How could this have happened in the U.S.?
The reasons are complex, some peculiar to the U.S. and some that are common to both the U.S. and Europe. The most significant one, that applies as well to Europe as here, is the economic situation. There is very high unemployment, especially among younger people and the marginalized. In France, overall unemployment is higher than in the U.S.. That being said, the true unemployment rate in the U.S. is much higher than the official figures. In both the U.S. and France, there is a tendency among many to blame immigrants and minorities for it. They are also often seen as sapping the country in terms of social services that particularly strain local units of government.
External entities are also held responsible. In the U.S. it is trade pacts like NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) that encourage employers to chase after low-wage industrial workers abroad (even though there are plenty of low-wage service workers in the U.S.). In Europe, it is the European Union which is seen as an unaccountable, undemocratic arrangement that forces austerity policies upon the individual countries to the detriment of the general population, and to the advantage of the upper, capitalist classes. All of these factors produce high emotions of fear and anger, of ultranationalism and the attribution of otherness to minorities and immigrants, and to despair with the status quo and the hope that Far Right parties, usually with charismatic leaders, can save people from the calamity that they feel they are living.
Another interesting dimension to this is religion. In Poland and in the Slavic countries of Eastern Europe, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches respectively are playing a major role in supporting right-wing politics. In France, a conservative Catholic bloc has been manifesting itself in the conservative Republican Party, and can be seen in the programs of former President Nicolas Sarkosy and in the present Republican presidential candidacy of Francois Fillon. Gay marriage, abortion, and even secularism in public institutions, especially the schools, which have been a mainstay of French republicanism, have newly become major issues in the mainstream of French politics. This resembles, on a smaller scale, Trump’s appeal to the white evangelical voters in the American South and Mid-West. The big issue for them is who will be appointed to the Supreme Court and be voting on civil rights issues for women, minorities, and the LGBT population. The European Right, in both Western and Eastern Europe, has taken up the battle over cultural and social issues (the culture wars) that the American Right has engaged in for a long time and that Trump has been playing so effectively.
But there are other variables that accounted for Trump’s victory that are not so easily comparable to what is happening in Europe recently. The first is the Electoral College.If Trump and Clinton had been French, Clinton would have won because she had a sizeable lead in the popular vote, almost three million more votes than Trump.
Aside from this, there was the difference between the two candidates themselves. Clinton was clearly the more politically experienced and qualified. She discussed policy issues in a serious way. And she would have been the first woman president, following the first African American president. That was both a plus and a minus. A plus for those who valued diversity in political life, a negative to those who despised “identity politics.”
Even some on the Left felt that she should have devoted more time to addressing the serious economic plight of many Americans than to stressing the breaking of the glass ceiling imposed by males. While this is not necessarily an either/or, many Democrats who supported Bernie Sanders in the primary felt that Clinton did not come across as sincerely attentive to the economic plight of so many people where industry had disappeared. Fairly or not, the association that was made between her and her husband’s support of NAFTA, and her hesitation in coming out against Obama’s Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement, made her unpopular both on the Left and on the populist Right. Her vote for the Iraq War and other more hawkish positions also alienated progressives on the Left and noninterventionists on the Right. Her use of a personal server for public business when she was Secretary of State came back to haunt her. And her closeness to Wall Street when she was the Senator from New York, and refusal to release the content of speeches she gave to investment bankers for large fees, did not help her on either wing of the political spectrum.
Trump, on the other hand, has had no political experience which could be held against him. His business dealings were marred by frequent bankruptcies, by refusal to pay for services provided by contractors, by a constant stream of threats and lawsuits against people and institutions. He broke tradition by being the first presidential candidate to refuse to release his tax returns. Instead of seriously discussing policy issues, he offered a series of ad libs to please his crowd. He vilified all of his opponents in both the primary and the general elections. He referred to Clinton as “crooked Hillary” who should be criminally prosecuted. He refused to say that he would accept the result of the election. He degraded women, Mexicans and Moslems. He even ridiculed the physical gestures of a paralyzed reporter who asked a question at a press conference.
Our next president has bragged about molesting women and been accused by a number of women of doing so. He has encouraged violence against protestors at his rallies. He has defended the use of torture. Since the election, he has appointed to be his attorney General Senator Sessions, who has spoken favorably of the Ku Klux Klan and opposed civil rights legislation. His special adviser, with an office in the White House, will be Stephen Bannon, the former head of Breitbart, a Far Right “news” outlet that has diffused racist and anti-Semitic material, and which intends to establish an office in Paris. His national security advisor is going to be former Lt. General Michael Flynn, who has spread abusive scurrilous stories about Clinton on social media. His Trump-employed son went so far as to send out messages contending that Hillary Clinton was involved with child sex rings.
In Europe, you have had your Le Pens and your Berlusconi, whose sexual vulgarity equals Trumps. The former were established party leaders. Trump has captured a party. What he has behind him are largely the economically hard-hit, who are willing to forgive his sins in the hope that he will be their salvation, and white supremacists who see him as their vindication and leader. Trump is an actor who has created politics as a one-man spectacle, combining Mussolini’s oratorical style and facial gestures with a skilled use of Twitter, which the cable news media has retransmitted instantaneously to the public.
Indeed, the closer historical analogy to the spectacular Trump are the Nazis, who used the technology of radio to mobilize the masses in their living rooms, vilified and crushed political opponents, dehumanized ethnic and religious groups, and repeated lie after lie with the assurance that their followers would believe them and that establishment politicians and business leaders would be afraid to confront them. It is precisely this complex of factors that foreshadowed the first totalitarian state in Western Europe in the late 1930s, which began with an electoral victory and which too few took seriously enough until it was too late.
I say to my French friends, please do not be taken in the way we Americans have been.