Ross Douthat, the conservative New York Times columnist, is a master in the art of getting his readers to give a fair hearing to views they would usually dismiss out of hand. This is something I genuinely respect—and at times even admire—about his work. If there is any point in writing a column, it is to think aloud alongside the reader, not to keep preaching the same sermon to a congregation of the unthinking faithful. And though I, too, usually disagree with Douthat, I often learn from him and have never had reason to doubt his good faith or his erudition.
That changed when Douthat penned his latest column, in which he puts his considerable skills in the service of defending the indefensible: the election of a post-fascist who presents a clear and present danger to ethnic and religious minorities in France.
If Douthat is to be believed, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front and the would-be president of France, models herself after Gen. Charles de Gaulle. She mounts a compelling populist critique of a dysfunctional Europe that is embarking on a dangerous experiment in mass immigration. And while her positions may seem “controversial,” they are actually “straightforwardly correct.”
This bears bafflingly little resemblance to the Marine Le Pen that I, and countless other observers of France, have known for many years. Le Pen, to me, is the leader of a party that has long sympathized with the Vichy regime. Though she has made a big show of “de-toxifying” the National Front, the promises and statements she has made in her latest presidential campaign remain unabashedly extreme: She wants to ban Muslim women from wearing the headscarf—not just in schools or universities, but in the streets. She has refused to accept her country’s responsibility for the deportation of tens of thousands of Jews in July 1942, giving the lie to the idea that she has finally broken with her family’s nostalgia for the past. And she is so open about her admiration for authoritarian bullies that she has poured lavish praise on Donald Trump and traveled to the Kremlin to pay her respects to Vladimir Putin.
The gloss that’s supposed to conceal the true nature of her party wears even more thin: Last Tuesday, Le Pen handed the leadership of the National Front to Jean-François Jalkh. By Friday, Jalkh had to resign. Why? Because he has argued that (what else?) the gas chambers were never used to kill Jews. And yet, Douthat insinuates that Le Pen would be, in a manner of speaking, good for the Jews: She alone, he writes, is giving the appropriate response to “the rise of Islamist anti-Semitism.”
There are two explanations for how Douthat could have gotten it so wrong on this occasion: Either he is genuinely ignorant about Marine Le Pen and the role she plays in French politics. Or his views are far closer to authoritarian enemies of liberal democracy, including Donald Trump, than he has so far let on.
Given this depressing choice, I am happy to report that Douthat really does seem to labor under some basic misapprehensions about Le Pen and the French political scene. In one of the most telling moments in the column, for example, he argues that Le Pen’s “defense of a strict public secularism had been echoed by many mainstream French politicians,” like Nicolas Sarkozy and François Fillon. This is simply false. Sarkozy and Fillon defend a form of race-blind laïcité that seeks to keep all conspicuous religious displays out of the public sphere and rejects the idea that the state should accommodate the religious views of its citizens.
This policy is plenty obtuse and often does wind up advantaging Christians over Muslims. (While both Sarkozy and Fillon would be outraged at the suggestion that France should introduce a religious holiday for Eid, for example, they are perfectly comfortable with mandating that shops be closed on Christmas or Easter for reasons of “history” and “tradition.”) But Le Pen does not merely defend an outmoded conception of laïcité that can at times be discriminatory in practice. Rather, she uses the fig leaf of laïcité to advocate for a monocultural and monoreligious society in which total conformity to the preferences of the majority is the price of admission.
This becomes most apparent in Le Pen’s views on the headscarf and the yarmulke: While some of her rivals would outlaw these in public schools, Le Pen wants to ban them in all public places. In conjunction with her opposition to ritual slaughter and male circumcision, this would have a much more extreme outcome for religious freedom than anything the mainstream right has ever suggested. In effect, her policies would make it impossible for many French Jews and Muslims to carry out what they perceive as their basic religious duties.
I wish that such misunderstandings could fully explain how Douthat could have wound up making the case for Le Pen. But I’m afraid that’s not all there is to it. On the contrary, Douthat’s support for Le Pen reveals something more striking—and more shocking—about the nature of his opposition to Trump.
The case for #NeverLePen, Douthat writes, was never as strong as the case for #NeverTrump. Why? Because his main objection to Trump wasn’t the policies he promised to pursue, but rather his questions about Trump’s “fitness for the office, his ability to execute its basic duties, the effect that his demagogy and self-dealing would have on civic norms.” So since “nobody seriously doubts Le Pen’s competence, her command of policy, her ability to serve as president without turning the office into a reality-TV thunderdome,” Douthat prefers her to Emmanuel Macron, whom he dismisses as a “callow creature of a failed consensus.”
Even if, for the sake of argument, we concede that Le Pen really is a capable politician—and the people who know French politics best, like the writer and translator Art Goldhammer, have their doubts—this completely misunderstands what’s most dangerous about the new crop of populists: Trump isn’t just dangerous because he’s incompetent. He’s dangerous because his instincts are deeply authoritarian, and he has mainstreamed shocking attacks on ethnic and religious minorities.
Indeed, Vladimir Putin in Russia and Victor Orbán in Hungary are also very capable politicians who rejected a “failed consensus,” mounted a “compelling populist critique” of the liberal order, and were all too happy to talk about the many evils of Islam. And it is in part because of their competence that Putin has managed to quash democracy in Russia, and Orbán is now making great strides toward that same goal in Hungary.
When the Access Hollywood tape came out a few weeks before the election, many commentators were disturbed by the fact that it took evidence of sexual impropriety for mainstream Republicans to draw a line they were not willing to enforce when Trump had called for his political opponent to be jailed, or promised to keep the American people “in suspense” about whether he would accept the outcome of the election. If only the attacks on our most basic democratic norms had been carried out by a competent politician who did not brag about assaulting women, these commentators argued, a lot of conservatives would apparently have been willing to stay on board.
Back then, I was a little more charitable in my view of traditional conservatives. The fact that it took the Access Hollywood tape for many senior Republicans to flee Trump’s supposedly sinking ship had, I thought, as much to do with a problem of collective action as it did with an indifference to democratic norms: It’s not that they were more outraged by the tape than by Trump’s attacks on constitutional values but rather that the tape provided them with an occasion for coordinating their escape.
In retrospect, I’m starting to take an even bleaker view. For apparently even forthright #NeverTrumpers like Douthat are more disturbed by Trump’s style than they are by the substance of his ethnonationalist program.
And that, I suppose, is why I am genuinely rattled by Douthat’s latest column: It’s not just that he is using his platform at the New York Times to help elect a candidate who is full of venom about Muslims—and would make life for religious Jews impossible in the country. It’s that Douthat’s cerebral cheerleading shows that it would be enough to paint a little lipstick on our current president for plenty of #NeverTrumpers to celebrate an authoritarian populist as a great hero of the anti-liberal revolution.