Thursday, 4 May 2017

Le Pen and Trump: politics-as-entertainment

The French presidential debate echoed last year's US debates. Like Trump, LePen laughed while she bullied and mocked her opponent. We are living in an age of clowns.

Last night marked the one and only debate between the two candidates who will participate in Sunday's final round of French presidential elections, far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen and centrist internationalist Emmanuel Macron. For me, it had eery similarities to last year's Trump-Clinton debates in the United States.

Donald Trump had a way of getting under his opponents' skin. He would mock them, call them names, and laugh in their face. Marco Rubio was "Little Marco". Ted Cruz was "Lyin' Ted". Hillary Clinton was "Crooked Hillary". He dragged the Republican presidential primary into the mud, as his opponents desperately tried to counter his popularity by sinking to his level. Trump even goaded Rubio, a US Senator, into challenging his penis size.

As I watched Marine Le Pen cackle her way through the French debate last night, I had an eery sense of déjà vu. The debate had almost no substance - the majority of her assertions were fact-free and Macron had to spend his time batting them down. But as with all television debates, the substance didn't matter. It was all about the image she projected. She was fascinating to watch. Her mockery was so brutal, so intimidating, that you almost wanted to be on her side out of fear. You wanted to be in on the joke.

Outlandish accusations

Like Trump did with Clinton, Le Pen's main objective was to paint Macron as a tool of special interests. She, on the other hand, was the champion of the people. Her opponent was so serious - bla bla bla with all his policy nonsense. She's the fun one. She's the one you would want to have a wine with.

Right from the start, she threw her paintbrush at the blank Macron canvas. Macron is “the candidate of wild globalisation, Uberisation, precariousness, social brutality, the war of all against all," she bellowed. In a blatant push to attract far-left Mélenchon voters, she cast Macron as the globalist banker, eager to engage in an illuminati conspiracy against France.

“Either way, France will be led by a woman: me or Madame Merkel,” she laughed. “You want to weaken our country, perhaps because it will benefit the financial powers at your side.” 

Her accusations were as fact-free as they were outlandish. Macron is “indulgent with Islamist fundamentalists” and wants to throw open France’s borders to allow an invading horde of Muslims to come in and destabilise the country. She even said Macron is looking to create a network of foreign baby surrogates and that he might have a hidden bank account in a tax haven. 

Macron, in turn, tried to remind voters that there is nothing ‘new’ about Le Pen. Like Trump, she has a long distasteful history that many voters in France now seem to be forgetting.

“You are the heiress of a name, of a political party, of a system that has prospered for years and years on the back of French people’s anger,” he said. “For 40 years in this country, we have had Le Pens as candidates in the presidential election."

“You can’t impute to me all the sins of the past 30 years,” he said. “I’ve been in politics for less long than you.” 

Macron is no Clinton 

Though Le Pen’s mockery and bullying reminded me of the US debates, Macron’s reaction did not. Unlike Clinton, he has the advantage of not being part of one of the two mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties, which are now so unpopular as to have been completely knocked out of the second round.

"The ineffectiveness of the right and the left is what nourishes the National Front. It has nourished the anger" he said. "I understand your voters because they are angry. But you manipulate their anger".

Though she was deemed to have 'won' all the debates, Clinton was never able to land a lasting punch against Trump during the televised spectacles. She was never able to spell out the big picture - what the election of Trump would mean for the US and the world. She never came right out and called Trump what he was. Perhaps this was because she was aware of the sexism in politics. She was continually being advised to soften her tone, to smile, to keep things pleasant. Otherwise she would be accused of being shrill.

As a man, Macron was under no such restrictions. 

"France deserves better than you," he told Le Pen to her face. He delivered a parting shot at the end of the debate, as the moderators were trying to close and Le Pen kept talking. "Go on Madame Le Pen, carry on with your reality show," he said with a deadly serious face. "Stay on television. I want to preside over this country."

It was a forcefulness and directness we never saw from Clinton in last year's debates. And he was calling out Le Pen for exactly what she is - an entertainer, not a governor.


In the United States, the Trump phenomenon is the culmination of 35 years of steadily cheapening political discourse. It started in 1980 with the election of an actor, dramatically heightened in the 1990s with the advent of cable news, and hardened in the 2000s with the over-saturation of light, substance-free political reporting.

Candidates had to be entertaining above all else. In 2000, Al Gore was considered too boring to be president. George W. Bush was the candidate people "wanted to have a beer with". A president had to have either extreme charisma or extreme entertainment value. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama delivered the former with their charm, George W. Bush and Donald Trump delivered the latter with their buffoonery. If you aren't entertaining, you can't be US president.

It's something I've thought a lot about over this past decade living in Europe. It's something Europeans don't expect from their politicians. How else would you explain the current leaders of Germany, France and the UK? Politics in Europe is still something most people ignore. Few see it as entertaining. 

In the US more people pay attention to politics, but for all the wrong reasons. It has become part of the opening monologues on their late-night comedy shows. Political sketches used to be rare on a show like Saturday Night Live. Now they are most of the show. The adventures and travails of our politicians dominate the front pages. But there is nary a word about actual policy.

New web-based news outlets that have popped up in DC over the past decade treat politics as sport. Who's up, who's down. There is little serious discussion of actual policy. It's all politics. Politics as entertainment. It's a circus for public consumption.

Europe has so far been immune to these developments (with the notable exception of Berlusoni in Italy). But I have seen disturbing trends. David Cameron was a showman politician in the UK, with little of substance behind him. The decision to have TV debates for the first time ever in 2010 was in my view an unwise one. TV debates are pure entertainment, and do more to confuse voters than to enlighten them.

The Brexit debate bore all the hallmarks of policy-free politics-as-entertainment. British voters were being sold a narrative of imperial greatness. All the facts and figures made it clear that this narrative was a lie. But it made people feel good about their country, and their place in the world. 

Brexit always was, and continues to be, a song-and-dance routine. The current farce of a general election in the UK is so pre-ordained it almost doesn't warrant paying any attention to.

France has been doing TV debates for just as long as the US (it is the only country in the EU to also have a presidential system rather than a parliamentary one). But watching French presidential debates of years past, I was impresssed with the substance of what was discussed - at least compared to US debates.

But what I saw last night disturbed me. Le Pen will most likely not win this election - she remains 20 points behind Macron and the polls found that the majority of viewers (63%) believe he won last night's debate. So there is some reason to hope that the French are not as susceptible to the cheapening of political discourse as their American counterparts.

And yet, this woman still has the support of 40% of French likely voters. 37% of French viewers were impressed by her performance last night. They were attracted to her Trump-like antics. And they see nothing wrong with her baseless claims, her contradictory promises on policy, or her dodging of questions over her ethics scandals.

Even if Macron wins on Sunday, it is a disturbing development. When people stop having respect for politicians, they stop having respect for politics. So when someone comes in and offers them entertainment - a spectacle - what's the harm? If politics is unserious in people's minds, there's no problem with electing unserious people.

This is what has put Western liberal democracy in such peril. We have cheapened it to near-death. 

And it has me particularly worried as we head toward a general election in Italy. It could be only months away, and it is not inconceivable that we could end up with a literal comedian as the Italian prime minister.

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