It was only a matter of time before the obvious comparison between Donald Trump and France’s Marine Le Pen was drawn. With Trump’s continued success in the polls leading to the Republican 2016 presidential primary election, even the American press has gotten in on the game. However, at its core, the juxtaposition is flawed.
Trump has nowhere near the intelligence, credentials or political chops of Le Pen. Nor does he have the family baggage. (Among other things, Marine Le Pen’s father and predecessor as head of the Front National party, Jean-Marie, wore his racism as a public badge of honor and was convicted of holocaust denial.) Even the characteristic that, leaving aside racially-charged discourse, most seems to bring together the two public figures—their seemingly unabashed willingness to speak their minds—is in fact a further indicator of their difference: thus far in his campaign, Trump has been brash and eager to give unfiltered, off-the-cuff speeches (though often retroactively retracing his steps), while Le Pen’s success as a politician and a strategist is in part due to her uncanny ability to make vague statements that sound grand and always patriotic, but are in fact cunningly calculated to elicit the broadest possible appeal by speaking to her audience on several levels. When she is in her best form, Le Pen allows her supporters to infer her support of their most radical views, while leaving her opponents hard pressed to find concrete statements to attack. Trump, on the other hand, has all the subtlety of an enormous tank.
It is thanks to this agility and cunning use of rhetorical techniques (which Le Monde recently pointed out include posting from a pseudonymous Twitter account to support her official efforts) that, unlike her father before her, Marine Le Pen manages to stay relatively out of trouble with those not on the far right. It is also an important component of what makes her so dangerous. At the other end of the spectrum and for all its Hollywood-worthy grandiosity, Trump’s outspokenness is not theater strictly speaking: what you see is what you get. This disregard for decorum, supported by nearly-unbelievable narcissism, is currently playing to his favor because the general election is so distant, and because the media have been offered direct access to a bigger-than-life spectacle that they simply cannot resist. Even Trump’s frequent back-peddling and revisionist statements are an advantage, further placing him directly in the spotlight. Still, it will inevitably become clear in the long run that Trump doesn’t exactly know where he stands on many issues, that his claims are not supported by any in-depth knowledge of policy, and that he has contradicted himself more times than even the most conscientious journalists have realized.
That said, for all their sensationalism, the media on the left and the right are correct to portray Trump as a large, blinking danger signal. His popularity is not due entirely to his unique hair or his ability to provide an unpredictable, entertaining one-man show; it is also indicative of a genuine American malaise—a state of generalized high anxiety that is on the ascent. On the left, Trump’s popularity is clearly indicative of the very difficult road ahead for Hillary Clinton (who should be, but isn’t, effortlessly reducing this opponent to smithereens when pitted against him in a two-way match), while on the right, it is serving to further radicalize the Republican Party. Looking beyond the bi-partisan landscape, the success of this kind of voice is obviously indicative of a rejection of mainstream politics, but it also reveals a deeper social problem that is best explained by a loss of idealism. Whereas the broad messages of Barack Obama’s campaigns were about hope, Trump embodies unapologetic selfishness taken to the extreme: Trump has managed to become far more appealing—and palatable to a wider range of voters—than in his previous attempt to run for the presidency, while proudly representing the most privileged 0.1% of Americans. It is as if Trump has stumbled on a golden formula by renouncing the causes that sounded like smart political maneuvers intended to distance himself from the ultra-rich, such as supporting universal healthcare, in favor of speaking from his gut instead. And his gut tells him to be entirely unashamed of how he amassed his fortune and what this means for the country as a whole. (His recent rampages against hedge fund managers and Wall Street sound good, but, if examined more closely and compared to certain of Trump’s practices in urban development, will become difficult to sustain.) The fact that this particular brand of American success has been so appealing is frightening because it reduces the American dream to one goal (financial success), while casting aside the many other ideals that have made this country great—including society’s role to support those less fortunate and thus provide the very ability for someone at the very bottom to rise.
As analysts on the left and the right struggle to explain the staying strength of Trump’s popularity, it has become clear that, in large part, Trump has lucked out in terms of his campaign’s timing: the country is in a crisis that it has trouble defining—unemployment is not at an all-time high, the country is not in a recession, yet the pursuit of happiness for average Americans seems to have been fruitless—and for which the stump speeches of seasoned politicians ring particularly hollow. This sentiment is reflective of a very real contradiction: although the economy is on an upswing as Obama prepares to leave office, the disparities between rich and poor are greater than ever. Frustrated by this phenomenon and conscious of an inability to do anything about it, instead of vilifying Trump as might be expected, a segment of the population is instead rallying behind him. Beyond merely being an expression of its frustration, this trend exposes the anger of a rising percentage of Americans against what it believes is a broken democracy that may not be worth working to save: as in Trump’s real estate projects that raze what stands in their way to build happy outcomes for those with the muscle to procure it, there is a sentiment that starting afresh may be easier and more effective than attempting to fix our problems. Figures of fringe politics like Trump stoke this kind of anger by offering an alternative to the patient, socially-fairer—but slow-moving and admittedly sometimes ineffective—approach of an Obama; they conjure up a version of the future in which political and economic selfishness are consequence-free, absurdly simplistic solutions magically work, and the mirage of instant success shines more brightly than the holy grail.
Image: Matthew Gordon