The past 100 days have confirmed the obvious fact that President Trump is comprehensively unfit to hold public office. This reality is privately acknowledged among political and policy professionals in both parties–including by many who serve within the Trump administration itself. It’s still hard to believe that we elected a grifting, alt-right demagogue to our highest national office. I certainly presumed America was better than that, that the traditional guardrails of our political system would protect us. Apparently, we are not, and these guardrails turned out to be weaker than we thought.
France faced a rather similar dilemma heading into this week’s election. French political leaders’ handling of this challenge provides an aching reminder of what might have been.
The French elimination round produced a runoff between cosmopolitan, arguably neoliberal pro-EU candidate Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, a fiery right-wing populist. Le Pen is the politically-savvy inheritor of her father’s National Front. Although she denies French complicity in the Holocaust, Le Pen departs from her father’s anti-Semitic appeals to mainly focus her own demagoguery against Muslim immigrants. Le Pen enjoyed President Trump’s tacit endorsement, as he called her the “strongest candidate” in confronting terrorism.
Mainstream French socialists and conservatives were bitterly disappointedy. Conservative François Fillon imploded in scandal. He was eliminated with less than 20 percent of the vote. Socialist Benoît Hamon did even worse, drawing only 7 percent of the vote.
Nonetheless, both French conservatives and French socialists endorsed Mr. Macron. That’s not easy for them to do. Some grassroots voters on both right and left are drawn to Ms. Le Pen’s opposition to the EU and her white ethno-nationalist message. Macron is a cosmopolitan liberal who is a favorite of Obama’s. He’s a former investment banker–with a Rothschild connection, yet–and a firm advocate of the European Union. Despite all this, a representative of Fillon’s conservative party, said: “We’ve got to rally behind Emmanuel Macron.” The socialist Hamon, was more blunt: “I distinguish between a political adversary and an enemy of the Republic.” Ironically, parties further left seem more begrudging. Left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon is refusing to call on his supporters to vote for Macron.
Defenders of the French Republic are closing ranks to defeat an authoritarian populist threat to pluralist democracy. That’s what putting country before party actually looks like. Some American Republicans such as John Kasich behaved in a similar spirit. Most have not. Most will not, at least not before President Trump’s poll numbers tank among core Republican voters.
Democrats are now asking hard questions to explore how Hillary Clinton stumbled, how the Democratic coalition failed to sufficiently mobilize behind her, to enable the Trump victory. These painful postmortems are important and necessary. But it’s worth noting something obvious that is easily overlooked: Those most at fault for Trump’s victory are not Clinton or Sanders campaign officials, supporters, or voters. The main culprits don’t even include FBI Director Comey, whose irresponsible and disastrous 11th-hour intercession likely tipped the election. Rather, the main culprits were Republicans who actually nominated, vouched for, or supported a grifting white ethno-nationalist demagogue in the general election.
Had Paul Ryan endorsed Hillary Clinton, she would have won Wisconsin and Michigan. Had Marco Rubio endorsed Hillary Clinton, she would have won Florida and the presidency.
A Clinton presidency would have been difficult. Hillary Clinton would have faced bitter and united opposition among Republicans. The nation would likely now be experiencing even deeper partisan gridlock than we witnessed in the Obama years. We would not be the country that elected an erratic figure who can’t be trusted in an international crisis, who openly disparages immigrants and minority groups, whose opaque personal finances invite serious corruption, whose comments and ties to unfriendly governments call our deepest alliances into question,
Partisan polarization was central to this failure of American democracy. Polarization makes placing country before party more important than it’s ever been. Unfortunately, polarization also makes this stance more unthinkable. In a polarized America where Vladimir Putin has at times outpolls Barack Obama among core Republicans, GOP leaders’ ambivalence and inaction enabled his victory. These leaders knew from the jump precisely who Donald Trump was, why it was unacceptable for him to spread false rumors about President Obama’s birth certificate, to casually spread false crime statistics about undocumented immigrants and African-Americans from alt-right websites during presidential campaign.
Republican leaders have made the pragmatic calculation to embrace the President—at least so long as he remains popular with their core voters. They have apparently made a similar calculation to protect him from rigorous investigation, so long as his continuing time in office serves their own partisan objectives.
Maybe these calculations will prove tactically sound. After all, Justice Gorsuch may be deciding cases in 2050. Maybe not. Republicans’ bumpy ride since Election Day suggests their practical challenge of trying to combine traditional Republican economics with an older white voter base that resents and resists basic demographic realities of 21st-century America.
Republicans are paying a moral and historical cost, too. Many are privately anguished by the bargain their party has struck. They bear the stain of having nominated and elected the most unworthy President in modern American history. That stain will not be washed away soon.
They didn’t have to do that. This week’s French election remind us: There was another way.