Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Le Pen's Warning for America
She's now lost three times. It can still happen here.
There’s a clear comfort that can be taken in the outcome of the French presidential election. For the second time, Emmanuel Macron easily dispatched with Marine Le Pen, the doyenne of the French far right. For the third time overall, Le Pen lost. Given the march of revanchist forces across America and Europe, the repudiation of Le Pen’s National Rally was a victory for the liberal internationalist order, which is feeling emboldened of late as Ukraine continues to struggle heroically against the Russian forces invading their country.
Le Pen, though, improved on her performance from four years ago, breaking 40 percent and easily surpassing the two parties that traditionally dominated French politics, the Socialists and the Republicans. She made inroads with younger French voters and has forced Macron, a technocratic centrist, to take a harsher approach to the inflow of migrants into France. He has joined in the denunciation of American-infused liberal identity politics. Macron, in some sense, has triangulated to cut off Le Pen from growing her coalition further. It helps, too, that her rebrand can only go so far; Nationally Rally, formerly the National Front, was the party that once belonged to Le Pen’s father, a rabid anti-Semite. The National Front’s fascist roots will always limit, to some extent, Le Pen’s appeal. Like clockwork, it seems, enough French voters will unite to block her from power.
Given Macron’s healthy victory—a landslide, certainly, by American political standards—it may seem there is little Le Pen has to teach the right-wing Republicans here. Even Donald Trump, in his worst effort, secured 46 percent of the vote. The liberal triumphalist vision here is easy enough to see. And the French system does what the America’s cannot: keep a minority party from attaining power.
All of that, however, cannot still the dark churn in both electorates. Le Pen’s support is stronger than ever and she is lining up more of the youth. In America, the Republican Party is struggling with the young, but eating into constituencies, like the Latino and Asian working-classes, that regularly backed Democrats in the past. For a Democratic Party on the defensive, staring down a challenging midterm and the re-election of a president who will be 81 on Election Day 2024, the future seems to darken by the day. Thirteen years ago, when Barack Obama was in his first year as president, the Democrats boasted as many as 60 senators in their caucus. Remarkably, three out of the four senators from the Dakotas were Democrats then. So were both senators from Arkansas, West Virginia, and Montana. Iowa, Louisiana, and Indiana had Democratic senators. Today, all send Republicans to the Senate with the exception of West Virginia and Montana, where Joe Manchin and Jon Tester defy the political physics of their home states. In two years, when another Republican presidential candidate—Trump, Ron DeSantis, or anyone else—carries the states, Manchin and Tester’s careers will probably be over.
This story is stale by now but worth a degree of repetition. The Democratic brand is toxic in rural areas and rural states are over-represented in the Senate. The liberal wonk of 2009 didn’t care about this when Montana and South Dakota were Democratic bastions. In 2022, this is decried as the stuff of a broken republic, and maybe it is. America would be better off with a parliamentary system like France’s or Canada’s, preferably proportional. Senators weren’t even directly elected until the twentieth century. There are few good arguments for keeping such a body around. The liberal think pieces have a point.
The think pieces, of course, don’t govern—and never will. Democrats didn’t win enough Senate seats in the 2020 elections to have the votes needed to give statehood to D.C., Puerto Rico, or Guam, creating a bulwark against the rural states the Republican Party will control indefinitely. While 2016 still looms in the liberal’s mind as the pivot point toward dystopia, 2020 was disastrous in its own way. An enormous anti-Trump vote and the highest turnout in modern history resulted in Democrats losing ground in the House and barely retaking the Senate and the White House. Biden was the anti-Obama, an elderly political sylph devoid of great charisma or vision. He won because enough Democrats and independents wanted Trump to disappear. Trump left the White House, but he hasn’t vanished. He rages from Mar-a-Lago and calls the shots like the demented party boss that he is.
Many pundits predicted Trump in 2016 would destroy the Republican Party. Not only did the failed businessman and reality TV star not obliterate the GOP, he reoriented it toward a more viable future. Trump himself was too unhinged to deeply understand this or capitalize on what he had uncovered. Yet his campaigns, in both 2016 and 2020, seemed to grasp what Romney 2012 and McCain 2008 never could: plutocratic politics is a loser. Trump, the faux-billionaire, thundered against NATO, free-trade agreements, and vowed to safeguard Social Security and Medicare. He dumped on Jeb Bush for supporting the Iraq War. Trump’s populism was predictably hollow—he governed, mostly, as a replacement-level Republican, rubberstamping the Ryan-McConnell tax bill and appointing the right-wing judges sent up to him by the Federalist Society—but he played it up enough to slowly incubate a new species of Republican. He fronted his politics with insidious culture war rabble and anti-immigrant rhetoric that was toned down slightly for his re-election. In 2020, he grew his support sizably with working-class Latinos, particularly on the Texas border, and increased his margins with Black and Asian voters. Democrats assumed, wrongly, their Latino base—those who vote—cared more about liberalizing immigration policy than education and the economy. Latino citizen voters don’t necessarily feel great solidarity with the undocumented.
Meanwhile, today’s Republican is far more comfortable bashing large corporations than any in recent times. Ron DeSantis wars with “woke” Disney, so sacred and powerful in Florida that its special tax district went unchallenged, by Republicans and Democrats alike, for more than a half century. Amazon, Facebook, Nike—no mega-corporation, beyond perhaps Walmart, is safe from Republican wrath. It must be stressed that a lot of this will probably amount to noise and little else once Republicans seize power again. Genuine anti-monopolists and those who question corporate dominance beyond shrill culture war grievance are very hard to find in today’s GOP. More crucially, almost none of them are interested in harnessing the federal government’s leverage over these corporations to get better outcomes for workers. Complaints about Jeff Bezos never bleed into backing unionization efforts at Amazon.
This is where the aforementioned Le Pen departs from the American Republican Party. Le Pen’s economic platform, proffered within the confines of a nation with a much more generous welfare state, swerved at times to the left of Macron’s. Le Pen battled Macron over his one-time proposal to raise the age when French citizens receive their full pensions. She promised tax cuts for companies that raised salaries by 10 percent for employees who earned up to three times France’s minimum wage. She wanted young couples to have access to interest-free housing loans.
It is right to question how genuine Le Pen was, considering she had aggressively rebranded ahead of a third presidential bid. The neo-fascist could have been easily lurking within. France has struggled more than the United States at the task of integration and building, over time, a pluralistic republic. The American Muslim is less alienated than the French Muslim. For all its faults, America’s First Amendment and tolerance of religious diversity—and willingness to not battle so doggedly to safeguard its de facto national language—guarantees a more peaceful, multiracial future. France, comparatively, is a tinderbox.
Democrats still have plenty to fear from the Republicans who learn from Le Pen’s example. Her third try for the presidency was the least incendiary of the three. The canniest Republicans are hoping that Trump himself can recede from the scene while the lessons from his two presidential campaigns can be applied to stable, smarter candidates. A Republican who retains a degree of social conservatism while sharpening the edges of Trumpian populism—even calling for taxes on the wealthy or a way for younger people to buy Medicare coverage—could be a fierce electoral force. Politically, this would be dismal, locking progressives out of power while enabling a new generation of charlatans, the J.D. Vances and their ilk, to seize control of the discourse. But they do get it. Few Americans like the Republican economic agenda on its face. They want their social safety net protected. They want their public schools funded. They want the rich to pay more in taxes. The Republican who can eschew the Club for Growth mantras in full while retaining some swill of the culture war could find new electoral possibilities. With their natural Electoral College and Senate advantage, Republicans only need to field presidential candidates who win 48 percent of the vote or so to control all levers of federal power.
Democrats must hope men like Rick Scott, the Florida senator who heads the Republican Senate’s campaign arm, become the face of the party. Scott has pitched an 11-point plan that would impose income taxes on more than half of Americans and sunset both Social Security and Medicare. Similar unforced errors made minor gods out of the Obama 2012 staff, who successfully portrayed Romney, a multimillionaire, as feckless and aloof, the man of car garages, highly expensive haircuts, and ramblings about the 47 percent. The Obama re-election campaign has been too lionized because Romney made it easy for them. A fiscally conservative former Massachusetts governor was an ill fit for what the Republican Party was transforming into, as was McCain, who held increasingly unpopular foreign policy views and cultivated a maverick reputation that meant more, probably, to members of the press than rank-and-file voters. Trump paid no penalty for mocking McCain’s history as a prisoner of war. The press had to be outraged on behalf of the Republican voter.
Beyond Scott, it’s possible Republicans can squander their advantage elsewhere. The adherence to QAnon, the talk of “groomers” and election theft, is alienating to moderate and swing voters. The drive to abolish abortion in almost every red state could backfire badly, as could any Supreme Court decision gutting Roe v. Wade. The environment for 2022 is so dismal for Democrats that the GOP will likely get away with this degree of insanity, able to point to surging gas and food prices while sidelining the fringe elements of the party. If Biden’s team had done a better job of picking a talented politician as vice president to run in his stead in 2024, the Democrats would have had less of a predicament. Kamala Harris, one of the worst 2020 candidates, so deficient she had to drop out of the campaign before reaching the Iowa caucuses, is not the standard bearer many Americans are hungering for. At this point, Democrats would be better off plodding ahead with Biden or acceding to an open primary, allowing other talents to compete with Harris.
It wasn’t long ago the future seemed to belong to Democrats. In the late 2000s, demographics was destiny, and in 2016, Obama was sure to pass the baton off to Hillary Clinton who was sure to govern, like Obama did, with large Democratic majorities. The Electoral College could only horrify so much if the Blue Wall held it all up. Few party loyalists have any illusions about the future today, though they seem mostly helpless over what to do about it. The leftists have been sidelined and the centrists putter along, increasingly terrified of making any kind of difference before power slips through their fingers.
What’s at stake is not so much the future of democracy as the future of a competent, aspirational federal government that can change the lives of millions of Americans for the better. The New Yorker’s David Remnick, in a piece celebrating the viral speech of a Michigan state senator, sounded the familiar lament of the prestige left-liberal, declaring the ascendance of DeSantis or someone Trump-like to the presidency will not only imperil democracy but possibly erase it. The future is much more banal than that. Another Republican presidency will gum up the works of bureaucracy, gut the EPA again, rush through more right-wing judges, and frustrate the ambitions of those who want to see America build a genuine welfare state. This can be terrible without being fascism. And it’s not as if Republicans will have to keep trying to steal national elections. Their Electoral College edge, its own version of historical theft, might be enough.