Trump Is Not America’s Le Pen, He’s Worse.

Anne Applebaum / The Atlantic
Trump Is Not America’s Le Pen, He’s Worse. French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has heaped praise on former president Donald Trump in the past. (photo: Getty)

He’s worse.

The elections to the European Parliament are, for politics junkies, what the World Cup is for soccer fans. There are 27 countries with 27 different sets of parties—center-right, center-left, far right, far left, liberal, conservative, green—and 27 sets of statistics to peruse. Because these are not national elections, and because they do not usually change governments, voters often treat them experimentally, voting for parties they would not choose to run their countries, or else just voting in protest against whoever is in power, as Americans do in midterms. That makes them appealingly—or alarmingly—unpredictable.

Ever since Brexit, the British no longer vote in the European Parliament, and they never cared much about it anyway. Americans have always been pretty hazy about the institution (except when it suddenly turns out to have massive regulatory powers). Still, Anglo-American media always need a shorthand to sum up this messy, nuanced, continent-wide horse race, and on the morning after Sunday’s vote, they found one: The Rise of the Far Right. And the follow-up talking point? America might head this way too.

Now let me make it more complicated.

When applied to France, the scary headlines were fair enough: Marine Le Pen’s anti-establishment, far-right National Rally party (which has in fact been a part of the French establishment for decades, though never in charge) swept the board, which in that system means it won about a third of the votes. This was clearly a protest vote; it was clearly aimed at the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and he responded in kind. He called a snap French parliamentary election, which will force French voters to decide if they really want Le Pen, not just to represent them in the European Parliament, but to run the country.

He is betting that they do not. The rules are different in French national campaigns: The voting happens in two rounds, which means the winners have to get more than half the votes, not a third. If he’s wrong, Le Pen could be prime minister, but she would have to share power with Macron, who would have three years in which to make her life miserable. If he’s right, she loses again, as she has done many times before.

Almost everywhere else, the banner headline was wrong. In Poland, the far-right former ruling party came in second for the first time in a decade, beaten by the center-right current ruling party (whose government my husband, Radek Sikorski, serves in). In Hungary, a brand-new, insurgent center-right party unexpectedly took votes away from Viktor Orbán’s autocratic ruling party. In Slovakia, the Netherlands, and even Italy and France, the center-left did better than in previous elections. In Scandinavia and Spain, the far right did worse.

In Germany, the story is more complicated. The three-party ruling coalition did badly, but the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), plagued by scandals that connect it to Russian money and Nazi sympathies, fared worse, with 16 percent of the vote, than some expected a few months ago. I don’t want to downplay the threat of the AfD, with its poisonous rhetoric and financial ties to Russia, or the threat of its sister party in Austria, which narrowly placed first. But the real victors in Germany were the center-right Christian Democrats, who are neither pro-Nazi nor pro-Russia. On the contrary, they have been arguing for months that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz should do more to help Ukraine, not less.

For Americans, the message from these elections is alarming and unexpected, but not because of what is happening in Europe. Gaze across the continent, whether at Giorgia Meloni, the Italian prime minister whose party originated in Mussolini’s fascist movement, or Le Pen, whose roots truly lie in Vichy, or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, who once called his country’s Parliament “fake,” and you will see far-right leaders who have succeeded precisely by appearing to tack to the center, trying to sound less extreme, and dropping previous objections and embracing existing alliances, such as the European Union and NATO. They do talk a lot about immigration and inflation, but so do mainstream parties. Their goals may secretly be more radical—Le Pen may well be planning to undermine the French political system if she wins, and I don’t believe that she has cut her ties to Russia—but they are succeeding by hiding that radicalism from voters.

Donald Trump is not like these politicians. The former president is not tacking to the center, and he is not trying to appear less confrontational. Nor does he seek to embrace existing alliances. On the contrary, almost every day he sounds more extreme, more unhinged, and more dangerous. Meloni has not inspired her followers to block the results of an election. Le Pen does not rant about retribution and revenge. Wilders has agreed to be part of a coalition government, meaning that he can compromise with other political leaders, and has promised to put his notorious hostility to Muslims “on ice.” Even Orbán, who has gone the furthest in destroying his country’s institutions and who has rewritten Hungary’s constitution to benefit himself, doesn’t brag openly about wanting to be an autocrat. Trump does. People around him speak openly about wanting to destroy American democracy too. None of this seems to hurt him with voters, who appear to welcome this destructive, radical extremism, or at least not to mind it.

American media clichés about Europe are wrong. In fact, the European far right is rising in some places, but falling in others. And we aren’t “in danger” of following European voters in an extremist direction, because we are already well past them. If Trump wins in November, America could radicalize Europe, not the other way around.

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