Trump and Le Pen: Playing ISIS’s deadly game

Friday 18/12/2015
Overcoming fear. A demonstration in support of religious coexistence in Webster, Texas, on December 4th.

In a short space of time, two developments showed how attitudes towards Muslims are shaping domestic politics in the West. In France, the National Front did well in the first round of voting in regional elections and in the United States, Republican candidate Donald Trump made a highly divisive proposal for a ban on all Muslims travelling to the country.

What was apparent in both situations was the fact that those in favour of Trump and Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, were motivated by fear to­wards a situation they did not fully understand. Indeed, both politi­cians have played on this ignorance to render their populist messages more dramatic.

Trump, for instance, declared: “We need a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States while we figure out what the hell is going on. We’re out of control.”

This recourse to unfamiliarity, including the candidate’s own, was remarkable. Usually politicians say they’re there to bring solutions. Trump admitted he was as lost as anybody and that the ban was an effort to buy time for answers. That did not make it any less disgraceful but it did allow Trump to show that he and his electorate are one in their bewilderment with Islam.

Le Pen is a different matter. The National Front has been a force in French politics since the 1980s. Rather than turning into a fringe party, it has gained strength as France has struggled with integrat­ing immigrants, mainly from North Africa, into society.

Not that Le Pen has offered realistic solutions to the problem, beyond promising harsher security measures, but the electorate, faced with a transformation of French society it rejects, has increasingly been willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Perhaps that’s what makes Trump’s positions on immigrants and Muslims so disturbing. By and large the United States has represented a successful model of immigration. While Trump insists that America has “a massive Mus­lim problem”, that’s nonsense. As columnist Fareed Zakaria recently wrote, the number of Americans killed by Islamic terrorism in the 14 years since 9/11 averages three a year. The number of those killed in 2015 from gun homicides is about 11,000.

In that sense, perhaps, Trump and Le Pen are very different from each other. Trump has essentially invented a problem and used scare tactics to gain political leverage. Le Pen, no less of a demagogue, has addressed a genuine issue (albeit in a tawdry way), namely France’s uneasy relationship with its im­migrants.

The populist messages of both in­dividuals have gained a major boost from something else: the public’s growing displeasure with tradition­al political parties that seem to offer no solutions to the problems their countries face. Instead, their pri­mary aim appears to be to remain in power and maintain the status quo.

In that regard Trump is riding a wave that began a decade ago with the Tea Party. The paradox of the Tea Party is that it has blended nativist elements with a conserva­tive agenda at times bordering on the libertarian. While libertarians strongly oppose Trump’s grand­standing on immigration and Mus­lims, the nativist impulses he has revived have come to the fore.

It’s easy to condemn Trump and Le Pen as vulgar fear-mongers out to exploit the vulnerabilities of voters but that would be to misunderstand their tactical aims. What has helped Trump is his abil­ity to always stay a step ahead of his Republican rivals, imposing the agenda of debate, remaining at the centre of attention as they scramble for a secondary role.

Le Pen is the same way. She plays ambulance-chaser politics, always on hand to exploit an emergency and make it seem that she alone has the tools to fix things. The essence of her message, like Trump’s, is that the country is facing countless dif­ficulties, some of them existential, and that people are right to spend their days and nights worrying.

Yet the consensus is that the politics of paranoia end up benefit­ing those against whom they are directed. In excluding an entire re­ligious community from the United States, the argument goes, Trump only increases Muslim isolation and discontent, allowing groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) to more easily mobilise recruits.

Suspicion of Muslims has po­larised many European countries and there is little sign of the ten­sions easing. Doubtless, attacks, or threats of attacks, by ISIS will sustain the unhealthy atmosphere prevailing today.

That is why people should take a step back, calm down and look carefully at reality to see how Mus­lims can better assist in marginalis­ing the killers. Yet because Trump and Le Pen are, above all, reflec­tions of domestic frustrations, that is not likely to soon happen

Scapegoating is not new in the United States and Europe. With time, people settle down and grasp that their behaviour was shameful but, meanwhile, the damage has been done.