France's new president is betting that he can bring disaffected voters back into the liberal fold by combining openness with economic growth. What if he just makes them even angrier?
We live in a time of catastrophic political experiments. Americans are learning how far the institutions of civil society can protect democratic norms in the face of an autocratically minded president. The British are about to find out how much economic pain they can endure for the privilege of flipping the bird to Europe. Italians may soon hand the reins of power to a clown — literally.
Last week, Frank-Walter Steinmeier made his last visit to Paris as Germany’s foreign minister (he is about to become president) in order to issue a plea to the French people: “Please do not surrender to the siren song of populism.” His meaning was plain: Do not elect Marine Le Pen, leader of the nativist National Front, in the presidential election this spring. If France falls, Germany, which votes in September, could be next.
The darkest fears (and silver lining) of a Trump presidency
Perhaps I shouldn’t be sitting down to write this at midnight. I am, I admit, in a bad state. I can’t help feeling that America has committed the most calamitous mistake of my lifetime. There will be a time to be reasonable and to think what one what must do to prevent Donald J. Trump from inflicting terrible damage to the United States and to the world. But this is a moment for the rending of garments.
When I was in Poland this year, I asked everyone how a nation that exemplified the commitment to liberal democracy had elected a party, called Law and Justice, which openly appealed to nationalism, xenophobia, and religious traditionalism. Quite a few people responded with a question of their own: “What about Donald Trump?” Wasn’t the United States, that is, heading in the same direction? Yes, I came back, but since liberal principles are more deeply embedded in American voters and institutions, Trump won’t win.
I was born in 1954, and until now I would have said that the late 1960s was the greatest period of political convulsion I have lived through. Yet for all that the Vietnam War and the civil rights struggle changed American culture and reshaped political parties, in retrospect those wild storms look like the normal oscillations of a relatively stable political system. The present moment is different. Today’s citizen revolt — in the United States, Britain, and Europe — may upend politics as nothing else has in my lifetime.