Is this the new politics?

Rise of Le Pen and Trump prompts uncomfortable questions

November 24, 2016 23:22

Was it like this 80 or 90 years ago? Are we living through an epoch similar to that time when fascists swept to power in Italy and Germany and frequently shaped politics in the United States and Britain (although we would prefer to forget that fact)?

When I reported from Viktor Orbán's Hungary last year on resurgent antisemitism I asked myself the question and answered that it was a local situation, nothing to worry about.

But now the rise and rise of the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, Donald Trump, and Marine Le Pen, leader of France's surging National Front, has me asking the question in earnest.

That a significant number of people in America and France, in a time of economic insecurity, should support these politicians does not surprise me. But it is the inability of established politicians to counter Trump and Le Pen, and the unwillingness of the media to report and analyse effectively what motivates their voters that has me asking.

Is there anything more than coincidence of timing that links the success of Trump and Le Pen? They share a few background traits. Both had a considerable head start in public life: Trump through inheriting a thriving real estate empire; Le Pen, via her father's leadership of the National Front. Neither is really "of the people" but both have an undoubted talent to channel "populist" feeling into their rhetoric.

But after that it is hard to see what else they have in common beyond nativism and a willingness to rewrite the rules of polite political discourse in their desire to demonise immigrants and Muslims.

Le Pen is a formidably intelligent, tough political operator. She has done much hard work to detoxify the National Front - including throwing her Holocaust-denying father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, out of the party. In so doing she has opened new seams of voters for the NF to mine.

She understands the legislative mechanisms of France and the EU and her critique of both is reaching an audience that widens by the day.

Trump, on the other hand, has no practical experience of party politics or running a political organisation. His first campaign adviser quit in the summer because of his tendency to let his mouth speak before his brain has formulated the thought.

Today Trump's advisers include an assortment of people, from a former regional head of Aipac to a Tea Party spokesman.

Trump has a history of threatening to run for president, going back to 1988. The reason so many American pundits dismissed him earlier this year is that his previous bids seemed to be a form of publicity for his casino empire or the reality television shows he starred in.

So, Le Pen is a professional politician and Trump seems to be a professional self-promoter.

If the two have little in common personally they - and their societies - have one big thing in common.

The working- and lower-middle classes in the US and France have borne the brunt of three and a half decades of de-industrialisation, globalisation and the problems of assimilating a new generation of immigration. Over the same, long period, the established political parties in both countries - right and left - have been unable to address their deepening grievances, if they paid attention to them at all. The pair have been able to tap into the discontent of these ignored people in their respective countries.

The way the press writes about Trump and Le Pen shares a kind of disbelief, head-in-the-sand, view. Because journalism these days is overly reliant on polling to give a picture of the world, many in the mainstream media are consoling themselves with numbers.

Pundit Nate Silver, now running his own website, FiveThirtyEight, noted last month: "Right now, he [Trump] has 25 to 30 per cent of the vote in polls among the roughly 25 per cent of Americans who identify as Republican. (That's something like six to eight per cent of the electorate overall, or about the same share of people who think the Apollo moon landings were faked.)"

In his write-up of the local elections in France, the Independent's John Lichfield noted the National Front had unprecedentedly good results, gaining 28 per cent of the votes - but turnout was under 50 per cent. Le Pen was still a long way from victory in the 2017 presidential election. According to Lichfield, "Sixty per cent of the French electorate still insists that it will never vote FN in any circumstances."

But things change. Another terrorist outrage or shock to the global economy and how many of those 60 per cent will be reconsidering their position?

In the last week, reading and watching the news reports about Trump and Le Pen, I found myself thinking about my father and Professor Eric Hobsbawm, who helped me early in my research for my book on Jewish emancipation. They were men who were reflective about their experiences living through the world's slide to fascism in the 1930s. They would have been able to answer my questions about what this moment has in common with events of nearly a century ago.

Did fascism insinuate itself into power through a combination of rhetorical shock and inept leadership of established political parties? Or was it a popular, pro-active choice made by the citizens of Italy and Germany?

Are Le Pen and Trump true fascists or simply nativist racists? Or are they just self-aggrandisers with an eye on the main chance? Does their demonising of Muslims remind you of the demonising of Jews back then?

Is this really the return of fascism? Or something merely unpleasant but less threatening? And did you ever think "it" could happen again?

Michael Goldfarb is a journalist and author

November 24, 2016 23:22

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