike in 2008, many report confusion and fear in the face of a candidate who vows to build a wall and shut out allies if he wins the White House in November.
Thilo Brodtmann, executive director of VDMA, Germany's engineering federation representing more than 3,000 companies including giants Siemens and Bosch, said he sees widespread concern among German enterprises that Trump's anti-trade policies could pose a threat to their businesses.
"We have been worried because the U.S. traditionally was very open-minded toward free trade and was a good partner in developing any trade agreements," Brodtmann said.
Trump has regularly emphasized that he supports "fair" trade policies as opposed to those that he says allow for trading partners to take advantage of the United States. The problem, Trump says, is that many of the current U.S. agreements — including the North American Free Trade Agreement — should be renegotiated to make them more favorable to American interests.
The United States is VDMA's largest trading partner, accounting for more than $18 billion in machinery exports last year. Trump's positions, Brodtmann said, could be especially difficult for small and medium-sized exporters who would struggle to adapt to new trade standards.
Even Germans who oppose the same global trade deals as Trump are fearful of the GOP nominee. Many German cities are plastered with posters and stickers contesting a proposed trade deal between the European Union and the U.S., but that campaign's most ardent supporters are not backing the candidate.
"Some of [Trump's] claims and fears look very similar to ours, but they come from a different place entirely," said Maritta Strasser, a lead trade campaigner for the nongovernmental organization Campact — which helped form an alliance to collect more than 3 million signatures against the EU-U.S. deal.
"I'm really terrified: I'd think he'd be of great harm to the world," she said, explaining that Trump's "us against them" mentality differs from her organization's progressively oriented approach toward policy.
Still, some experts said the outlook for the U.S. role in global free trade looks dimmer regardless of a Trump or Clinton victory.
"Neither one have this great free trade aura around them," Societe Generale economist Stephen Gallagher told CNBC. "They're both speaking to a strongly populist movement in the U.S. and it's hard to figure out what their real intentions would be."
That's especially true for Trump, Gallagher said, as Clinton's positions are better known on other global agreements concerning defense and diplomacy, thanks to her long-standing presence on the international stage.
"There's a tremendous uncertainty on Trump given some of the comments he's made," Gallagher said.
This uncertainty is already playing out in opinion polls in Germany. In a study published July 19 by research firm Allensbach Institute, 76 percent of representatives from German businesses said German-American relations would be jeopardized if Trump were elected president.
VDMA's Brodtmann said some German companies are also worried a Trump presidency could result in heightened geopolitical risks if the U.S. takes a more hands-off role in world affairs.