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Comparing Trump and Le Pen in a Populist West

The World Policy blog is hosting a series of articles featuring global perspectives on the U.S. presidential election, the effects of which extend beyond partisanship and beyond our borders. Read previous articles from TurkeyMexico, and Israel. Stay tuned for more commentary from around the world!

By Sophie des Beauvais

“If I were American, I would vote for Donald Trump … but may God protect him!” former leader of France’s National Front Jean-Marie Le Pen wrote on Twitter in February 2016. For decades, American and European right-wing parties carefully avoided interacting, as they barely shared anything in common. Most Europeans viewed American elections as complicated, with candidates debating on subjects no longer considered relevant on the other side of the Atlantic, like gun control or the death penalty. However, in 2016, the two continents have been closer politically than in any recent election year, and countries like France are paying close attention to the American elections, fearing a prophecy on of their own fate.

The French presidential campaign, which started this summer, sparked a new wave of international controversies. While Donald Trump plans to “suspend immigration from areas of the world when there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe, or our allies,” 31 French mayors banned burkinis because of alleged risks of public unrest.

Indeed, elections on both continents are fueled by fear of uncontrolled immigration that would lead to insecurity, crime, mass unemployment, and a demographic shift. Trump’s wall project is reminiscent of “Le grand remplacement,” a French populist conspiracy theory that accused traditional political elites of supporting a massive immigration that would replace the white Catholic French population.

Olivier Piton, lawyer and author of La Nouvelle Révolution Américaine, argues there is a Europeanization of American politics. Instead of addressing typical American campaign issues, Trump focuses on European populists’ favorite topics: economic and leadership decline, outdated traditional elites, and the threat of immigration. Some of his main positions sound more European than American, including “winning the global competition,” and “a nation without borders is not a nation.”

Piton argues that countries across the West are now facing similar social and economic challenges, and the public’s feeling that traditional elites haven’t resolved them explains why a new kind of leader has emerged on the political scene. A growing distrust of political and financial elites has allowed candidates like Trump and Bernie Sanders in the U.S. or Marine Le Pen in France—who accuse their opponents of falsely promising that more globalization would lead to increased economic prosperity—to become credible political leaders. The French National Front, currently led by Marine Le Pen, has been accusing Brussels for years of being responsible for the current economic turmoil, and European Union politicians of taking advantage of a broken political system. Trump himself has proposed to “remove bureaucrats who only know to kill jobs,” has accused Washington politicians of having flet China off the hook.”

Though there are similarities between Trump and European populists, the former emerged from unresolved U.S. social issues such as “social inequalities, a long history of racism and fear of a demographic turnover, and the democratic perversion of its politics,” Piton says. On the other hand, Marine Le Pen has a different style and set of ideas, as she notably emerged due to France’s fear of decline, fear of losing its cultural heritage, and fear of losing its world power status.

Differentiating him from his European counterparts, Trump doesn’t directly address the working-class, and there’s no equivalent of European social-xenophobic discourse in the U.S. Unlike Marine Le Pen and most European far-right leaders, Trump doesn’t have his own movement, or even a political party that fully backs his policies. European far-right movements and leaders managed to remain anti-system by fully integrating into the system and playing by its rules: most have their own parties and hold elected positions. Jean-Marie Le Pen is a deputy in the European parliament; Austrian Norbert Hofer, member of the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria, is third president of the Austrian National Council; and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban—president of the national conservative Fidesz party—was appointed to his position for the first time at only 35 years-old.

Trump is also part of a larger phenomenon also embodied by Sanders, who could be a typical voice of the traditional European left. These candidates confront traditional elites by offering alternative frameworks and analyses, and don’t fit in a two-party system. In this way, Trump’s political career is close to the business-friendly and liberal French Minister of the Economy and former banker Emmanuel Macron, who resigned in August, to run for president under his movement En Marche, created a few months earlier. With no backing, no election electoral experience, and feeling comfortable as a liberal, Macron is unprecedented in the French political landscape. Like Trump, who was highly criticized by the Republican establishment, Macron was accused of not being a real socialist and was seen as a fraud by his peers until he finally gave up his membership in the Socialist Party.

Trump is neither Jean-Marie Le Pen nor Marine Le Pen. He is not only the American version of a new wave of populism, but also part of a new class of Western political leaders who fill the breaches of political systems that failed to renew themselves or adapt to the challenges created by the latest wave of globalization. These candidates represent a political alternative, but the fact that the most popular among them are populists is concerning. Candidates like Trump promise to give the power back to the people but are indeed the first step toward the predicted Tocquevillian “tyranny of the majority.”

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Sophie des Beauvais is a former editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Michael Vadon]

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