In Guilluy’s account, the tensions between Trumpland and liberal America find their mirror in the tensions between the French republic’s thriving regions and the stagnation and disappointment of “la France périphérique” — a mix of rural areas and cities whose industries have suffered under globalization, and whose inhabitants feel disdained and ignored by the metropoles. And the ethnic tensions that Trump has exploited are mirrored as well, albeit with distinctively French twists — like the role of the vast suburban housing projects, built in the postwar era for a largely native working class and now contested between natives and immigrants. (Caldwell writes: “Guilluy speaks of a ‘battle of the eyes’ fought in the lobbies of apartment buildings across France every day, in which one person or the other — the ethnic Frenchman or the immigrant’s son — will drop his gaze to the floor first.”)
So far, so similar. But as counterintuitive as it may seem — after all, we elected Trump and they have not — in many ways these problems are worse in Europe, part of a systemic crisis that’s more serious than our own.
They’re worse because Europe is stuck with a horribly flawed experiment in political economy, a common currency without a common fiscal policy or a central political authority capable of claiming real legitimacy. The damage that this combination has done to the economies of Southern Europe, in particular, is striking and severe — years of elevated unemployment and stagnation, all of it imposed without democratic accountability by a mostly Northern European caste of bankers and politicians.
They’re worse because Europe has had sub-replacement fertility for much longer than the United States (a trend worsened, there as here, by the Great Recession), which drags on economic growth, increases fiscal burdens, heightens social anomie and makes mass immigration seem more culturally threatening to natives even as it seems more desirable to technocrats.
They’re worse because Europe is a continent of ethno-states without a strong assimilative tradition, and it’s now attempting to integrate an immigrant population that differs from its natives more dramatically — in religion, culture, education, mores — than the immigrant population differs from natives in the United States. And more, part of this immigrant population is tempted by jihadist ideologies that flourish far more easily on European than on American soil, and is linked to neighboring regions whose populations are growing fast enough to promise truly revolutionary migration rates should Europe let them come.
Finally, they’re worse because European governance has a greater democracy deficit than the United States, and because the European ruling class already relies more than its American counterpart on illiberal methods — restrictions on speech that would be the envy of our campus commisars, counterterrorism methods that would make Jeff Sessions blush, even the spread of “voluntary” euthanasia as a solution to age and illness and unhappiness — to maintain the continental peace.
This is a tangle of problems that no single statesman or party, however brilliant, is likely to cut through; they can be only managed, not resolved. But much of elite European politics seems to be organized around the premise that they are really problems only because they might lead to an extremist party taking power. So the important thing is to concentrate every effort on delegitimizing and defeating and excluding critics (be they right wing or, as in many Mediterranean countries, far left) rather than solving the problems that the outsiders often quite accurately identify.
This strategy partially succeeded in Greece, but it failed with Brexit. It should succeed in defeating Le Pen, but it has failed to prevent Poland and Hungary from turning to parties of the populist right.
But even — maybe especially — if it were comprehensively successful, it would still deserve to be discarded, because it represents a dereliction of duty, a refusal to stare actual failure in its face.
Ideally, it would be discarded first by existing parties of the center-right, which would adapt the populist critique and implement an agenda purged of crankishness and bigotry: This seems to be what Theresa May is trying to do in Britain, and I wish her well.
But elsewhere right-of-center parties are either breaking down or simply sticking to the same old playbook, leaving populists as the most viable alternative to the status quo. And the policy alternative that the right-wing populists often offer — hard limits on immigration, new financial support for families, a re-emphasis on national sovereignty, the unwinding of the euro — is in some ways less extreme than the open-borders and onward-to-federalism fantasies still nursed by the elite, and more directly responsive to the elite program’s widespread failure. (It is also considerably more coherent than the right-wing populism of Donald Trump.)