Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen

A spectre is haunting Europe and the United States, the spectre of populism. The mainstream media in those countries, led by the New York Times and George Soros, have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre, but two questions are pertinent. The first is whether the various groups, recently prominent in challenging the mainstream, are sufficiently similar to be regarded as a populist movement.

The other is whether mainstream authorities have the power to resist or to overcame the challenge.

Following the unexpected success of Brexit in the UK, and the choice of Donald Trump as president-elect, both regarded by the media as populist victories, other similar challenges to existing power holders in a number of European countries in Hungary, Poland, Italy, Slovenia, or the Netherlands are taking place, even if victory is not always considered possible. The most important of these is the bid of Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National (FN) in the French presidential election in April 2017.

Since Brexit, and now Trump, mainstream media have been searching for the "root causes" of the electoral outcomes. The initial problem is that populist sentiments have been manifested in various forms and by different political and social organizations, including those considered "left" and "right."

But is it futile to search for the "root causes" of these sentiments. Despite differences pertinent to particular societies or political programs, such as climate control, relations with Russia and President Vladimir Putin, emphasis on religious values, or policy on Syria and Iraq, all seemingly populist movements have basic convictions.

The ideological starting point of these movements is anger against or hostility to the established "elites," whether justified or not, and their exercise of power and authority in society and politics. This is based on the view that the power holders disregard or neglect the true values and "will of the people." As a result, the neglected have two reactions: disillusionment with the process of politics; and distrust of the exercise of power by the well-connected in the establishment. If not exactly a silent majority or the "forgotten man," the neglected citizens desire to purify the system, "to drain the swamp" in Trump's language, and remove those who do not represent them or regard them as "deplorable."

However, populism is, and has been in historical experiences, more an emotional and passionate response to being neglected by the rulers than a coherent, integrated political program. Policy proposals have taken many forms, some put forward by legendary populist leaders who have abused the will of the people or played on irrational resentments. American politics were plagued by the paranoia of Senator Joseph McCarthy or Father Coughlin's Social Justice Movement.

Two generations earlier, Huey Long became a quasi-dictator in Louisiana, with his slogans "Every Man a King," and "Share the Wealth" by trading on hatred of the rich and big corporations. The corollary was that injustice and economic suffering came from the "money power." Strains of anti-Semitism were inherent in the attacks on bankers, who were equated with Jews or "the Jewish conspiracy."

This was the distorted outcome of the reality of the declining status of workers in a country where rural life was being supplanted by two factors: the growth of industrial society; and the rapid increase in immigration. To an extent the utopia of 19th and 20th century populists in the U.S., as Richard Hofstadter said many years ago was in the past, in a supposed agrarian myth, rather than in the future.

 A populist position may but usually does not focus on specific issues or indicate a specific strategy to deal with problems. At different times and places, it has taken a number of directions, supporting dictatorial leaders as well as democratic ones. All emphasize the unity of the people, and all call for more participation by or more attention given to the "people."

In modern times this has meant emphasis on the "specific" indigenous people, and thus stress on patriotism and nationalism and a limit on immigration that might undermine national values. People cling to their identity. In practice this has meant control of national borders and access to them, anti-globalization, concerns about global trade, limitation of immigration, especially of Muslims, increasingly because of fear of Islamist terrorism, multilateral political and economic institutions, international laws and treaties. 

The essential factor for the rise of populist sentiments is frustration with the existing system. Today, about one in five Europeans support populist groups, a support that has doubled since 2000. The main focus is suspicion or concern about trade deficits, workplace insecurity, uncontrollable and unregulated immigration, and emotional dislike of self-serving elites. Yet, this is not irrational. Europeans face real problems of dislocation and demographic change.  In rich countries about two of every three households had a decline in real income from wages and capital between 2005 and 2014, though U.S. disposal income rose.

The process of globalization, which means not only free movement of capital, people, and goods but also a lesser role for individual states, is feared because of its impact on jobs, employment, and living standards. Globalization feeds sense of injustice, and loss of cultural identity. But there is no going back to preglobalization and national economies have to be integrated into the global economy.

All these issues will be in the forefront in the contest for the French president. Le Pen, the leader of the far-right FN, opposes free trade, globalization, immigration, and call both for protection of the French economy and for "making France great again." In the first round of voting on April 1, 2017 against candidates of the Republicans and the Socialists she is likely to do well, but nevertheless will be beaten in the second round, the runoff, on May 7. The National Front got 6 million votes in the 2015 regional election, 28 per cent of the poll, an increase from 2.2 million in 2010, 11 percent of the poll.

Le Pen has praised Trump as a man free of Wall Street and from financial lobbies, as someone who will put the political and media elites in their place, and who will tame wild globalization. She hailed Trump's victory as a stone in building a new world, and who symbolizes the emergence of movements devoted to the nation. As a believer in French sovereignty she is opposed to the influence of the European Union, and above all to the increasing presence and influence of Muslims in French life.

Le Pen claims her party is not racialist, and has rejected the anti-Semitism of her father Jean-Marie, the 88-year-old vitriolic founder the party whom she expelled but who remains honorary president. In private life, Marine's partner is Louis Aliot, an individual who descends from an Algerian Jewish family.

It is important to observe the influence that Le Pen has had on her center-right political opponents. The most prominent of them, Francois Fillon, the former prime minister in 2007, who won 44.2% of the vote in the primary on November 20, 2016, acknowledged the revolt of the French people against the political class and that a profound change and transformation of the country against the political class was necessary.  It remains to be seen if Donald Trump will have the same effect on his U.S. opponents or political enemies in their recognition of political reality.