Is Trump America's Jean-Marie Le Pen?

There is a growing America First and isolationist element in Trump’s foreign policy views. Both men seem to welcome the rise of nationalism in all parts of the world, including among America’s or the West’s rivals. Both have expressed sympathy, or at least appreciation, for foreign dictators and strongmen. Le Pen, for all his anti-Muslim militancy, was a fan of Saddam Hussein and now worships Putin; Trump expressed negative views about the Second Gulf War and occasionally praises Putin and the Chinese regime.

What about the differences? Both Le Pen and Trump are rich, but millionaire Le Pen is a pauper compared to billionaire Trump. Moreover, Le Pen inherited most of his money from a political supporter under opaque circumstances, while Trump inherited his own money from his father and then expanded it geometrically as a versatile businessman.

Many of Le Pen’s original sympathizers stem from the farthest right – in France, this means Third Reich and Vichy state fans -- whereas Trump, until recently, cultivated as many liberal Democrats as conservative Republicans. Le Pen once attempted to ingratiate himself with the Jewish community in the 1980s, but soon lapsed back into anti-Semitic rhetoric. He has been repeatedly fined or suspended as a member of the European Parliament for anti-Semitic offenses and Holocaust denial (he was just issued a 30,000 euro fine for saying -- again -- that the Nazi gas chambers were "a mere detail" in WWII history). Trump has always been on friendly terms with Jews; he is close to his daughter Ivanka, who converted to Orthodox Judaism and married an Orthodox Jew.

A more marked difference is that Jean-Marie Le Pen has remained a social and political outcast, or at best an outsider, all his life. Although he consolidated his party, the National Front, into France’s third political organization after the conservatives and the socialists in popular votes, he never managed to be a real frontrunner. In the 2002 election, the only time he stood on center stage, he garnered only 18% of the vote against 82% for Chirac. On the contrary, Trump has been for decades a member of the social elite (even if a rough and unpolished one). He was able, once he decided to run for president, to make it as a regular Republican candidate and to take the lead from within in the GOP primaries.

Many French observers wonder whether Le Pen ever nurtured real political ambitions. A prevalent conservative view is that Le Pen’s rise in the 1980s from about 1% of the national vote to more than 10% was largely engineered by the Machiavellian socialist president François Mitterrand to weaken the classic Right and keep a declining Left in power. An alternative view is that Le Pen has been more content to be a cult-like "King of the National Front" than to vie for actual power. A vastly different situation has arisen with the advent of his daughter and heir Marine Le Pen, who seems serious about winning and ready to take the requested steps to this end -- including departing from many far-right topics. A successful approach so far, she has since doubled her father’s scores nationwide.

Which brings us to a key question about Trump. Unlike Jean-Marie Le Pen, Trump is clearly running to win. What is going to happen if somebody else wins the Republican primaries or -- to quote his own word -- "steals" the nomination? On March 29, he explicitly revoked an earlier pledge by which all Republican contenders promised to support the nominee that will emerge from the GOP Convention, whoever it is. Chances are, if he does not get the nomination, he will run as an independent candidate and thus help the Democratic candidate -- Hillary Clinton, probably -- to be elected.

If this is indeed the case, Trump may be, even unintentionally, as destructive for the GOP and American conservatism as Jean-Marie Le Pen was for the French Right.