Her grace and eloquence make her dangerous to liberalism. His contemptuous cynicism makes him an existential threat.
Last week, Marine Le Pen, head of France’s nativist, anti-globalist National Front and the party’s candidate for president, was accorded the privilege of a two-hour, prime-time grilling — more of an auto-da-fé, really — on France 2’s prestigious Politics Show. I’ve now watched the program twice through, and both times I was torn between my repulsion at what she said and my admiration for how she said it. Maybe I’m a sucker for a xenophobe who can quote the poet Paul Valéry on the Christian foundations of French culture. Or more to the point, Donald Trump has conditioned me to associate right-wing populism with monosyllabic yapping.
Le Pen is not, of course, a former reality TV star but the scion of a family business in politics; her father, Jean-Marie, founded the National Front. She knows perfectly well how to provide the grand discours that the French expect from their political leaders, even if in an easy-to-digest form. Nevertheless, I was impressed by her gift for signaling calm rationality even as she was saying things that appall most French voters. If her goal was to reassure those who agree with her views on immigrants, refugees, and free trade but cannot stomach the thought of voting her party into power, she may well have done herself a service. She attracted 3.5 million viewers, a record for the show.
The setting, and the etiquette, was fascinating, at least if you’re used to political debate as an 18-ring circus. (Similar interviews will be repeated in coming weeks for the other leading candidates.) Le Pen sat across a small round table from the two hosts, David Pujadas and Léa Salamé. They addressed her, respectfully, as “Marine Le Pen,” in stark counterpoint to their barbed questions: “So, Marine Le Pen, you are saying that Germans working in France who pay into social security nevertheless should not receive medical treatment when they get sick?” (Answer: Yes.) Halfway through the program, she was ambushed, game-show style, by an “unannounced guest,” Patrick Buisson, a former acolyte of Jean-Marie Le Pen who turned against the National Front to support Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007. Buisson rather laboriously tried to force her to say if she considered her rivals for the presidency “patriots.” (Answer: No.)
Of course, Le Pen also said all sorts of things that simply aren’t so. Le Nouvel Observateur came up with a “nonexhaustive” list of five “small and large lies” she told in the course of the interview. Le Pen repeated Donald Trump’s canard that Barack Obama had “banned” immigrants from Iraq; denied, despite vast evidence to the contrary, that her supporters routinely fire off racist and homophobic tweets; and claimed, wrongly, that immigrants can automatically gain French citizenship through marriage. And then there were the Trumpian delusions: that a policy of “economic patriotism” penalizing French companies that move abroad would not raise the cost of French products but rather would foster a “virtuous circle” boosting growth and employment.
But Trump can tell five lies in a paragraph. Le Pen calmly plowed ahead for 135 minutes, speaking slowly in complete paragraphs in a slang-free French that even I could understand. She smiled and bit her tongue when, in a final segment, the current education minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, talked over her and called her a liar.
Le Pen lost her cool only once, when Patrice Bessac, the Communist mayor of Montreuil, a heavily immigrant working-class town outside of Paris, asked her if she was really prepared, in the name of laïcité, to tear the veil off the head of one of his constituents, a Muslim woman whose son had been murdered by an anti-Islamic fanatic. “That question is ridiculous and beneath your level, Mr. Mayor,” Le Pen barked. (She was, in fact, committed to do just that. The defense of traditional French identity from the threat of Islam is the core of her appeal.)
Does it matter that France’s Donald Trump can demonize Muslims with a gracious smile instead of a vicious Twitter tirade? Politically it does: Le Pen has set out to detoxify the party she inherited from her crackpot anti-Semite of a father, and she seems to be doing it quite well. That makes her more far more dangerous to France than he was. Current polls indicate that she is still unlikely to be France’s next president, but it feels like a real possibility in a way that it never did with Jean-Marie Le Pen.
It’s hard to imagine that the French, who take reading and thinking very seriously, would elect a president as incoherent and as proudly philistine as Donald Trump. Le Pen is traditional in ways that Trump is not. Indeed, one of the reasons why it has been so hard to fully grasp the Trump phenomenon is that he represents a radical break on so many different levels at once. He is utterly unlike the presidents who came before him, Republican as well as Democratic, on the level of ideology, for he is neither left nor right; on culture, because he has managed to yoke together the gilded plutocracy and the working class; professionalism, because he views prior experience in government as a hindrance; and, for lack of a better word, cognition, because he views information itself as a plastic commodity to be manipulated to his own ends.
If Trump had a more or less conventional relationship to information — on the level, say, of a congenitally magical thinker like George W. Bush — he would still be a dreadful president, but he would not seem quite so dangerous. Democracies do not often engender political leaders who are nakedly cynical about the very idea of truth, if only because such brute nonchalance was thought to turn off voters. It is not only the president’s indifference to the separation of powers but also his contempt for rational discourse that makes him a genuine authoritarian threat. It is not clear how long a democracy can sustain itself when neither leaders nor voters believe in a robust exchange of ideas or even believe that such a thing is possible.
Most of the world’s illiberal democrats — Vladimir Putin, Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Hungary’s Viktor Orban — are, like Trump, cynical fabulists. (Kaczynski may be an outright lunatic.) Watching Marine Le Pen, however, I realized that one can have some parts of the package and not others. A President Le Pen would carry out an assault on a united Europe and on European values — but not on reason itself. I’m inclined to think that, because she seems to lack the Orwellian dimension of Trump and the other ultras, she poses less of a danger of authoritarianism. Or does that just show what a bang-up job of dédiabolisation she’s done?
The last few months have brought home to me something I had not fully recognized: Liberalism depends on mental habits as much as on political principles. A liberal culture, whatever politics it practices at a given moment, requires an acceptance of a common body of fact from which all may draw and of a means of debate available to all. That is why, in his essay “On Liberty,” John Stuart Mill puts so much emphasis on the need for citizens to expose themselves to contrary and even repugnant ideas. It is why, in The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper describes the open-ended inquiry practiced by scientists as the foundation of liberal societies.
Bad policies can be reversed. Incompetent administrations can be booted out of office. But our habits of thought, once corrupted, will prove very hard to rehabilitate. Here is the one great source of hope for those of us who fear Donald Trump: Nobody can doubt the threat.
Photo credit: SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP/Getty Images