As 2019 begins, one useful way to take stock of world events is to compare the outcomes of two recent elections: the election of Donald Trump as United States president and that of Emmanuel Macron as French president.
I decided to trawl through the archives of an establishment liberal newspaper and see what it said about these two men just after they rose to power. I chose The Financial Times—first, because it is a bastion of liberal globalism, found on the desks of C-level executives across the world. Second, it is based in London, not in the U.S. or France.
After each election, The Financial Times published editorials on both candidates—November 10, 2016, for Trump and May 9, 2017, for Macron. Though the paper’s editors are not given to crude rhetoric, the double standards are glaring. They tell us that Trump is a “political neophyte with a simple slogan,” and a “real-estate mogul with no experience in government.” Trump’s failing, according to the Financial Times, is that he is new to the scene and has never before held office. But in the paper’s editorial on Macron, his failing is the French president’s strength: “Macron’s achievement, becoming the youngest ever occupant of the Élysée Palace with no experience of elected office… is astonishing.”
The double standard is not as interesting as what the two candidates are said to represent. Trump’s worldview is a “failure” because it does not embrace “the free movement of capital, goods and labour.” Meanwhile Macron’s program is said to “appeal to voters’ intelligence” with its “liberal, centrist response to the populist politics of national identity and protectionism.” The only concern the editors express about Macron is that he is insufficiently hard-line in pursuing the reforms he has promised.
Hindsight is a powerful clarifier. Macron has indeed pursued his “reform” with gusto. Meanwhile, Trump has pursued his program with equal robustness. But in 2019, the outcomes of these programs could not be more different.
France is on fire. This is not a metaphor. We have all seen the pictures of flames rising from a Paris engulfed in riots. Moreover, France is on fire precisely due to Macron’s “reforms.” In the U.S., however, the worst that can be said is that an overextended stock market is experiencing some volatility due to Wall Street’s dislike of Trump’s trade policies.
In the U.S., even after two years of Trump rule, the establishment elites are still running around with their hair on fire. If you were to base your assessments of America on elite opinion, you would think that the country is deep in crisis. But in France, the most the elites will say about Macron is that he is clapped out. He tried, he failed—time for the next guy or gal.
It is not hard to draw conclusions from this contrast: Our globalist liberal elites are no longer fit to govern. They are decadent and out-of-touch. In fact, they are not just decadent; they are blinded by their own hubris—high on their own fumes. Crisis, for them, is a volatile stock market. A burning capital, on the other hand, is simply a sign the incumbent has overstayed his welcome.
But if the elites meant what they said when he got elected, Macron cannot possibly have overstayed his welcome. For one thing, he has been in power less than two years—a very short time for any normal leader to generate an approval rating of around 30 percent, as Macron has. Moreover, Macron has followed the script approved by his fellow elites at The Financial Times just days after his election. His presidency has not failed in spite of this, or due to some personal failing. It has failed precisely because he has followed this script.
Are the elites aware that their liberal globalist project is failing? Surely these are not stupid people. They are the cream of the global crop—or so we are told. Two possible explanations present themselves.
One is that the global elites are not what they present themselves to be. Yes, they have their qualifications from elite institutions. But maybe these elite institutions are themselves corrupt, rewarding system-gamers and sharp-elbowed mediocrities. Another explanation is that the global elites know the system is failing but remain on the capsizing ship because it floats on an ocean of their crude self-interest. If this is true, then we cannot believe anything they write or say. They are simply selling their own book, as they say on Wall Street.
It is probably a mixture of the two. Some are poseurs and some are cynical—but both are corrupt. And corruption does not speak the language of reason. It speaks the language of power. 2019 is going to be another interesting year, and 2020 will likely be the same. Strap in, it promises to be a bumpy ride.
John William O'Sullivan writes from Dublin, Ireland.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.