Why Trump (Still) Loves Macron
However hard they try, U.S. presidents lack the power of a French president to transform their nation.
June 14, 2018
In times past, whenever Americans were truly frustrated about political gridlock in their country, they could always draw comfort from one convenient fact of life: Things in France, their fellow presidential democracy, were much, much worse. That country was truly stuck in the past, whereas the United States, despite its hiccups, was firmly anchored on the cutting edge of modernity.
Let us remember, for starters, that modern France – born in the late 18th century out of a revolution, very close to the time of the American one – is now on its fifth republic, while the United States is still on its first. Who then is the hyper-traditionalist?
But does this assumption still hold? For decades, Americans have complained about “gridlock” and hyper-partisanship in their domestic politics. But rather than improving, things have gotten worse.
This begs the question: Can Americans still turn the corner – or are they hopelessly stuck in a constitutional framework and a poisonous brand of domestic politics from which they cannot escape?
PR or substance?
Americans reassuringly tell themselves, as well as the entire world, that the U.S. political system ultimately always manages to self-correct. No matter how big the present malaise, all that is needed for these self-healing forces to emerge is a real crisis. The alternative version of this self-assurance act is to say that all we need is a bit of “leadership” – and things will be alright again.
Because the United States has long been the beacon of modernity, the rest of the world has long believed the American rhetoric. But given the past inability to self-correct, and especially the immense increase in vitriol that has gripped U.S. politics long before Trump’s arrival, mantra-like repetitions of the mechanism of “checks and balances” doing what is needed are beside the point.
One must hope that these may stop the worst of Trump’s unilateral excesses from taking hold. But that is a far cry from overcoming the deep division that mars not just the American body politic, but American society. At a very fundamental level, people across the red-blue divide are no longer willing to live with one another.
That puts the very nature of being a “society” – in the sense of companionship and a willingness to live in friendly association with others – into question.
In a way, it seems as if Americans have long realized the trouble they are in. That is why, with each new election, they put so much hope on the emergence of a truly transformative President.
In a real pinch, the theory goes, U.S. presidents — equipped as they are with vast powers and a direct mandate from the people — can trigger overdue change and reform the system through the sheer power of their transformative personality.
All that special?
Unfortunately, the historical record proves that this high hope goes unfulfilled.
Well over 50 years have passed since John F. Kennedy was President. For all the excitement that his election created at the time, he actually got very little done.
That the civil rights agenda passed the U.S. Congress was the result of the surprising civic courage of his Vice President (and successor as President), Lyndon B. Johnson. The former Senator from Texas and Majority Leader was a true machine politician and inside operator.
In the 1980s, it was Ronald Reagan’s turn to salvage the nation. The 40th U.S. President, a former actor, remains a hero on the ideological right, but his “transformative” powers did not really transcend to people outside his political camp.
Barack Obama was also seen as a transformative personality when he was elected U.S. President in 2008. And yet, like JFK, for all the glitz and excitement accorded to him as a person, Obama largely failed to translate the power of his personality into the body politic. That outcome was the combination of him not trying resolutely enough and a system that simply did not let him.
Donald Trump, in the eyes of his voters at least, is the latest incarnation of the transformative U.S. President. While he still has the support of his true believers, the rest of the nation is not convinced.
Why is it so hard for U.S. Presidents, whether they are transformative personalities or not, to be successful on the home front? The reason for that is as straight-forward as it is surprising.
In the U.S. political system, unlike the French system brought in by de Gaulle in 1958 with the launch of France’s Fifth Republic, nobody – not even a President elected with resounding majorities – really has the unitary power to get things done.
A zero-sum game
The system of checks and balances, and especially strong minority rights, create strong impediments to change, even when it is badly needed. Conservative incrementalism, not profound change, is the name of the political game in the United States.
The U.S.’s two-party system is supposed to streamline political choice. In reality, it stifles it. Its ever more binary nature not only weakens the need for cross-party coalition-building, it also corrodes politics. Everything is turned, at best, into a zero-sum game.
In that sense, the United States has now inherited from France the mantle of political paralysis. Hyper-partisanship thrives, and the interests of the people get shortshrift.
Now that French voters have put Emmanuel Macron in the Élysée Palace, we will see a live experiment of whether such transformation can work in (supposedly staid) France, when it has not in the (supposedly dynamic) United States.
The key to Macron’s potential success is that, by virtue of his République en marche (REM) party, he has managed to implode the Fifth Republic’s rigorous de facto two-party system.
In its place, Macron has built a de facto cross-party coalition that transcends the stifling left-right divide. That’s a political revolution that has not required any constitutional change.
Much of what has unfolded in France of late ought to be of keen interest in the United States. Alas, as things stand, there is no real hope for such an avenue of profound change to open up in Washington. It is inconceivable, for example, to have a parliamentary election where three quarters of the members of parliament are new — as just happened in France.
Very few political races in the United States are competitive. In most cases, it is basically predetermined who (or which party) will be the winner in each and every electoral district. That only heightens the sense of popular disillusionment and disengagement even more.
Macron as a role model
What is especially amazing is to recognize that the method of Macron’s political rise is entirely American. After all, he literally tossed his hat into the French presidential race like a political entrepreneur — and not the consensus product of one or the other side’s machine politics. He won by virtue of the force of personality (and a great deal of luck).
Coincidentally, this is also why Donald Trump is so taken with Emmanuel Macron. The French President has the kind of strong executive authority which Trump wishes an American president had. In fact, his quasi-royal demeanor and great penchant for executive orders could also be interpreted as Trump’s way to mimic the powers of the French President inside the U.S. political system.
Whenever Americans were frustrated about politics in the US, they were comforted that things were worse in France.
Americans cast France as stuck in the past, whereas the US was firmly anchored on the cutting edge of modernity.
While the jury on Macron is still out, the shoe of a retrograde political system is now on the American foot.
The key to Macron’s success is that he has built a cross-party coalition that transcends the left-right divide.
In the US system, not even a President elected with resounding majorities has the power to get things done.
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