In the span of a few weeks, the tilt of the geopolitical world has shifted so quickly that perhaps Americans just haven’t had enough time to digest how fortunate they are Donald Trump did not win the 2020 election. Doubtlessly the Ukrainians are aware, and those living in the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are as well because their very lives would have been entirely forfeit or at grave risk right now. But given the soothing comfort of its giant pick-up trucks, guns, and doorbell cameras, it might be asking too much of American culture to pause and consider the alternative reality we could all be living in.
Still, many—both in this country and elsewhere—would gleefully embrace that reality with open arms. Even as Vladimir Putin’s appalling army systematically rapes, tortures, and beheads helpless civilians in its murderous invasion of Ukraine, the Russian dictator has found a fawning ally in the French far-right, with the re-emergence of Marine Le Pen. Last week, Ms. Le Pen drew 23% of the vote in France’s splintered election, forcing a runoff on April 24 between herself and French President Emanuel Macron, who garnered approximately 28%.
On Wednesday, Le Pen—apparently unperturbed by what is now aptly characterized as a genocidal campaign by Russia to eradicate the Ukrainian population—pledged to effectively abandon the 70-year-old NATO alliance in order to ratify Putin’s brutality, should the French people vote her into the presidency.
PARIS — Rejecting a “herd-like conformity” with the Biden administration, Marine Le Pen, the French far-right candidate for the presidency, said Wednesday that France would quit NATO’s integrated military command if she were elected and would seek for the alliance “a strategic rapprochement” with Russia.
As reported by Roger Cohen for the Washington Post, Le Pen’s rationale for accommodating Putin’s aims echo the same sentiments espoused by Donald Trump, who, according to former aides, was also intent on appeasing Putin by withdrawing the U.S. from the NATO alliance had he managed to be re-elected. This brand of Putin-envy appears to be particularly common among more autocratic, fascist-leaning politicians who have traditionally applauded the Russian despot as exemplifying what they call “strength” and resolve. In reality, they admire and envy the lack of any real constraints on his power, which they all shamelessly covet. We now see the end product of that lack of constraints playing out in Ukraine.
As Cohen observes, Le Pen’s agenda, to the extent she has one, mirrors Trump’s in all its essentials.
Dismissing multilateralism, blasting Germany, criticizing the European Union, relegating climate issues to a low priority, attacking “globalists” and maintaining a near silence on Russia’s brutal assault in Ukraine, Ms. Le Pen gave a taste of a worldview that was at once reminiscent of the Trump presidency and appeared to directly threaten NATO’s attempts to arm Ukraine and defeat Russia.
The similarities between Le Pen and Trump were evident in the first days of the latter’s administration. As James Traub observed in a column written for Foreign Policy, Le Pen’s xenophobic brand of so-called “populism” (by now simply a more pleasant word for “fascism”) and the race-baiting lies she espoused to support it were simply more glib and soothing in their delivery than Trump’s general penchant for crudeness and bombast:
Le Pen repeated Donald Trump’s canard that Barack Obama had “banned” immigrants from Iraq; denied, despite vast evidence to the contrary, that her supporters routinely fire off racist and homophobic tweets; and claimed, wrongly, that immigrants can automatically gain French citizenship through marriage. And then there were the Trumpian delusions: that a policy of “economic patriotism” penalizing French companies that move abroad would not raise the cost of French products but rather would foster a “virtuous circle” boosting growth and employment.
As Traub points out, Le Pen’s calculated delivery of her trademark nationalism and bigotry largely stems from her need to distance herself in the French public’s eyes from her ultra-radical and unabashedly antisemitic father, Jean Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front party she now leads. Still, Le Pen and Trump appear to be cut from basically the same cloth, even where Le Pen will, as Traub puts it, “demonize Muslims with a gracious smile instead of a vicious Twitter tirade.” Both are adept at cynically manipulating their public through fear of the “other.” Both display an instinctive aversion to the very idea of cooperation between nations, which they perceive only as a means to undercut their own aspirations for control and power.
Both are also intolerant of any dissent. Just as Trump encourages his rabid base to attack journalists and protesters at his rallies, Le Pen exhibits a similar hostility against perceived political enemies:
Le Pen is currently expected to lose the run-off election, mainly because the majority of those who originally voted for the far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon will be unable (at least in theory) to stomach a Le Pen victory. And even if she wins, the NATO alliance will most likely remain standing, albeit with France as a thoroughly diminished and unreliable presence.
But suppose the 2020 U.S. election—which Trump may have lost simply because of his dismal handling of the COVID-19 pandemic—had gone the other way. What would have been left of American strategic power and influence in this world would have withered and died on the vine in brutally short order, probably from the moment Putin sent troops into Ukraine. It’s impossible to know how much resolve to assist Ukraine would have existed among the remainder of NATO, but without a credible leader, it’s difficult to imagine how that response would have been effective. The world has never seen a nuclear-armed pathology like Putin invade a peaceful neighboring country for wholly irrational reasons, wielding his nuclear capability as a threat against any country that dares to oppose him, and even worse, vowing to continue his efforts until he is stopped. History suggests that such countries will not stop until they encounter an immutable opposing force.
And Trump would not have delivered that force. A mercurial buffoon with no grasp of (or interest in) foreign policy or even a basic understanding of what NATO stands for—and against—might have been cajoled into reluctant action by an exasperated military. But the sheer weakness of that position would have been evident to anyone paying attention. And Putin, for all his now glaringly apparent flaws, pays attention.
Law professor Alan Rozenshtein, writing for Lawfare, described the “nightmarish” scenario that this country would have faced if Trump were still in office:
From this perspective, it is sobering, if not downright terrifying, to think of how Trump would have handled this current crisis, had he won in 2020. Consider first the question of loyalty. Trump’s infamous phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in which he responded to the Ukrainian president’s request for more Javelin anti-tank missiles (which have proved vital for the Ukrainian defense) by asking for Ukrainian help in digging up dirt on his main political rival, betrays a disloyalty to the national interest whose geopolitical implications are now all too clear.
Nor is it clear that Trump would even feel that it was his responsibility to rally the world to confront Russia, as the Biden administration has skillfully done. After all, Trump’s response to criticisms of his administration’s early missteps in handling the coronavirus pandemic was to say “I don’t take responsibility at all.” Why expect that he would feel different about a war half a world away, or that he wouldn’t simply have delegated weighty foreign policy decisions to informal advisors, thereby maintaining distance and plausible deniability, as when Rudolph Giuliani effectively ran the White House’s Ukraine policy. Even worse, given Trump’s personal affinity for Vladimir Putin, which he reiterated even as Russian forces entered Ukraine, is the very real possibility that Trump would have supported Russia’s invasion.
The world we all still live in—the world of liberal democracies with a legitimate transfer of power untainted by autocratic, fascistic propaganda, coercion, and repression—is now sitting atop a knife-edge, susceptible to one misguided election by an apathetic, self-absorbed and frankly historically ignorant electorate. Racist demagogues like Le Pen and Trump are perfectly willing to push us off into the abyss simply to realize their dreams of power—the rest of the world be damned. They are both aided by a radicalized base that sees no problem with simply watching the world burn if only to validate its own delusional, stoked-up grievances.
In 2020 we dodged a bullet. But that gun is still pointed at us. If Democrats can’t wake Americans up to that reality, no one else is going to.
Editor’s Note: This story’s lead image has been changed.