Analysis

Europe Knows About Political Demagogues With Bad Haircuts All Too Well

Europe had hoped unbridled racism in politics died alongside Pierre Poujade, Jean-Marie Le Pen's political godfather. Now there's concern that a Trump victory could spark a chain reaction strengthening shameless populists throughout the continent.

A journalist records Donald Trump speaking during the first presidential debate.
Carlos Barria, Reuters

PARIS Every European, particularly every European who has studied political science, looks behind Donald Trump’s pompadour to the pompadour that preceded him: that of Pierre Poujade, the first demagogue of the postwar era.

Poujade’s party ran in the 1956 election and astonished the political world by winning 2.4 million votes, giving it 52 parliamentary seats. He was a gifted public speaker and drew large audiences to his rallies; had there been ratings-based television at the time, he might have become France’s president.

Poujade called for France’s Jews to be “returned” to Israel, adding that the Republic wouldn’t fund their expulsion. “The Israelis must pay for it, they will fund it,” he said in an election promise that amazingly evokes Donald Trump, the wall he wants to build and Mexico.

With his enormous popularity, Poujade turned existing expressions into common currency among populist movements the world over: “freeloaders,” “the silent majority,” “the vampire state,” “bleeding hearts,” “everyone is corrupt,” “a different kind of politics,” “the little people.” Poujade used them long before they reached America.

Poujadism quickly became pejorative, a unique blend of unbridled racism and shameless populism. In Israel, Pinhas Sapir was one of a number of Israeli legislators who from the Knesset podium warned of the dangers of Poujadism. The literary theorist Roland Barthes devoted two important essays to Poujade, while Jean-Paul Sartre warned that even if the man disappeared, the danger in his speeches would forever lurk in the cellars of democracy.

Poujade did indeed disappear from the National Assembly once a new voting system was introduced in 1958, even if he remained a popular interview subject until his death in 2003. It seems that unlike the gloomy predictions, Poujadism disappeared with him. After his death, his speeches were considered shallow and immature, capable of attracting large audiences in the Fourth Republic’s fragile democracy, but not in countries with a clear constitution and stable governments.

Pierre Poujade.
AP

And then along came Trump.

Europe began to consider the possibility of a Trump candidacy back in 2011, when he repeatedly beat Mitt Romney in Republican opinion polls before the primaries. Media coverage began by emphasizing the candidate’s clownish aspects, including his ignorance and rude arguments. Later on he was described as an authentic representative of an America that Europe looked down on, an almost folkloric figure, certainly not a serious candidate.

“If a communist propaganda ministry had commissioned a gifted cartoonist to draw a typically-American rogue, he would have invented a figure like ‘The Donald,’” Yascha Mounk wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in October 2015.

Hollande’s malaise

Germany and France are of one mind on Trump, in part because the Republican candidate barely distinguishes between the two countries. Since the beginning of his campaign, Trump has been critical of Germany’s immigration policy, but he has also complained that France isn’t what it used to be because of its many immigrants.

This confusion reached a new level in January when he tweeted: “Man shot inside Paris police station. Just announced that terror threat is at highest level. Germany is a total mess-big crime. GET SMART!”

How did Trump go from being one more fool who doesn’t know where Paris is to an election away from the presidency? Meanwhile, Europe’s leaders have become less popular in their own countries.

Take Francois Hollande. At present just 4 percent of French people say they approve of his actions as president, with 3 percent saying they’re “somewhat satisfied” and 1 percent “very satisfied.” If Hollande is at a political nadir unprecedented in modern France, is a French Donald Trump a reasonable possibility?

In February, Trump tried to explain himself to Europe directly. For his first interview with a European publication he chose the French magazine Valeurs Actuelles, which supports the National Front and whose editors have been convicted three times for racist incitement. Europe is finished, Trump was quoted as saying. If you keep letting Angela Merkel flood Europe with refugees, it’s the end of Europe.

From Hungary to Denmark

So it’s surprising that the only European country that has greeted the Trump phenomenon with understanding, perhaps even affection, is Italy. To Italians he’s an American Berlusconi, down to the sex scandals, the transparent demagoguery, the bizarre haircut and the fake tan. The only difference is the price. Silvio Berlusconi is richer, and anyway there’s little left of the Italian economy to destroy.

As in France, in Italy the heads of the far-right parties have openly expressed support for Trump, while the prime ministers openly support Hillary Clinton. France’s ambassador to the United States, Gerard Araud until recently the ambassador to Israel has called Trump “repugnant.” The most important European country whose leaders are maintaining a prudent neutrality is Germany. Chancellor Merkel hasn’t responded to Trump’s attacks on her.

U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton gives a thumbs up after speaking at fundraiser at the Paramount Theater in Seattle, Washington, October 14, 2016.
Brendan Smialowski, AFP

One obvious reason for Europe’s Trump obsession is the boredom that the Clinton’s candidacy evokes here. The drop in Bill Clinton’s popularity in his second term was called by American pundits “Clinton Fatigue,” a term that may come from the late 19th century when French voters suddenly tired of a presidential candidate thought to be a shoo-in. Gen. Georges Boulanger was an ultranationalist populist, more Trump than Clinton. But still, Europeans are tired of hearing about that couple who aren’t leftist by European standards and aren’t rightist enough to warrant attacks.

Of course, Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street ties play a role in Europe’s lack of enthusiasm. But considering the alternative, if she wins next week she can expect congratulations from all quarters.

Another reason for the relief expected to sweep Europe has more to do with domestic than trans-Atlantic politics. Every country in Europe has its own little Trump, some with high approval ratings. So a Trump win could set off a chain reaction.

Poland, Denmark, Austria, Hungary each has a nationalist demagogue on the starting blocks. If we add the still-unexplained wave of popular support for a Brexit, Europe seems ripe for a new Pierre Poujade. In 1956, when he pulled off his parliamentary upset, he had to reach deep into the party rolls to populate the benches.

One of the names far down the list was the head of the party’s youth branch, an unknown 27-year-old Parisian. His name was Jean-Marie Le Pen, and this week he said he hoped Trump would be the next president of the United States.