Independent centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron looks at some of the 2,500 photographs of young Jews deported from France, during a visit to the Shoah memorial in Paris, France. Image Credit: AP

France’s two finalists in its presidential election, Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, both come from outside the political parties. She’s a proto-fascist — anti-Nato, anti-European Union, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, etc. He’s an ex-socialist who understands the need to reform and shrink French bureaucracy in order to reinvigorate the economy. He’s a believer in Nato and is anti-Russia and pro-EU. The major French parties have broken down and have lost the confidence of voters. Le Pen appeals to prejudices and emotions; Macron, a former investment banker and finance minister, is a rational technocrat who’d be comfortable in Silicon Valley.

Things are not all that different in America. President Donald Trump, although forced to moderate his views on Nato, embodies the nativist, nationalist and protectionist ethos of European parties. He is irrational and adept at fear-mongering, and his campaign connected with a determined strand of know-nothingism that is born of a sense of victimhood. As Tom Nichols writes in USA Today:

“As his supporters like to point out, Trump makes the right enemies, and that’s enough for them. Journalists, scientists, policy wonks — as long as “the elites” are upset, Trump’s voters assume that the administration is doing something right. “He makes them uncomfortable, which makes me happy,” Ohio Trump voter James Cassidy told the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale. Syria? Korea? Health care reform? Foreign aid? Just so much mumbo-jumbo, the kind of Sunday morning talk-show stuff only coastal elitists care about.

“There is a serious danger to American democracy in all this. When voters choose ill-informed grudges and diffuse resentment over the public good, a republic becomes unsustainable. The temperance and prudent reasoning required of representative government gets pushed aside in favour of whatever ignorant idea has seized the public at that moment.”

Democrats and disgusted Republicans can try to reason with voters who reject rationality, but they’ll find it difficult to talk them out of conspiracy theories, willful ignorance and irrational xenophobia. They can try explaining basic economics — globalisation has made us richer, trade doesn’t make us poorer, illegal immigrants don’t steal Rust Belt workers’ factory jobs — or they can try to match Trump stride for stride in anger, contempt for elites and conspiratorial explanations for disagreeable aspects of modernity. (The latter was the approach of Senator Bernie Sanders in 2016.) Is that it? Are these the only two options?

The Macron model — modern, reform-minded, optimistic — provides an alternative for either the Democrats (from the centre-left) or a centre-right alternative, either within the GOP or in the form of a third party. On the centre-right, Ohio Governor John Kasich (Republican) told BuzzFeed, “I’m pro-environment, I’m pro-trade, I’m anti-debt, I’m pro-immigration, I’m pro-Nato.” Another #NeverTrump Republican, Senator Ben Sasse from Nebraska declared nearly a year ago in a sort of Facebook manifesto:

Imagine if we had a candidate:

* Who hadn’t spent his/her life in politics either buying politicians or being bought

* Who didn’t want to stitch together a coalition based on anger but wanted to take a whole nation forward

* Who pledged to serve for only one term, as a care-taker problem-solver for this messy moment

* Who knew that Washington isn’t competent to micromanage the lives of free people, but instead wanted to SERVE by focusing on 3 or 4 big national problems, such as:

A. A national security strategy for the age of cyber and jihad;

B. Honest budgeting/entitlement reform so that we stop stealing from future generations;

C. Empowering states and local governments to improve K-12 education, and letting Washington figure out how to update federal programmes to adjust to now needing lifelong learners in an age where folks are obviously not going to work at a single job for a lifetime anymore; and

D. Retiring career politicians by ending all the incumbency protections, special rules, and revolving door opportunities for folks who should be public “servants,” not masters.

Democrats have some reform-minded governors (for example, Jay Inslee in Washington), some rising leaders and some newly energised Silicon Valley leaders who may advance a centre-left message.

But, you say, isn’t this the kind of centrism that Hillary Clinton tried? Not really. The messenger is as critical as the message, and Clinton’s own shortcomings and inability to articulate a vision of change undid her (with help from WikiLeaks and James Comey). Selling the status quo is a losing proposition these days. Moderation must be more appetising than overcooked oatmeal.

A successful alternative to hard-right populists has to present an entirely different vision. The refutation of the Le Pens and the Trumps must contain a commitment to rational problem-solving, inclusion, optimism, personal empowerment and successful transition to the post-industrial economy. Trumpian lies and rage must be rejected by refusing to infantilize voters or mimic popular ignorance and resentment.

That sort of grown-up outlook may get a boost when voters figure out that the Trumps of the world are charlatans — bumblers who cannot possibly deliver on their promises once in office. The sight of a frantic president trying desperately to concoct some window dressing for the 100-day marker to distract from his abject ineptness should remind us: Ultimately, people want government to work. When it doesn’t, perhaps they will try a competent, rational, experienced leader. How novel that may seem after a few years of Trump.

— Washington Post

Jennifer Rubin is a Washington Post columnist