Before you go to sleep Sunday you will have learned a new name, the name at least six or seven of your fellow-Americans already know: Emmanuel Macron. He will have been elected president of France, the youngest-ever chief of state for that country, not including prepubescent heirs apparent of royal days, and younger than Teddy Roosevelt, our most pubescent one, by four years.
Macron is a bit of a Michael Bloomberg and a whiter shade of Obama, especially the $400,000-a-speech Obama, combining a corporate banker’s background with a centrist yes-we-can optimism that would leave France’s social contract in place but would do a couple of things to get the country’s economy off its rear. He’s also something France hasn’t had in 60 years: a president from a party not even the French had heard of three years ago, if not three months ago. Its name, “En Marche!,” only clumsily translatable as “On the Move!,” is more evocative of high school bands, if they had high school bands in France, or a line from Baudelaire’s elegy to wanderlust (“Allons!”) than of a political party of the fifth biggest economy in the world.
Allons: Macron is change.
The French are hoping that he’s not chump change, because what he is more than anything else, unfortunately at this point, is what he is not. He is not Marine Le Pen, the Trump-like neo-fascist leader of the National Front who easily won her place in Sunday’s runoff and who goes where even Donald Trump doesn’t: she’s not so dumb as to want to build walls and bill the stubbiest Ummah but she wants to close the country’s borders, she wants to get out of the European Union (or did, until she realized it was an electoral death knell), she’s done an excellent job of denying her followers’ Holocaust denialism and her own coded anti-Semitism but she remains an unreconstructed Islamophobe. Snarlers need targets. As with Trump, Muslims are part of her harem of horrors.
Why should we care? Because like the United States, France is “at war with itself,” as the Economist put it recently, as are many democracies and countries that pretend to be democracies. Turkey had been Islam’s great democratic hope. No longer. That country’s relative liberalism curdled at the hands of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who dreams of being the Ataturk of the 21st century but is regressing closer to the megalomaniacal runts of Ottoman days. Hungary is in the hands of a nationalist who thinks migrants are “poison.” A neo-fascist party in Finland of all places is now part of the power structure. The revolting Geert Wilders—he of the “head rag tax” on hijab-wearing women—a few weeks ago almost won leadership of the Netherlands, until then the Tesla of tolerance. And of course Britain’s xenophobic voters threw the country–whose flag’s first name is Union, Jack!–out of the European Union last year, to Trump’s Hobbesian delight.
In so many places, in other words, principles of the Enlightenment are either under attack or in retreat. Democracy as we’ve known it, as a pluralist, tolerant, accepting system that defines progress as improving life equitably and with dignity for as many people as possible, is not dying. But it’s ailing. The worst of it is that it’s not eliciting the sort of sympathy a sick, mature patient usually does, not just because much of the sickness is self-inflicted, but because it’s manufactured. It’s a political platform more than a reality.
Yes, democracy has grown sclerotic from fattening itself on the assumptions of invulnerability masked by wealth so extreme, in relative historical terms, that we no longer recognize our own fortune, and not only because it’s been obscenely unequal. I don’t mean to sound like Solzhenitsyn bitching out the West at his Trump-gestating address at Harvard 40 years ago. He had it backward anyway. His complaint was that we were pussies in the face of a bear. My complaint is that we’ve become the bear, but with the aspirations of pussies. We are no longer nations but tribes. We are no longer interested in waging the great battles and fostering the great institutions that define great nations and make democracies prosper as they did in the (supremely high-tax) 1950s, 60s and 70s: wars on poverty and for public health, for civil and human rights, massive campaigns for higher education, great infrastructure projects, the sort of works that brought this country’s and Europe’s inequality and universal education to levels never so broadly beneficial in the history of any people. Now we can’t get a half-assed attempt at semi-universal health care to stick, we deny climate change because it’s simpler than slowing it, we have almost twice as many people in prison than in grad school.
And don’t ask about poverty. We don’t even recognize its existence anymore except to punish it. Check any article for readers’ reactions about food stamps or welfare. Too many have nothing but bilious contempt for people on public assistance. What have they ever done to you? But anger is the pleasure. It is as much validation as a Facebook profile image. It covers up the selfishness at the heart of America’s and other countries’ turn inward—not just against foreigners, but against fellow-citizens demonized no less than foreigners.
So it’s not disaffection we’re witnessing—anger is engagement, but it has replaced civic engagement—but pretexts and scapegoats. Just as Jews and heretics were the go-to blame-pits of a thousand years of European history, so immigrants, the poor, the “elites” and other groups pre-packaged for vilification are the American branch of the harem. It should make little sense that sufficient blocs of those cast as disaffected are voting against their interests. But it’s not new. If the Catholic Church could delude a continent of followers into believing that their wretchedness was their ticket to nirvana, surely a few hundred politicians can pull off the same trick on a sufficient minority of Americans. The church didn’t have talk radio and other mass-market script writers to help like Tim LaHaye and his sidekicks–Jerry Jenkins, Alex Jones, Sean Hannity, to name a few, though the topical champion these days is “Hillbilly Elegy”’s J.D. Vance. He’s the one trotted out supposedly to explain how millions of Rust Belt Americans turned Trump. He manages to turn the half dozen dysfunctional hillbillies of his own family in a Kentucky “holler” into an emblematic, dystopian rewrite of “Democracy in America,” with Appalachia once again exploited for its seal of authenticity. Kurt Vonnegut’s warning that “anecdotal evidence isn’t worth a pitcher of warm spit scientifically” isn’t for Vance.
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If it’s not anecdote it’s allegory. Take the adaptation of the “Left Behind” series to the apocalyptic fears of some Americans that their world is ending. It is ending, they’re told. The anti-Christ is the left. It is that black devil Muslim and his crooked harlot successor. They’ve left the world in pieces. It’s up to the angry chosen raptured to save it. Trump is their chosen one to make, well, you know the rest. All that resonates with the millions of readers of the 16-volume preface to the Trump years. Little of it has to do with alienation, as the propagandists of reaction would have you believe. If mass alienation were the problem, we wouldn’t have a one-party state in power whose politicians created the inequalities grinding at the country’s foundations. They’d have been voted out years ago. But political spoils go to the best storytellers.
And the plot of this Left Behind series is a perfect made-for-Fox adaptation scripted by Newspeak. Inequality is a virtue. The day’s malefactors of great wealth are haloed as the republic’s heroes. Tax-evading, regulation-busting industrialists are “job creators.” Enemies of living wages are capitalism’s saviors. Tax-cutters favoring the rich are “giving the people their money back” even as our social contract, our roads, our schools, our heath care, our parks, our cultural institutions begin to have that Lisbon look just before the earthquake. Of course two plus two equals five. Of course those who would disagree are malefactors of fake news. I know. I’m one of them.
So it isn’t the poor who’ve been powering the reactionary regression, in the United States or elsewhere (the playbook of regression is our Esperanto now). It’s barely the working class, who may be the movement’s most willing pawns. Rather, it’s that murky appeal to tribal anger that gives the impression of cutting across classes and parties by tapping into resentments rich in surface truths but empty at the core. Some industries are in the dumps, so it’s immigrants’ fault even though one industry or another is always in the dumps even in the best of times. Some crimes are committed by foreigners, so it’s refugees’ fault even though some crimes were committed by immigrants even when America’s doors in the 1920s and 30s were more shuttered than in Marine Le Pen’s dreams. Some food stamps recipients have smart phones so all the poor are frauds even though the country’s entire poverty programs don’t compare to a few days’ saluted frauds at the Pentagon. And so on. Put it all together and you can rally a pretty good tribe of rage and make it look like patriotic virtue, especially in cavernous venues designed for hockey fights. Just chant “America First” and “La France Pour Les Français” (“France for the French”).
But what do those phrases mean? They have the same xenophobic ring as “Made in America” in an age when nothing, but nothing, reaches market without an element of globalism playing a hand—whether it’s the lazy Mexican who put together your beloved “all-American” F-150 Ford Tough pick-up or the dirty Arab’s oil drops that powered the same F-150 full of home-made honey selling by roadside, however Palatka-born, bred and buzzed your bees may be. The illusion of “Made in America” is the economic equivalent of pining for a pure race. But just as anybody’s DNA test would reveal a tasty ragout of mongrelization, any product’s DNA would reveal endless hand-prints from around the globe.
America first? It’s not as if it’s ever been anywhere close to second at any time anywhere in any American leader’s exercise of American interests, which often sees American interest not merely as “first,” but as “exclusive.” Trade deals aren’t favors to the world. They’re meant to fatten shareholders’ bottom line, which they have. There’s just been no trickle down to the American worker from there. But it’s not for lack of wealth creation or the success of trade deals. It’s because America first is a euphemism for Wall Street First, a euphemism the builder of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue isn’t about to democratize for the rabble below. For that rabble, it’s no exaggeration to say that in many respects, a product reaching the American consumer makes America last, as our world-leading trade imbalance confirms.
Take back America? Debtors don’t make demands. But it’s easier to whip up nativist resentment from focus-group tribes and mask it as precisely what it is not: a nationalist revival. It’s easy to confuse tribalism with nationalism. Tribes are the loudmouths of nations, they get more air time because smackdowns make better TV than seminars. But nationalism presumes a level of overarching unity, which simply does not exist right now. To the contrary. The noisy tribes thrive on the fractures they create. They chant “America First” and “France for the French” with anthems of segregation, disengagement, rejection (“build that wall!”). Reality would contradict them, so they deify demagogues who push political narcotics. That’s also our opioid crisis. Autocrats like Trump are seducing masses with populist promises they can’t possibly fulfill, damaging our very fiber along the way. What they’re selling is self-centeredness as national policy. Who best to do so in the United States but the planet’s greatest narcissist. Losers are immigrants, minorities, refugees, women, the poor, the less-abled–basically, all those huddled masses Emma Lazarus talked about on the Statue of Liberty, which might as well pack up and head for Canada or the more friendly fjords of Scandinavia.
Or maybe even France, the statue’s birthplace.
But Macron’s victory is not as heartening as it should be. Twenty years ago, when Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, made it to the general election, France rallied. Communists, socialists, centrists, right-wingers all heeded the right-winger Jacques Chirac’s appeal to vote for democracy against demolition. He won with 82 percent of the vote. It was a statement as only the country of Henri IV, Voltaire, Mirabeau and Hugo can make certain statements. Macron’s win doesn’t compare. He will have won with maybe 60 percent of the vote. Losing 20 percent in 25 years is another kind of French statement, more Vichy than Versailles, that Marine Le Pen can ride to the next election, or the next: she’s not much older than Macron. It is she, not Macron, who is En Marche! He has 11 million Le Penniste French top win back, a smaller proportion of his country than the minority that elected Trump, but a growing one.
So if the center held in France, the victory is not yet reassurance. It feels more like a bet on a cancer drug, and we know how lethal those can be. Or not. As any cancer “survivor” will tell you, you have to hope. At least one of the meanings of Sunday’s French election is that all is not lost. It’s not exactly like Lafayette saving the American Revolution, but it is Macron saving the godmother of democracy, at least for now, from tribal hate dressed up as nationalism. Enlightenment flickers still, though it smells of whale oil. I never thought I’d see the day when for the rest of us in the mother of all democracies, France would be a greater hope than Washington, New York, Kansas or Florida. But there it is.