Politics & Policy

Macron, Trump, and the Fatal Flaw of Personality-Based Politics

French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris, April 2, 2019. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)
A party built around one man is exceedingly difficult to sustain in the long run.

French president Emmanuel Macron suffered a major defeat in Sunday’s municipal elections: Hoping that a strong result would anchor his party’s support, Macron had asked several members of his government to run for mayoral seats across the country — and all but one of them were defeated. In Paris’s mayoral race, which drew national attention, Macron’s candidate did not even make the top two.

This electoral drubbing is far from the first setback that Macron’s party, La République En Marche! (LREM), has suffered since he won the presidency in 2017. During last year’s European elections, LREM captured a meager 22.42 percent of the popular vote, coming in behind Marine Le Pen’s fervently anti-EU National Rally. The results were particularly disappointing given that pro-EU, neoliberal parties such as the U.K.’s Liberal Democrats made considerable gains during the same election.

Simply put, Macron seems unable to win any election in which voters are not directly and explicitly voting for him as a candidate. This is unusual in France. It is true that the party in power has traditionally underperformed in French local elections, but never has it suffered two consecutive defeats of this magnitude. And Macron’s self-centered conception of politics might be to blame.

In a book published in 2018, French assemblyman Guillaume Larrivé described Macron’s presidency as the embodiment of personality politics. For Larrivé, Macron’s reign represents “a new form of absolutism,” an “egocracy” in which the lines between ideas and people are blurred. Where in traditional politics people tend to be judged by the quality of their ideas, egocrats defend the proposition that ideas should be judged by the quality of the people who hold them. Resolutely anti-democratic, egocracy relegates ideology to irrelevance and turns concrete policy proposals into secondary matters.

Larrivé aptly observes that even the name of Macron’s party — “En Marche” — is derived from the then-candidate’s initials. “Emmanuel Macron’s whole political project,” he writes, “is himself. His ministers are courtesans, flatterers, and obedient technocrats devoid of tangible influence. As for his party’s Assemblymen and -women, they vote for every law proposed by the President without deigning to read or even debate them. Content does not matter; only the Prince does.”

Naturally, Macron is far from the first French president to adopt a quasi-monarchical view of politics. Charles de Gaulle, the founder of the French Fifth Republic, routinely compared the symbolic function of a president to that of a king. And, to some degree, this observation holds true for any democratic regime in which the executive is clearly separated from the legislature — the former, above and beyond the latter, plays the role of a reassuring figurehead who embodies the nation. But Larrivé reminds us that this kind of stature need not come at the expense of ideas-driven politics. When the personalization of public debate transforms parties into cults where beloved leaders rule over a pack of uncritical followers, political deliberation goes out the window, democracy loses its purpose, John Stuart Mill’s “market-place of ideas” vanishes, and extreme polarization ensues.

Yet Larrivé fails to mention what may be the worst consequence of personality politics: Charismatic leaders often fail to arrange for their own succession. Consider one of the most illustrious examples of personality politics in Western history: Julius Caesar. As portrayed in Plutarch’s Life of Caesar, the Roman statesman was an aspiring autocrat determined to leave an everlasting mark on history. He desired to rule without an intermediary, to experience the thrill — and shoulder the burden — of unrestrained leadership. He disregarded the status quo, in which the Senate and its aristocratic bureaucracy occupied a central role. A member of the “faction of Marius,” he was a populist who cared nothing about speeches and resolutions, and exclusively preoccupied himself with the achievement of splendid success, first and foremost for himself.

Yet the most disastrous impact of Caesar’s reign came after his death at the hands of Brutus and other Republican conspirators. Far from liberating Rome from the influence of a supposed tyrant, Caesar’s assassination plunged the republic into an unparalleled state of disarray. No one proved immediately able to take over the governmental apparatus that Caesar had built around and for himself. As German sociologist Max Weber puts it, political charisma cannot be “routinized”; organizations that depend upon the presence of a single man are doomed to fail once that man disappears.

While this warning should concern the French partisans of Emmanuel Macron, it also applies to President Trump’s Republican supporters. As Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman have observed in the New York Times, “the president demands complete fealty, and . . . he has largely attained it. To cross him is to risk losing a future in the Republican Party.” This personalization of party politics should frighten Republicans. That a dominant wing of a major party imposes its precepts upon the rest is one thing; that one man does so almost single-handedly is another.

Trump’s control of the GOP is for now unquestionable. But one problem with Caesars is that they don’t live forever. As the president builds what Larrivé would call an egocracy, Republicans would do well to wonder where they will be left whenever he exits the scene.

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