Is Trump America's Jean-Marie Le Pen?

It is quite tempting to draw parallels between the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders movements in America and the populist movements that have been rocking European politics for many years. There seems indeed to be, on both sides of the Atlantic, a growing discontent about traditional politics and a feeling among ordinary citizens of being betrayed by a complacent and pathetically incompetent establishment. As a result, we are seeing a swing to both right-wing and left-wing demagogues.

The parallel between Trump and the French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the French National Front and passed it to his daughter Marine Le Pen in 2011, is particularly insightful. There is a lot in common between both men, as well as some important differences.

Both men turned into political icons quite late in their lives. While Le Pen had been constantly dabbling in politics since his student years, he did not reach a sizable audience until the 1980s when he was almost 60. He became a major player in 2002 at age 74 only when he emerged during the presidential election’s second round -- due to Byzantine ballot regulations -- as the sole challenger of the outgoing conservative president Jacques Chirac. Likewise, Trump may have floated political ambitions since 1988 at least, but he became a serious contender only in 2015 at the age of 69.

Both are "charismatic." In other words, they are consummate showmen who pay more attention to the audience’s emotions than to rational argument and debate. Le Pen allegedly took lessons with an American televangelist coach, and Trump succesfully ran his own reality TV program.

Clearly, their age is more of an asset than a liability in this respect: showmanship means physical energy, and while that may be taken for granted in young men and women, it strikes as magical or superhuman in older men. Think of the Rolling Stones or of French rock singer Johnny Hallyday, well in their seventies, who attract larger crowds than most juvenile rock and pop singers.

Both Le Pen and Trump are truculent, indulge in bad-taste jokes, discard political correctness, and play on racist and sexist themes or innuendoes. Both can be rude towards sick or physically challenged people: Le Pen once suggested that AIDS patients should be locked in special facilities; Trump appeared to mock a disabled New York Times reporter. Both project a macho image but have had complex relationships with women. Upon separating from him, Le Pen’s first wife Pierrette, a former pin-up girl, stripped naked in 1987 for the French edition of Playboy magazine. Trump appeared on Playboy’s cover in 1990 along with playmate Brandi Brandt.

Again, such behavior or such reputation is purportedly counterproductive with many voters, and especially with conservative Christian constituencies. In fact, it is not. The ultimate reason for both men’s rise in polls and electoral returns is that they tackled the taboo of the day: the impact of mass immigration, including Muslim immigration, on society. Being provocative or outlandish on other issues as well is understood as a reassurance to keep a steadfast stand on that main issue.

Le Pen has been constantly recycling the old European far right’s conspiracy fantasies, according to which powerful minorities (Freemasons, Jews, "the System") are enslaving the common people. Trump draws -- albeit in a softer and less systematic way -- from somewhat similar American traditions, going back to the Know-Nothing Party and Nativism. Le Pen, who stands against the EU and NATO, tends to equate globalization and multiculturalism with American "imperialism."