French election an agonizing reminder of what GOP might have done

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.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

20 thoughts on “French election an agonizing reminder of what GOP might have done”

  1. It's a limited (one hopes) version of shock doctrine. There's a lot of money to be made and power to be gained in encouraging tribalism in the US. Like markets, political alignments need movement to generate profits.

  2. Addressing your first paragraph, if it is any consolation, we did not elect Trump. The Electoral College did, and we have no excuse for maintaining it. We do so for the same reason that we don't give the District of Columbia voting representatives and senators: because getting rid of it would cost the Republicans votes and they view politics as totally about winning and zero about fairness. The Electoral College, with two extra votes for every state regardless of population because the number of votes per state is the sum of the number of representatives and senators, was created to preserve slavery, and, though slavery is gone, the Civil War continues.

    1. This argument doesn't fly with me. The states that swung the Electoral College were Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Pennsylvania passed its gradual emancipation law in 1780, the first in the country, while MI and WI were part of the Northwest Territory where slavery was banned in 1787. If the framers really meant to preserve slavery, empowering what was then the most anti-slavery part of the Union (except for Massachusetts) is a very odd way to do it.

      The culprit for the 2016 debacle was winner-take-all allotment of each state's electoral votes. This is not actually required by the Constitution, or even done by every state (Maine and Nebraska allocate by district) but it's a stable equilibrium that's in nobody's interest to change, despite the perverse results.

      1. This is incorrect. Trump would have won even if all of the states used the system that Maine and Nebraska use.

        Your first paragraph doesn't even make any sense.

        1. The point of my first paragraph is that the element of the EC meant to entrench the slave power was not the element of the EC that put Trump into office, or else it wouldn't have been northern states that put him over the line.

          (Incidentally, it's the three-fifths compromise that entrenched the slave power, and that hasn't been in play since 1864. You subtract two votes per state from the EC, and Trump still wins.)

          The Maine-Nebraska system is lousy, but winner-take-all is worse. Has anyone run the numbers for D'Hondt proportional representation?

          1. The point about slavery is that if the president were elected by popular vote, the influence of a state would depend on the number of voters in that state. Since states weren't going to permit slaves to vote, this was unacceptable to the southern states. There were other arguments in favor of the electoral college, but slavery was a critical one. If the Constitution had specified that the president be elected by popular vote, it would not have been rejected by the southern states.

  3. This is a fantasy. You can't compare the dynamics and incentives of a parliamentary system to our system.

  4. In 2016, resentment was the villain, which corrupts judgment by feeling insulted by the proposition that there are experts (elites) who know more than other people about many complicated things, making their opinions better than most opinions on these matters.

    This is a perpetually potent force in American politics. How strong a force is it in French politics?

    1. At first sight, a big one. It's a large part of Le Pen's appeal. But France really is governed by an identifiable éiite, the graduates of the grandes écoles, who really are confident they know better.

      1. Interesting! Thanks for the information. Academie francaise and all that, I suppose.

        I am probably an elitist myself. I would like to see as president an honest, outspoken man who is not afraid to call a spade an implement for turning soil, resembling a shovel, with a thick handle and a heavy, usually flat and oblong blade which can be pressed into the ground with the foot, or a playing card imprinted with a black, leaf-shaped figure identifying it as belonging to one of four suits of a standard deck of cards.

      2. I'm fairly sure U.S. elites, of whatever stripe, are confident they know better. I'm wondering, though, about the level of anti-intellectualism that has been a feature of American life for so long. Is there much in the way of a French version of the American blue- or pink- collar worker who doesn't want to hear from any pointy-headed professors about, say, climate change, because people with Ph.D.'s are either stupid or corrupt?

        1. I don't really know, but for sure, there's a saying in France "la campagne profonde" ("the deep country") that is the analogue of "still waters run deep". The countryside is deeply different from the cities, in France also.

          1. De Gaulle used to talk about "La France Profonde" the "Deep France" that sustained him in his exile and his political struggles. This is not just the rural areas but the imperishable "spirit" of the country, of which (I suppose) Joan of Arc was once the manifestation. It is probably not something that translates into Anglo-Saxon, but I don't think Joan of Arc would be voting for Le Pen.

          2. Your comment is edifying — I did not know this. That said, I sure don't know if "La France Profonde" was related to "la campagne profonde" — the French people who told me that expression were (uh) grad students, and what I wrote, is what they explained to me (as we discussed differences between France and the US).

  5. I agree with this post completely.

    Further, I am disgusted by conservatives, even those claiming to have opposed Trump, who are busy trying to blame his victory on inept campaigning by Clinton, or the condescending attitudes of "elites," or anything or anybody other than the party that nominated him and supported him.

    Some of these same individuals seem to take the position that Trump somehow fell from the sky and caught them unaware, as if the bigotry and stupidity he embodies have not been prominent in their party for years.

  6. You're missing something here. For many Republicans, Hillary Clinton was a greater "enemy of the Republic" than Donald Trump. I can't understand how so many would believe that, but you don't even seem to understand that they believed it.

    1. BBA, I wonder what you make of this proposition: just because 96% of Trump voters say that they would vote for him again (they would not vote for Hillary), does not mean that another Democrat could not get their votes in a future election with a coherent and congruently delivered platform supporting the long-standing institutions and norms which Trump has flung down and danced upon.

      1. I don't know about that. Clearly they don't care about the same institutions and norms we care about.

  7. I don't understand the comparison. The French conservatives and socialists only supported Macron after their own candidate was out of the race. The relevant comparison is to Sanders supporting Clinton in the general, which he did.

  8. I think the whole "revolt against the elites" is a complete sham and Trump's Goldman-Sachs cabinet is the best proof. Brexit is sustained by a deprived commercial (mostly Tory) elite from the provincial cities of Britain, envious of the success of cosmopolitan London, which (not by accident) voted to remain in the EU. You can bet Le Pen has her own elite-in-waiting, probably driven by a similar hatred of Paris, where the British Channel 4 could not find a young Le Pen supporter to interview.

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