Ethics & Public Policy Center

Trump’s Francification of America

Published in The Week on February 13, 2017

Back in the halcyon days of 2013, and again in 2014, I wrote about “the Francification of America” — or the tendency of America to adopt some of the worst traits of my home country of France.

At the time, I saw this phenomenon as mainly driven by the left (after all, if they’re being honest, many progressives, at least those who haven’t spent much time in France, would say, “Turn America into France? Awesome!”). It wasn’t just the American left’s relentless expansion of government that was turning America into France, but also the rise of higher education credentialism and the ensuing rise of a privileged insider caste moving smoothly between the halls of government and big business.

But now, it seems that America’s Francification is coming from the right, and in particular from President Trump. Instead of making America great again, he’s turning America into France. Here are three striking ways.

1. Lepénisme

I’m certainly not the first to comment on the ideological cousinage between President Trump and France’s Marine Le Pen. Both draw on populist anger at the self-dealing elite class and respond with an agenda that involves an embrace of (if we’re being generous) patriotism shading into nationalism, immigration crackdowns, trade wars, economic nationalism, and robust government activism in the economy.

Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek once commented that America is the only place in the world where one can be both a conservative and a classical liberal. Indeed, that’s what drew me to American politics. Continental conservatism tends to veer much more toward blood-and-soil authoritarianism, whereas the uniqueness of American conservatism is that in seeking to preserve what is best in America it seeks to preserve a specific cultural heritage, yes, but also the heritage of liberal institutions enshrined in America’s founding documents. This is what gave America’s conservative movement its unique and immensely valuable mix of cultural conservatism and economic and political liberalism.

It seems more likely than not that Trump’s incompetence will mean the ideas he has embraced will incinerate by association. But he has undoubtedly infused American politics with the French conservative style, to the detriment of the American conservative style.

2. Crony capitalism

As Americans were still digesting the stunning election result last November, the president-elect was already engineering an ad hoc deal with the company Carrier to keep industrial jobs in America. This move left much of the commentariat, left and right, baffled. But it is a familiar one to any observer of French politics, where they have become so common as to be boring.

No foreign trip by a French president is complete without the “deal-signing ceremony” where the French president will sign or oversee the signing of deals by French companies with local companies, perhaps sometimes to the slight befuddlement of the locals.

Domestically, as well, it seems that the French Treasury’s main job is using a mix of carrots and sticks (mostly carrots, really) to “keep jobs at home” — with all that that implies in terms of favoritism and crony capitalism (since the guys in the Treasury staff making the decisions more often than not end up working for those companies). Recently, the French government ordered a bunch of trains to keep a factory run by the French company Alstom going, even though, tragicomically, no one knew what to use the trains for. So now it looks like the trains will be put on regional lines even though they are high-speed trains that are not intended for those tracks. Great.

Given the positive polling results, Trump has wasted no time in pursuing more such French-style “deals.” Indeed, he seems to view it as a centerpiece of his agenda.

3. Anti-Semitism

Perhaps the most worrisome of all these developments is the return, after many decades, of anti-Semitism as a real thing in American politics. Although, mercifully, nobody thinks there is a real electoral constituency, even a small one, for anti-Semitism (as opposed to the one there might supposedly be for other forms of coded racial appeals), it remains the fact that since Trump’s campaign and election, anti-Semitism in public discourse, even to wonder whether it is there, has become a topic in the American public conversation. Whether or not the Trump administration is animated by prejudice against Jews or plans to exploit prejudice against Jews, the fact that this is even something anyone has to think about is astonishing.

The administration’s Holocaust Remembrance Day statement, which omitted a mention of the Jewish people and, worse, administration spokespeople’s ensuing doubling down on the awful statement, generated a quick burst of outrage. But our attention was quickly diverted to the next shiny object.

France has a long and depressing history with anti-Semitism, dating back to medieval prejudice, snaking through the Dreyfus affair, traditional Catholic anti-Semitism, the official anti-Semitism of the Vichy regime, the pliancy or collaboration of the majority of the French people with the Holocaust, and contemporary far-right expressions of anti-Semitism. While Marine Le Pen, unlike her father, has thus far scrupulously avoided any ill-advised comments about Jews, and ruthlessly policed the ranks of her own party in this regard, France’s large Muslim community has now created a constituency for left-wing anti-Semitism at least as virulent as the right-wing kind. While America has known casual anti-Semitism (say, from WASPs), and the more venomous anti-Semitism of groups like the KKK, its history in that regard looks positively pristine compared to France’s. And in recent decades, almost no one has had reason to worry about anti-Semitism in American political discourse.

This has now changed. Whatever this portends for American politics, it’s not good, and it’s certainly French.

Félicitations, Donald. Vraiment.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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