The ruling classes on both sides of the Atlantic are in shock. They're losing ground to absurd figures who used to be jokes, rabble-rousers, fringe players on the margins of political life. Who would have thought, a year ago, that serious people would be in such a panic over how to stop the likes of Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump?
Over here, the appalling vulgarian has sucked up all the airtime, like some particularly virulent black hole. The more outrageous he gets, the higher his ratings soar. Mr. Trump degrades political debate. He poses a mortal threat to the Republican Party, which he airily dismisses as a gang of idiots. But they have no idea how to stop him.
Over there, Ms. Le Pen and her ravishing young niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, have trampled the mainstream parties under their chic high heels. Last week their far-right anti-immigration, anti-Europe party, the National Front, won nearly 30 per cent of the vote in the first round of regional elections. Reaction in Europe ranged from fear to panic to outright horror. "France's fascist uprising," blared Britain's Independent. Political columnist Françoise Fressoz wrote, "The political reality in France can now be summed up in one question. Who can stop Marine Le Pen?"
The source of their appeal isn't hard to find. In both countries, the dominant political class has failed miserably to understand and address the anxieties of large numbers of middle-class people.
"Donald Trump says things no one else dares to say," his fans tell you. When he said the U.S. should deport its millions of illegal Mexican immigrants, they cheered. When he said Muslims should be banned from immigrating, the political and media class expressed universal horror. But in the fevered wake of the San Bernardino slaughter, many people thought: Why not? When a recent poll asked respondents if the values of Islam are incompatible with the American way of life, 76 per cent of Republicans answered yes. And 43 per cent of Democrats also answered yes.
That's the genius of Trumpism. There's Donald Trump – and then there's everybody else, yelling that he can't say that. That's why he's the Republican front-runner.
Populists come up with simplistic answers to complex questions – questions the elites would prefer not to address. Mr. Trump's anti-immigrant stance is purely opportunistic. But the utter failure of both Republicans and Democrats to tackle immigration reform in any meaningful way has left the field wide open.
It's the same with Marine Le Pen. People take to her because she stands up for ordinary folks – especially the rural and small-town folks, the young and unemployed folks, the folks who've been hit hard by massive deindustrialization. Unlike Mr. Trump, she's not a flame-thrower. She comes across as moderate and reasoned. She's worked hard to scrub the party clean of its overtly racist past. But she, too, has been able to capitalize on the the mainstream parties' widespread failure to tackle France's serious economic and immigration woes.
It's fashionable to write off the people who respond to Mr. Trump and Ms. Le Pen as ignorant lowbrows, who can't adjust to modernity, to progress and to newcomers. That has been the standard response of the pundits and political elites. And that is a big part of the problem. The triumph of two of them has less to do with the baser instincts of the voters than with the incompetence of the current leadership. "[Le Pen's] success is due to the failures and vacuum of the centre right, the weak conservatism of the Socialist Party, and the inability of the EU to respond to serious European challenges," The New York Times's Steven Erlanger told Carnegie Europe. Similarly, Mr. Trump's success is in large part due to the Republicans' inability to craft an appealing alternative to the Democrats. In both countries, many people don't see much difference among the old ruling parties. They're all part of the same old gang, and only a new outsider can bust them up.
Both Mr. Trump and Ms. LePen have profited hugely from the shock of domestic terrorism. But the unease they feed on is much deeper than that. "This sense of fury has a long history," wrote Alexis Brezet, editor of Le Figaro. "It is a cold, brutal, unsubtle, merciless fury. It has been brewed by 30 years of state weakness and government failures." People feel the values they hold dear are slipping away. Mr. Trump and Ms. Le Pen are promising to bring them back again.
How far will they go? My guess: The Republicans will rally round another champion and Donald Trump will probably be gone by March. (Whether he'll decide to run as an independent is anybody's guess. Hillary Clinton can only hope so.) Marine Le Pen won't go the distance either. Even so, their profound challenges to the old order aren't going to go away. If our mainstream parties can't rise to them, then someone else will.