Trump, le Pen, Farage and democracy

An excellent piece argues that the surge in support for Trump is the American version of Marine le Pen or Wilders.

It begins “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 author correctly argues that “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”.

Yet this backlash is partly of the making of the establishment who for too long have been held unaccountable. They have produced ever more “technical” solutions that have attempted to remove politics, and therefore democracy, from society. It is doubtful how knowing they were in this but now the backlash has occurred with people feeling increasingly disenchanted and disconnected from politics. If nothing is done than this disconnect will only worsen with unknown and perhaps dangerous consequences.

The writer goes on to make the point “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”.

He goes on to argue that “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”.

He mentions “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”.

Worryingly he writes that “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”.

He end “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”.

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