Trump: The French Precedent
The rise of Donald Trump has infuriated many Americans and left them in disbelief. Now that he has clinched the Republican presidential nomination, they wonder what will happen to him and his movement, in November and beyond. They should look to France’s precedent to understand where “Trumpismo” comes from, and to predict its future.
Donald Trump’s trajectory and message closely mirror those of France’s far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and his party, the Front National (FN.) In the 1980s, Le Pen rose to prominence as a populist, anti-establishment, overtly racist and right-wing demagogue prone to obscene outbursts. He leveraged growing popular angst about the enduring economic crisis. He blamed trade and globalization for dismantling the manufacturing base of the French economy. He fomented fear that African and Arab immigrants were stealing jobs, increasing crime and undermining the country’s white identity.
Le Pen railed against Muslims, the supposed erosion of France’s sovereignty, its porous borders, and the political establishment’s unwillingness or inability to defend the common man. He advocated a militarily aggressive yet isolationist foreign policy, and fiscal policies that were as generous as they were unrealistic. Most importantly, he called for securing the borders and cleansing France of the alleged foreign invaders. Le Pen capitalized on predomintly blue collar fears of a changing world, with promises of vindictive cures. This toxic brew put him in an electoral position similar to what many believe or at least hope is Trump’s: a high and hard electoral ‘floor’ of committed angry voters, but a low and equally hard ‘ceiling’ of mainstream opposition. This was most evident in 2002, when Le Pen obtained the second highest score in the first round of the presidential election, but lost in a 4-to-1 landslide in the second round.
As we look beyond November, the FN party also offers clues about what may happen to Trump and Trumpismo. Indeed, it is important to understand that we are dealing not with a single man but with a burgeoning movement.
After decades at the helm of the party he had created, Le Pen stepped down in 2011 and his daughter Marine was elected as the new leader. She has worked hard to conceal the party’s overt anti-Semitism and neo-Nazi thugs, to silence its undisciplined racists, and to bench its socially conservative Catholics who are out of touch with France’s secular consensus. However, the Jean-Marie to Marine evolution is arguably more clever marketing than substantive improvement: the core of the party’s platform — xenophobia and anti-establishment populism — remains.
This “un-demonization” has been successful: it has expanded the party’s electoral reach and hastened the day when France’s mainstream Right may be unable or unwilling to enforce an arm’s-length posture against an encroaching FN. If Trump is defeated this November but wants to stay on the political scene to lead his movement, he will be faced with the challenge that led to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s retirement: will he stick to his outrageous persona and remain under a low ceiling or will he learn from his defeat and scrape off the most visible warts without betraying his xenophobia?
If he can’t make that transition, another leader may take a page from Marine Le Pen’s playbook: offer a less sulfurous alternative that cements Trumpismo as a persistent force in American conservative politics.
The Republican leadership has to decide how to contend with Trumpismo, a challenge similar to the one that has bewildered France’s establishment. They refused to understand that LePen had tapped into deep-seated anxieties about societal and economic changes.
Most concerning, as we have witnessed America’s two party system is less resistant to a right wing takeover. France’s multipary system creates buffers that hindering the ability of fringe ideas to coopt the “main” parties. Here, the nominaion of Trump as the Republican candidate has given him an electoral foundation, the ability to amplify his message beyond his base, the support of the party’s campaigning and fundraising machine and the endorsement of its leaders, however reluctant.
Today, the FN is one of France’s most powerful political movements, constantly threatening the position of establishment parties and shaping their political discourse. Let’s hope we prove smarter this election season.
By A de T
A Republican, naturalized US citizen of French origin who will vote for Hillary Clinton