Talking Points Memo editor John Judis had a few thoughts on the what the results of the French election mean in a wider context (“Macron’s rout of Le Pen shows how Trump is hurting Rightwing Populists,” Talking Points Memo, 5/7/2017):
After Trump’s upset victory in November, the European parties and politicians that were politically close to him expected to get a boost, but exactly the opposite has happened.
Judis gives a few examples to make his case. In Austria:
[L]ast May, Green Party candidate Alexander Van den Bellen edged populist right candidate Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party by .4 percent. A court heeded a Freedom Party protest and threw out the results and called for a new election. In December, in the wake of both Brexit and Trump’s victory, Van den Bellen easily defeated Hofer by 53.3 to 46.7 percent.
[T]he Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party, which targeted immigrants and asylum-seekers, had seen its popularity grow in the wake of the Cologne New Year’s Eve riot… But in subsequent elections, it has fallen flat, while the Christian Democrats, identified with German Chancellor’s Angela Merkel’s refusal to heed Trump’s bullying, has seen its vote rise. In March regional elections in Saarland in southwest Germany, Merkel’s party won 40.2 percent (up from 35.2 percent in 2012), while the AfD, which had previously been running as high as 16 percent in national polls, won only 6.2 percent.
But perhaps the most telling result was in the Dutch elections March 15. For 18 months, Geert Wilders of the Party of Freedom had led all the parties in the polls. Wilders had expected to benefit from Trump’s victory, which he had celebrated as a “Patriotic Spring…” But Wilders got only 13.1 percent of the vote, well behind center-right Mark Rutte’s People’s Party, which got 21.3 percent.
And here’s Judis’s theory:
Why didn’t Trump and Brexit provide a bounce for these politicians? One factor is that Trump, with his strident dismissal of NATO and the European Union, his jibes against Merkel and Germany, his near-endorsement of Le Pen, united West Europeans the same way that George W. Bush did in 2003. Another factor, important in France, was that Trump’s blustering know-nothingness seems to have frightened and offended voters. In her debate with Macron on election eve, Le Pen’s own harsh rhetoric, combined with her refusal to get into details about her program, probably reinforced the impression that she was a French version of Trump, leading to a sharp drop in her polling numbers prior to the election.
Undoubtedly there is some truth to this. By associating Le Pen with Trump’s slovenliness, a certain faction of French voters was sure to be turned off. But I think there are a few problems with Judis’s theory that Trump himself has been a kind of inoculating force against the rightwing populism around the world that he’s supposed to represent.
One is that Trump doesn’t represent rightwing populism in the sense that it’s usually talked about—or at least he’s only interested in full-throatedly adopting the more extreme of traditional Republican positions while disregarding the rest. He has no plan to undertake a grand infrastructure project that would benefit everyday Americans, and his and Paul Ryan’s AHCA bill demonstrates his complete disregard of the working middle class and poor. That’s not the kind of working-class-hero mawishness that Steve Bannon supposedly endorses as an evil Bruce Springsteen. Not only that, but Europe’s relationship to fascism and rightwing nationalism is a lot stronger than it is in America. All of the countries Judis mentions either had fascist regimes rise from within them at one point or were occupied by them. As a result, Europeans are keener to recognize it than regular Americans, many of whom wouldn’t be able to recognize a fascist so long as he was wrapped in the American flag. Besides, the referendum in Turkey (however fair or not) is ample evidence that slow-moving rightwing coups still exist in powerful ways.
Another is that all those countries have something fundamentally different from America: a true multiparty parliamentary system. In the French election, especially, the candidates and their parties that were eliminated after the first round of voting largely backed and endorsed Emmanuel Macron, leaving Le Pen and her party isolated. Even the traditional conservative party in France urged its supporters to vote for Macron. This is also true in Austria, where Norbert Hofer soundly won the first round of voting over Alexander Van den Bellen. But again, the disparate parties united behind Van den Bellen (however enthusiastically or begrudgingly, I don’t know) to defeat the far-right.
This is not true in America, where we have a two-party system with other, smaller parties designed to siphon votes from either major party as protest votes. Unlike in France and Austria and elsewhere, where the political establishments recognized and acted against a severe rightwing threat, in America we saw one of the major two parties give the nomination to Donald Trump after he won the primaries and nearly all of its major members endorse him. Also, the smaller parties (the Libertarian and Green parties) did not encourage their voters to rally behind Clinton in order to defeat Trump—instead, they gleefully tried to recruit as many voters as they could, seeing the general unpopularity of each major candidate as a boon to their own “cause.” Jill Stein, for example, was always more than happy to either equate Trump and Clinton or straight-up say that Clinton was far more dangerous than Trump. (The one exception was Bill Weld, the vice presidential candidate for the Libertarian party, who more or less endorsed Clinton before the election.
The point being that in Europe, there were coalitions ready to rebuke a popular rightwing rising. In America, one half of American political power got behind that rightwing tide and haven’t looked back. Republicans looked fascism in the eye and decided they’d rather try to get as much power as possible than attempt to forestall a nationalist movement that will swallow them whole before they can sufficiently harness control of it.