Is America about to have its ‘Le Pen’ moment?

Donald Trump is a bigot and a racist. What some may once have been able to dismiss as just a few gaffes – caused by an affinity for shock value and a lack of ability to think before one speaks – is now an established pattern that, as some commentators have noted, accurately fits the definition of fascist. What is remarkable is that Trump still leads the polls in the Republican primary, even after months of expressing this behaviour in the spotlight. Is this simply another story of an early extremist frontrunner – like Herman Cain and many before him – who eventually falls to a more moderate candidate when voting time arrives? Or is Trump’s endurance at the top of the polls a sign that something is different this time?

Like the unexpected runner-up finish of the xenophobic far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in France’s 2002 presidential election, I think Donald Trump, despite his fascism, has a very good chance of winning the Republican Primary. If he does win the primary, I would also not count out the possibility of a delegate mutiny in the convention, maybe leading to the eventual nomination of a different candidate (I think Rubio is the only likely alternative). Although I certainly don’t wish for Trump to win the primary, here are three reasons why I think he may be the one to break the trend of crazy candidates not going all the way in Republican primaries.

  1. Lack of credible moderate candidates. This time, all of the other major contenders are also extremist in one way or another. Chris Christie and John Kasich are too far behind. Establishment fatigue and the baggage the name ‘Bush’ still carries will be too much for Jeb (Bush) to overcome, particularly given his lack of charisma.
  1. Least threatening extremism to the rural white base. Unlike the other extremists in the race, Trump’s extremist positions primarily victimize groups that do not vote in Republican primaries. His xenophobia is revolting to many of us; but to the many lower-income rural white voters in the Republican base, Trump’s xenophobia may seem less risky than ideas about gutting the entitlements many depend on (e.g. medicare, medicaid, social security, and even Obamacare to a certain extent now). Trump notably has not campaigned on gutting entitlements and has even supported single-payer healthcare.
  1. Best articulation of voter concerns. Just like a solid articulation of the dangers of climate change garnered the Leap Manifesto (an absolutely extremist proposal in its own right) surprisingly large support, including from prominent intellectuals and celebrities, so too can Trump’s absolutely crazy policy proposals be smoothed over in voters’ minds by the fact that he is the candidate that best articulates the problems facing lower-income rural white voters today (e.g. outsourcing of jobs, related declining of international competitiveness, resulting decline of wages). Although the Republican base is also known for being skeptical of government intervention, the message ‘your jobs got shipped to China’ resonates more than ‘you are down on your luck because Uncle Sam taxes you too much and meddles too much in your communities with excessive regulation’. I think this will make a lot of people choose Trump over Cruz, Rubio, Fiorina, or Carson when push comes to shove.

Why Hillary Clinton will clean up in the general election (and Sanders has no chance)

Similarly to the case of Chirac vs. Le Pen in the 2002 French election, I think Clinton will go on to win the general election in a landslide. I actually think this will be the case regardless of the eventual Republican nominee, because of the low likelihood that a moderate candidate will prevail and because of the related low likelihood that the Republican party will be able to effectively unite around any of the current candidates. In general elections with only two choices, an extremist and highly polarizing candidate like Trump has little prospects of expanding support beyond his base, because those who don’t love highly polarizing figures tend to detest them. Instead, Clinton’s toughest challenge will probably come in the Democratic primary, from Bernie Sanders – a self-described socialist who, like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, has gained a surprising degree of momentum. However, unlike Trump or Corbyn, here is why I think Sanders has no chance to win the Democratic primary and Clinton will win easily:

  1. The fear of a ‘President Trump’ will sway Democrats into making a safe choice. Given the likelihood that the Republican candidate will bring a new level of crazy to the ticket, I think Democrats – who generally have less establishment fatigue than Republicans right now – will weigh electability highly in their decision and decide that picking Sanders is too risky. In contrast, Corbyn won his party’s nomination with a much more moderate right-of-centre candidate holding office.
  1. Clinton has moved to the left since her last run. Given her more vocal support for social justice causes this time around and her harder-line stance on Wall Street, Clinton has started to close the policy gap between herself and Sanders, making it easier for her to win over Sanders supporters. In contrast, the combination of Clinton’s more leftist rhetoric and more centrist track record is likely to make her more palatable to a bigger tent of Democratic voters, and certainly will make her less polarizing than Sanders. In other words, Clinton supporters are less likely to be won over by Sanders than vice versa.
  1. Clinton is a woman. Contrary to early analysis suggesting Biden could overtake Clinton if he joined the race, I think if you replace her with Biden there is a much bigger chance Sanders would go on to win. Given that the U.S. electorate is becoming more gender polarized (noticeable male majority voting Republican and noticeable female majority voting Democrat), Clinton stands to benefit the more female voters decide (understandably) that after 44 consecutive male Presidents they finally want one ‘that looks like me’. No doubt in the general election, the gender effect could go either way for her as Clinton is more likely to face hostile sexism there (Obama similarly noted that some people likely do not vote for him just because of his race while others may vote for him only because of his race). However in the primary, I think there are too many Democrats that will not want to pass up a shot at history just to support a slightly more leftist white male candidate when push comes to shove. This may be one reason why Clinton portrays herself as running because of rather than in spite of her identity this time – in contrast to in 2008, where any positives resulting from the identity/making-history argument probably helped Obama more than it helped her.
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One thought on “Is America about to have its ‘Le Pen’ moment?

  1. I could be wrong, but I think Trump has finally done himself in with his latest proposal for a ban on Muslims. I think he won’t win the nomination. There are going to be too many in the GOP that will want to coalesce around any other candidate but Trump to save their party for Trump to still have a chance of winning the nomination. I really hope I’m right…

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