In 1972, a bellicose French nationalist named Jean-Marie Le Pen founded the National Front party and began chipping away at the veneer of France’s ubiquitous reputation as an open bridge to the third world and a bulwark against US hegemony. For its first fifteen years, the National Front was marginalized to the fringes of French politics and associated with extreme solutions and isolationist policies.
In the late 80’s, the fall of the Berlin Wall and deconstruction of the USSR ushered in a period of economic and political immigration across Africa, the Middle East and Europe not witnessed since the turn of the century. During the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet Union would be among the first nations to provide aid and infrastructure to countries experiencing civil, political, environmental and economic upheaval. The two nuclear powers were engaged in proxy wars fighting for the hearts and minds of unsettled nations hoping to advance or blunt one another’s ideologies.
With the deconstruction of the former Soviet Union, nations in turmoil suddenly became the burden of their closest Western neighbor. What was once the foreign policy problem of two superpowers became the yoke of European nations.
As immigrants flooded the border regions of various Western European countries, including France, racial and religious tensions escalated as refugees put a strain on social services, took jobs and in some cases committed crimes that seemed, to locals, to be an inexcusable act of biting the proverbial hand that was so generously feeding them.
The nadir of the “Le Penizination” of French politics hit in the 2002 Presidential elections when Le Pen finished ahead of then Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and second to Jacques Chirac. Jospin and his Socialist Party was humiliated in his third place finish prompting Jospin to immediately resign from public life. Le Pen would now run against Chirac for the French Presidency.
The significance of the election did not make the front pages of American newspapers but moved with the speed of the plague across European and world media. The Le Pen vote was correctly interpreted as a referendum on many things — French leadership, a flagging economy, and higher unemployment but it also insinuated an ugly aspect aspect of the French character that had been so well hidden under the perfume and liberal élan of a historically open arms foreign policy.
The French electorate were elated and horrified at what they had set in motion. Most were publically proclaiming embarrassment that such a bigoted politician could insinuate his way within one step of the Presidency of the Republic. “Mon Dieu, how can this be? I did not vote for him!”
Obviously, someone checked the ballot for Le Pen and a quick analysis of the French voting districts confirmed that the majority of disaffected votes came out of the industrial regions and border provinces where Le Pen’s venomous attacks on immigrants found fertile ground.
To some, Le Pen was a lunatic ultra nationalist preying on the fears of a xenophobic population that was not coping well in a post Cold War world. To others, Le Pen was a savior from the Age of French superiority and self reliance. He was a ronin samurai beholding to no master except his conscience and the notion of France for the French. It seems he had nothing to lose and therefore, had no governor controlling what he said, when he said it or who he might attack in the name of unsanitized candor.
Embarrassed by accusations of closet racism and geopolitical disingenuousness, the French voted overwhelmingly for Chirac in the subsequent Presidential run-off, cutting Le Pen one step short of the highest office in the land. The French breathed a sigh of relief and went back to their espressos while other demagogues and charlatans took notice.
I was in the airport delayed and killing time by watching the recent Republican debates on Fox. An older gentleman in his mid-seventies watched bemused as candidates jockeyed for microphone time while Donald Trump stood with a look of superiority and self satisfaction not witnessed since Mussolini on a balcony in the Piazza Venizia in Rome.
Trump made quick mincemeat of Scott Walker and turned on Carly Fiorina. The man next to me shook his head and laughed,”You got to love that orange son of a bitch. He calls it like he sees it and is the only one who will tell the truth.”
It was not the first time I’d heard a rational person identify with the edgy Trump diatribe and admittedly, I found myself amused at his fearless political incorrectness. The “orange man” was indeed stating the obvious and telling it like it was. “The Russians don’t fear us. The Chinese are duplicitous trade partners waiting patiently for us to sell them the rope that they can use to hang us. Meanwhile, you guys are like Nero and his cronies fiddling while Rome is burning!”
The orange demagogue had some easy targets that night but he clearly is no champion for truth or fair play. He was, in many ways, a manifestation of the kind of person I have tried to avoid becoming over the course of my adult life. He appeals to the cynic and nationalist in us. Trump panders to the part of anyone that resents that fact that they have become part of a new minority where the “have nots” are voting people into office that conspire to raise taxes, mortgage our children’s future and give free stuff to illegals who refuses to even learn our language.
And this is when my father says, ” and your point is?” He often asks this with a mouth full of food prepared by his caregivers, who are all immigrants.
My point is that Trump is our generation’s Le Pen. He is a manifestation of shameless self-promotion and inflammatory rhetoric. He is the underbelly of American capitalism — a hubris ridden, self-aggrandizing buccaneer who lacks empathy and real hair color. There is nothing natural about the man.
It’s easy to pick apart what’s wrong with a country that is leveraged with debt, saddled with complicated social problems and guided by politicians that are more interested in their own survival than in serving as catalysts for change. Yet, I’m not so sure it’s an option for the USA to default on our debt in the same manner the Donald defaulted over four corporate bankruptcies.
It’s a hard job in politics to be a constructive catalyst for change and to exhibit the rare characteristics that bring people together and overcome partisan paralysis — attributes revealed in the energy and wit of Lincoln and the tenacity and courage of a Truman. The orange man grows off our fear and worships at the altar of himself. He knows that self interest is at the opposite end of self sacrifice.
Yet, the beauty of a democracy is you are allowed to vote out of self Interest. A democracy feels great when you’re in the majority. Changing demographics have relegated a generation of US Conservatives to the minority and they don’t like how it feels. It turns out that it’s no fun having your views ignored and concerns swept aside. It’s agonizing being force fed ideologies that chafe against your own beliefs and when the power to pass legislation passes to the opposition, it sucks to see the institutions you hold dear dismantled. It’s even more complex when the minority is the economic majority.
The Pareto Principal suggests that in a balanced market, 80% of the wealth will naturally find itself in the hands of 20% of the population. A natural bell curve of competence favors and rewards a minority. Should this minority be punished for their innovation and success? Yet, when 80/20 becomes 90/10 does the imbalance create a black hole of civil unrest that can destroy the society? The orange man seems to be suggesting that if we mess with the natural laws of selection, we are in deep doo-doo. He does not believe in the better angels of our nature. Might makes right and we should be justified in our fear. A vote for the orange man is a vote for the manifest destiny that once made America great — for those of us who were born here and love our country. We don’t believe in free-loaders and illegal immigrants. Hell, send ’em all back where they came from.
Yet, self interest is a tricky thing. In modest portions, it is compulsory to compete in a flat, crowded world; but, too much of it finds people running over others as they seek to get what they want. Being a minority often leads to hopelessness. Langston Hughes warned that there is nothing more dangerous than the man who believes there is no hope. Fear and cynicism are the currency in the realm of the minority. The majority will tell you to get over it. When you are in the minority, you may accuse those who don’t relate to your plight as ignorant or insensitive. You agitate for change and you look for a champion.
The key is seeking to understand that the world is not black and white but a color bar tinged with shades of gray and that for better or worse, we are a melting pot that we made great by our heterogeneity. How we balance meritocracy and free markets with social responsibility is a tough question. This is a much tougher query than who’s picture should appear on a ten dollar bill.
The orange man is inside everyone. He comes out when we are afraid that we will not get what we believe we need or want. He comes out when things don’t make sense. He pushes the panic button and says if we stay on this path, we are all screwed. Yet he has no answers — quick to kibbutz but purposely vague on how he might correct our course.
The fact is we are better than the orange man inside us. We can’t listen to those who speak only to self interest and fear. That’s where faith comes in and our belief that we can build a better tomorrow and still serve a higher purpose and a radius of responsibility beyond those we know.
I still don’t know who I want as President. But I can tell you who I won’t vote for — and if you give me a shirt for my birthday, just don’t make it orange.