A foul-mouthed, racist authoritarian with unconcealed disdain for the Rule of Law is pitted for the presidency against an opponent who personifies the ruling elite and is accused by many of crooked behaviour. Next week, on Tuesday 8 November, that will happen when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton face the American people. It also happened on 5 May 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen faced Jaques Chirac in the run-off for the two candidates who had come top in the first round of the election for the French president on 21 April 2002.
Whereas it would be foolish to predict the result on Tuesday (Clinton is favourite but who knows in this time of shocks?), it is safe to say that it will be nothing like the result on 5 May 2002. Chirac crushed Le Pen by 82.2% to 17.8%.
In the first round when votes had been split between 16 candidates, Chirac had won 19.8% and Le Pen had been only 3% behind on 16.8%. In the two weeks between the rounds, France saw mass demonstrations and was gripped with widespread feelings of horror and revulsion at the possibility that a neofascist like Le Pen could become president.
Millions of voters who could not stand Chirac, both for his right wing programme and the fact that they thought he was corrupt, nevertheless voted for him to stop Le Pen. A famous poster encapsulated the mood of these reluctant Chirac voters. It was a picture of Chirac with the slogan - “Votez escroc, pas facho!”. “Vote for the crook, not the fascist!”
Trump is every bit as dangerous a man as Le Pen was in 2002. Clinton is as flawed a candidate as Chirac.
So, why will we not see Trump crushed in the way Le Pen was crushed? Personalities and policies matter but far more significant for an explanation, I believe, is how the circumstances have changed between 2002 in France and 2016 in the USA. Karl Marx was right when he said: -“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
Here are three ways the circumstances are different.
First, since the Financial Crash of 2008 there are many more people in Western democracies who have been reduced either to penury in the case of the poor or to deep insecurity in the case of the middle class.
Secondly, since 2008 the elites in the West have continued to do very well. Those in the middle class who have not done well - or who see their children struggling - and those in poverty have increasingly bitterly resented what they have seen as the elites’ indifference or complacency to their plight.
Third, the level of political abuse in the USA over the last few decades has robbed the language of meaning. Trump is a highly dangerous man, unqualified to be president who will imperil democracy in the USA and, indeed, the future of the world itself. That is the truth.
However, mainstream Republican politicians and operatives have been saying similar things about Obama for years. Much the same applies to the rhetoric of mainstream Democrats about their opponents. Now when the mainstream say that of Trump it is hardly surprising people do not believe them.
If Trump loses, we can celebrate - but not for long. The circumstances that allowed him to flourish will not have gone away. Imagine how much more dangerous, electorally, would be a cleaned-up Trump - someone much like him but more disciplined.
This has happened in France. Jean-Marie Le Pen was replaced by his daughter Marine Le Pen. She is a cleaned-up version of her father. Polls are indicating that she will actually lead in the first round of the presidential election in France in 2017. It is expected that she will lose the second round just as her father did. But no one expects that she will be crushed 82:18 like him. It will be much closer.
These are dark times, indeed.