Le Donald, and Western Democracy’s Populism Problem

Europeans may be gobsmacked by the phenomenon that is Donald Trump. But at home, they’re voting for dangerous politicians just like him.

<> on May 16, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa.
<> on May 16, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa.

The general consensus of commentators and reporters seems to be that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, fueled largely through outrageous statements about undocumented immigrants, personal attacks against journalists and respected party standard-bearers (see: John McCain), and reality television stardom, would quickly flame out, giving way to a more serious discussion between respectable candidates. Yet the latest polls show him solidly leading the GOP field and suggest he’d be competitive even in a general election.

In Trump, analysts see the ghosts of populist U.S. history past, from William Jennings Bryan to Ross Perot. His boasts about his personal wealth and status as a television celebrity, his espousal of the birtherism, and his unapologetic gusto seem to embody a classic American brashness. But to truly make sense of “The Donald,” we need to look abroad, to a deeper and more troublesome trend on the other side of the Atlantic.

The political figures that Trump most mirrors are European populists like Britain’s Nigel Farage of the U.K. Independence Party, Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, and Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s populist National Front. Indeed, Trump is part of a global phenomenon: the still-rising backlash against political leaders of all stripes, along with the media and cultural elites — in short, the establishment. Trump himself might, and likely will, fizzle out. But he has established himself as a force to be reckoned with, not just a clownish curiosity before the serious stuff starts. And his success thus far speaks to a worrisome distrust toward the political process.

Trump’s critics point to the vacuity of his policy prescriptions; they might hit the same wall as their European counterparts. But Trump, so far, has escaped attacks on his credibility because credibility isn’t the issue on which he’s running.

Like Le Pen and Farage, Trump’s No. 1 issue is immigration. He has surged to the top of the polls by highlighting the supposed fecklessness of mainstream political figures on the issue. Republicans such as Jeb Bush, Trump says, may talk tough on illegal immigration, but they don’t do anything about it. And their lack of action, in Trump’s mind, reveals the rot at the heart of the political system. It’s similar in France, where for decades, the National Front has placed “national preference,” or the promotion of French workers over migrants, at the center of its platform. Likewise, in the United Kingdom, Farage has branded the “establishment” as “shameful” and “racist” against Britons for rejecting his proposal to scrap racial discrimination laws. For all three, success is not about policy specifics but tapping into a sense of resentment over the loss of power.

Le Pen portrays both the French right and left as indistinguishable: products of the same self-selecting elite, sharing the same agenda, and cowing to the same supposed masters. Le Pen dismisses both the Socialist Party and the conservative Union for a Popular Movement as part of the same, rigged, system (the “UMPS,” as she puts it) that has mortgaged France’s future to corporations, Brussels, and foreign powers. That’s not a far cry from Trump’s boast in the GOP debate that politicians will do “whatever the hell you want them to do” when you fund them. (Of course: As Trump gleefully and emphatically acknowledged at the debate, he is the one buying them.)

Trump is also unafraid to wield the occasional insult, as with his constant invocation of the term “losers.” Across the pond, his firebrand cousins are similarly unafraid of slinging a bit of mud. In February 2010, Farage famously claimed that then-EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy had “the charisma of a damp rag.” Le Pen, meanwhile, frequently denounces the “disdain” and “arrogance” of the French elite. In another particularly crude instance, she criticized Qatar’s alleged influence within Parisian policy circles, branding France “the strumpet of paunchy emirs.” More poetic than The Donald, perhaps, but conveying the same rejection of political correctness.

Such attacks don’t fall on deaf ears. Polls show that the U.S. public’s trust in their political leaders to “handle domestic and international problems” is at historic lows. In France, polls this year show a similar trend, with 85 percent of people believing that political leaders “are not preoccupied” with their problems and 61 percent saying that democracy does not work very well. These concerns are not without their merits. Scholars have raised the alarm over the distorting influence of dark money on American politics. But rather than offering policy prescriptions to address these imbalances, Trumpian populism prefers to exploit fear and distrust to further a divisive agenda.

And then there’s the media. The Donald is adept at targeting journalists, as he showed in his testy exchanges and subsequent blow up with debate moderator Megyn Kelly and others in the media. Le Pen, too, refuses to back down from personal attacks. In an interview in May 2014, she lashed out at a television host for attending Sciences Po, the elite school attended by many of France’s aspiring politicians and journalists. After the show, her chief of staff allegedly promised that this was “only the start” and that the National Front would go after other journalists to reveal the collusion between the media and the elite. It’s not unlike Trump counsel Michael Cohen warning a Daily Beast reporter to “tread very fucking lightly” for reporting on allegations against the candidate of marital rape. In Britain, Farage has escalated the populists’ war on the media elite, pledging to cut public funding for the BBC if he came to power.

Here, too, the gang may be playing on some real fears. In 2014, a Gallup poll showed trust in the media in the United States at all-time low, with only 40 percent of the general public expressing confidence in the media’s ability to report “the news fully, accurately, and fairly.” Among Republicans, the number drops to 27 percent.

Perhaps the most striking commonality between Trump and European populists is the allusions to the loss of national identity, a trope in continental politics for decades. Now, it seems, this theme has come to the United States. Trump’s “we don’t win anymore” and rejection of birthright citizenship — “Our country is going to hell,” he told Bill O’Reilly in a Fox News interview on Aug. 18 — sound like an American version of the Euro-declinist notion that the people simply lost control. In Trump’s world, the loss of control over America’s borders serves as a kind of stand-in for the loss of national identity, even a sense of national purpose. This idea of decline is particularly acute in European debates, with political leaders lamenting the loss of identity to Brussels bureaucrats, immigrants, or American imperialism.

Amid all this, American commentators on the right have argued strenuously that Trump “isn’t a conservative,” hoping that GOP voters might wake up to the fact and turn to a more traditional candidate. In his praise of single-payer health care, Planned Parenthood, and his denunciations of free trade, Trump follows in the footsteps of Le Pen and other European populists, who claim that the traditional left-right axis, on economics and moral values, is outmoded. Indeed, in terms of policy, Le Pen offers a grab bag from across the spectrum. She combines vigorous anti-immigration policies with protectionist economics, while advocating for a higher minimum wage and a lower retirement age. She is less vocal in her opposition to gay marriage than the center-right Union for a Popular Movement. And she drapes her policy proposals in fierce anti-trade, anti-Europe, and anti-globalization rhetoric that would make even the harshest activists blush.

In the past, the constitutional structure of the United States, as well as the democratic traditions of the American people, have shown a remarkable resilience against populist groundswells. Federalism, the two-party system, and the separation of powers have managed both to channel and tame political protest, while integrating it into the traditional party system. With two candidates left after the primaries (most of the time), the most electable, digestible candidates end up making the cut — then veering to the middle. Upstart candidates usually fall as quickly as they rise. But Trump’s success, even if short-lived, underscores troubling trends about the level of distrust voters express for the political process and more generally the pillars of democratic institutions.

Le Pen, Wilders, Farage, and their firebrand brethren, meanwhile, are permanent, nagging fixtures on the European political landscape. This new populism is no mere passing fancy. In Europe, the political class has been unable to deal with questions surrounding rapid economic transformations, large-scale immigration, and the very endurance of national identity. If they have dealt with them, they have usually done so by insisting they are the product of “irrational fears,” armed with statistics to prove it. This has done little to temper the sense among a growing number of Europeans that the game is rigged against them.

The same problems afflicting Europe are present in the United States, albeit in attenuated form. And yet, the rise of Trump, however ridiculous and offensive he is, has proved that the United States is far from immune against the problems that European populists have tapped into but failed to address. They show a troubling distrust in the traditional process, elected officials, and the media — the very pillars of democracy.

Photo credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images News

Correction, Aug. 21, 2015: Donald Trump commented to Fox’s Bill O’Reilly that “our country is going to hell” on Tuesday, Aug. 18. A previous version of this article said that he made the comment on Aug. 19.

Benjamin Haddad is the director of the Future Europe Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Le Paradis Perdu: l’Amérique de Trump et la fin des illusions européennes.

Neil Rogachevsky teaches politics at Yeshiva University.

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