Other democracies prosecute their ex-leaders. Trump should be no exception

Donald Trump believes he shouldn’t be held accountable for any crimes he’s been accused of before, during, or after his presidency. But on Monday, he found himself sitting in a courtroom as the first former U.S. president ever to go on trial for criminal charges. It’s the case brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg accusing Trump of falsifying business records to cover up a hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election.  

But while this might be unprecedented in U.S. history, other democracies, including France, South Korea, and Israel have charged, convicted, and even jailed former presidents and prime ministers. So why are we having such a hard time wrapping our head around this as a country?

RELATED STORY: Donald Trump's first criminal trial, Day One

Two previous U.S. presidents were in danger of facing criminal charges. President Warren G. Harding died in office in August 1923 and thus avoided being implicated in the notorious Teapot Dome oil lease bribery scandal and other corruption cases involving top administration officials.

Harding was also a notorious womanizer who had a child born out of wedlock. During the 1920 presidential campaign, the Republican National Committee gave Harding’s long-time mistress a monthly $2,000 stipend as hush money and paid $25,000 to send her on a cruise to Japan and China before the election. 

President Richard Nixon came very close to being indicted for his role in the Watergate scandal that led to his resignation in August 1974. Nixon could have faced charges of bribery, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and obstruction of a criminal investigation, CNN reported. But Nixon’s successor and vice president, Gerald Ford, granted Nixon a full pardon, justifying his decision by claiming that long drawn-out litigation would arouse “ugly passions” and “our people would again be polarized  in their opinions.”

As The Washington Post wrote last week:

In the half-century since Ford announced that pardon, other nations have charted a different path, prosecuting former presidents or prime minsters in France, Brazil, South Korea, Israel and elsewhere for numerous alleged crimes, among them embezzlement, corruption, election interference and bribery.

Some cases have illustrated the virtues of trying to hold the most powerful political officials accountable under the rule of law — as well as the formidable challenges that arise when prosecuting such figures. These former leaders can rely on ample bully pulpits to assail the process, maintain influence, shore up support and, in some cases, reclaim power.

Trump has certainly used his “bully” pulpit to assail the process by attacking judges, prosecutors, and witnesses and claiming that putting him on trial would be ruinous for the country. Here’s what Trump posted on his Truth Social platform on the eve of the start of his trial in which prosecutors claim Trump paid hush money to Daniels to avoid a scandal that could have hurt his 2016 campaign:

Tomorrow morning I’ll be in Criminal Court, before a totally conflicted Judge, a Corrupt Prosecutor, a Legal System in CHAOS, a State being overrun by violent crime and corruption, and Crooked Joe Biden’s henchmen “Rigging the System” against his Political Opponent, ME! I will be fighting for myself but, much more importantly, I will be fighting for our Country. Election Interference like this has never happened in the USA before and, hopefully, will never happen again. We are now a Nation in serious Decline, a Failing Nation, but we will soon be a Great Nation Again. November 5th will be the most important day in the History of the United States. MAGA2024! SEE YOU TOMORROW.

Republicans seem to be in a certain state of denial regarding the upcoming trial. The Daily Beast conducted interviews with more than 20 Republican lawmakers over the past week. They made clear that they were supporting Trump even if he is a convicted felon.

“I don’t think that it matters to the American people, because they don’t believe it to be a fair trial,” North Carolina Sen. Ted Budd, a strong MAGA acolyte, told the Daily Beast. “They believe that all these trials are completely unfair against him to drain him of his resources and it’s completely done the opposite thing, it’s rallied the American people behind him.”

And Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a more establishment Republican who recently became chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said he will continue to support Trump even if he’s convicted.

“First of all, I don't think that’s going to happen,” Cole said. “But second, I think some of these prosecutions are simply ridiculous on their face, and some of them are clearly harassment.”

Trump is also trying to rebrand himself as the victim of political persecution, even having the temerity to compare himself to former South African President Nelson Mandela. Trump somehow connected the anti-apartheid icon’s 27 years spent in prison to the possibility that he could be jailed by Judge Juan Merchan for violating a gag order in the hush money case.

“If this Partisan Hack wants to put me in the ‘clink’ for speaking the open and obvious TRUTH, I will gladly become a Modern Day Nelson Mandela—It will be my GREAT HONOR,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform.

Mandela’s grandson told the Times of London that Trump is “definitely delusional.”

Trump probably wishes that he could be like Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2020, Putin signed legislation that grants former presidents immunity from prosecution for any crimes committed during their lifetime. Trump has argued for presidential immunity repeatedly without success.

RELATED STORY: Make America like Russia: Trump wants same presidential immunity as Putin

Trump also shares much in common with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has used a similar strategy of “delay, deny, deflect” after he was charged in 2019 with fraud, breach of trust, and bribery while still in office. Netanyahu has also accused prosecutors of waging a “witch hunt” against him.

Netanyahu left office in 2021 after losing a vote of confidence in the parliament, but returned to power in December 2022 as the head of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. Netanyahu and his allies then tried to overhaul the judicial system to give ruling parties more power to override Supreme Court decisions and select judges. Under the proposed legislation, courts would no longer have been allowed to bar politicians convicted of crimes from holding top government posts. These proposals triggered mass protests, and may have helped distract the government from warning signs about Hamas’s plans for a major attack.

But two other Israeli leaders ended up serving prison sentences. Former President Moshe Katsav was sentenced in 2011 after being convicted of rape and other sexual offenses against subordinates, and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was convicted in 2015 of fraud, breach of trust, and tax evasion.

In France, two former presidents were convicted of criminal charges. Jacques Chirac was convicted in 2011 of influence peddling, breach of trust, and embezzlement during his time as the mayor of Paris and received a two-year suspended jail sentence. In 2021, former President Nicolas Sarkozy was convicted of corruption and influence peddling. An appeals court spared him from serving any time in prison. In a separate case, Sarkozy is to go on trial in 2025 on charges or corruption and illegal financing related to alleged Libyan funding of his successful 2007 presidential campaign.

South Korea remains one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies even though four ex-presidents have  been jailed for corruption since the 1980s. Another ex-president committed suicide in 2009 while under investigation. Most recently, President Park Geun-hye was impeached in 2017, and convicted of abuse of power, bribery, and coercion the following year. She was sentenced to 22 years in prison, but received a presidential pardon in 2021 due to poor health.

South Koreans ousted a military dictatorship in the 1980s. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2023, South Korea is a top-tier democracy, ranked 22nd in the world—seven spots ahead of the United States, which was labeled a “flawed democracy.”

Trump has been charged with 88 criminal offenses in four criminal cases. But former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who died last year, also had quite the rap sheet. Berlusconi faced 35 criminal court cases since entering politics in 1994, but only one of his trials resulted in a conviction, Reuters reported. Berlusconi was convicted in 2013 for tax fraud, false accounting, and embezzlement related to his media empire, but what was originally a four-year prison sentence ended up being reduced to a year of community service.

And that brings us to former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, the right-wing populist known as the “Trump of the Tropics.” Bolsonaro cast doubts over the results of the 2022 presidential election which he narrowly lost to left-wing former leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, claiming without evidence that the country’s electronic voting machines were prone to fraud.

Then on Jan. 8, 2023, thousands of Bolsonaro supporters stormed the Congress and other government buildings in the capital Brasilia in a scene mirroring that of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Security forces regained control and arrested several hundred people.

Bolsonaro has been charged by Brazilian authorities with forging a coronavirus vaccine card before he traveled to Florida in late 2022 after his election loss. Authorities are also investigating whether Bolsonaro was involved in plotting a coup to remove Lula from power.

But last July, judges on Brazil’s highest electoral court barred Bolsonaro from running for office again until 2030, making it unlikely that he will ever return to the presidency.

That’s something the U.S. Senate could have done by convicting Trump in his second impeachment trial. At the time, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Trump was “practically and morally responsible for provoking” the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, but it was more appropriate for the former president to be held accountable by the criminal justice system and civil litigation. Maybe some GOP senators thought Trump would just go away, but he’s now their presumptive presidential nominee, and McConnell and most other GOP senators have bent the knee and endorsed Trump.

So now as Trump’s first trial begins, our country is rated a “flawed democracy.” Trump and his MAGA cultists have tried to undermine our justice system, the rule of law, and the public’s faith in democracy. The Washington Post reports:

“The notion that not just charges would be brought, but that a former president and possibly future president might be convicted and sent to jail is truly extraordinary,” said William Howell, an American politics professor at the University of Chicago. “How the system and how the American public will respond is going to be really revealing about the nature of our democratic commitments.”
If other democracies can hold their leaders accountable, there’s no reason why we can’t do the same.

History 101: Parallels between Putin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany, plus U.S. reaction then and now

Battlefield developments regarding the brutal, unprovoked, imperialistic Russian invasion of Ukraine appear multiple times on this site’s front page every day—with good reason. For starters, Moscow has the world’s second largest military, and more nuclear weapons than any other country. Truly understanding the conflict means looking beyond what’s happened since hostilities began and examining history.

For example, although many of us have a vague sense that Vladimir Putin and Adolf Hitler share some similarities as aggressive warmongers, it’s important to provide substance to supplement that vague sense—and to connect the history to the present both in terms of events in Europe and the reaction of our own country to the two dictators’ bloodthirsty acts.

The First World War officially ended at the stroke of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918—an appalling six hours after the countries involved had signed the armistice agreement. How many soldiers died in combat during those final six hours? Almost three thousand, and the last one was an American.

The conflict decisively altered the map of Central and Eastern Europe.



Four states that had ruled over large swathes of territory were defeated, and their dynasties overthrown: the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian, and German empires. The Ottoman Empire dissolved, and the Turkish Republic that emerged in its place was limited to the Turkish heartland of Anatolia and, in Europe, a tiny bit of land surrounding Istanbul (they had lost much of their territory in Europe in the Balkan Wars that immediately preceded WWI).

The war led to fundamental change in Russia. The country became a democracy for a few months in 1917, and then, thanks to the Bolsheviks, transformed into the Soviet Union near the end of that year. By losing the war, it lost control over Finland, as well as the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, which all became independent, while the territory known now as Moldova went from being Russian to Romanian. However, during the Second World War, the USSR reacquired all of these, except Finland—of which it did get a small slice—and added a large block of eastern Poland as well.

Austria-Hungary, the patrimony of the Habsburg dynasty, split apart completely. Most importantly for our purposes, its dissolution left millions who identified as ethnic Germans as either minorities in newly created states such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, or in the rump-Austrian Republic. The Treaty of Versailles barred the newly created Austria from joining their territory to that of Germany, a step—known in German as Anschluss—that its leaders and most citizens wanted to take, rather than remain an independent state.

As for Germany, the Hohenzollern family abdicated the throne and democracy became its form of government. Elected leaders drew up a new constitution in the city of Weimar, which gave its name to the era running from the end of the war until Hitler’s takeover in 1933. The Versailles Treaty mandated that Germany hand over Alsace-Lorraine to France, a small piece of land to Belgium, a province to Denmark, and, in the East, one city (Memel) to Lithuania, as well as a large chunk of territory to Poland—which was reconstituted 123 years after having been forcibly partitioned by neighboring states. Large numbers of people who identified as Germans were now citizens of the new Poland, living in what became known as the “Polish Corridor.”

Germany had been the predominant military power on the European continent since its unification in 1871—accomplished in the wake of its crushing defeat of France, which had held that title for over two centuries. The country had a long tradition of militarism, and most Germans held martial values in high regard. They were proud of the nation’s military strength and battlefield victories. On the whole, Germany felt humiliated and was left wanting revenge after their defeat in WWI. Some Germans, in particular on the right, wanted nothing more than to undo the war’s outcome.

These revisionist desires were a major factor fueling Hitler's ability to win support—he was going to make Germany great again—and, ultimately, provided the basis for his aggressive foreign policy in the 1930s. As noted on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website:

Revision of the Versailles Treaty represented one of the platforms that gave radical right wing parties in Germany, including Hitler's Nazi Party, such appeal to mainstream voters in the 1920s and early 1930s. Promises to rearm, to reclaim German territory, particularly in the East, and to regain prominence again among European and world powers after a humiliating defeat, stoked ultranationalist sentiment and helped average Germans to overlook the more radical tenets of Nazi ideology.

During the Weimar era, Germany’s relations with its neighbors were not exactly placid, but at least war was avoided. After 1923, when the conflict over reparations payments was resolved, Germany had a “productive working relationship” with the two large West European democracies, Britain and France, and officially accepted the territorial losses along its western borders. German relations with its eastern neighbors were less settled, to be sure. However, In 1928, Germany signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which officially outlawed war “as an instrument of national policy.”

Five years later, Adolf Hitler had become chancellor of Germany. Through the violence and deceit he employed in the initial weeks of his rule, he became absolute dictator—the Fuehrer. Hitler’s military and foreign policy contains strong parallels to what we are seeing from Putin’s Russia today.

not carbon copies

The two are not carbon copies, to be sure. Nazi Germany’s commitment to murderous antisemitism and genocide—its meticulously developed and executed plan to kill every Jew, along with Roma and other groups deemed racially or otherwise inferior—is not something we are seeing from present-day Russia, although their war crimes against Ukrainian civilians are certainly despicable. Nevertheless, virtually from the time Hitler took power, he began his quest to reverse the results of WWI and alter his country's borders, a quest that brought Europe into war.

One of Hitler’s guiding principles was that ethnic Germans—those with, in his terms, German blood—needed to be “regathered" into the German state after being left outside it. The most egregious injustice, in the eyes of the Nazis, were those people whose territories were part of non-German states, such as Poland and Czechoslovakia, where they were being supposedly "mistreated."

Among his earliest steps, in 1936 Hitler took full control of the Rhineland—the demilitarized zone west of the Rhine River, on the border with France. Then, in 1938 he sent German troops into Austria and achieved the long-sought Anschluss. Later that year, he used the threat of force to acquire the Sudetenland—a part of western Czechoslovakia that bordered Germany, where German-speakers lived—although he promised that he’d then leave the rest of the country alone. In March 1939, he broke that promise. German forces marched in and took the rest of the Czech part of the country, and set up a Nazi-puppet regime in the Slovak half.

Hitler then turned his focus to Poland. After enacting a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union—which included a “secret protocol” by which the two countries agreed to divide Poland between them—Nazi Germany invaded its eastern neighbor on Sept. 1, 1939, and plunged Europe into the Second World War.

the many similarities

Russia's story over the past three-plus decades contains many similarities. The end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet empire—which, in Putin's words from 2005, constitute "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century"—stand as the equivalent of Germany’s defeat in WWI.

Within Russia, one generation after the end of the USSR, the autocratic Putin had dismantled the Yeltsin-era democracy that followed Soviet communism. Although the post-Soviet democracy did look shaky right from the start—people were talking about "Weimar Russia" as early as 1995—Putin is the person who delivered the death blow. Timothy Snyder, the preeminent historian of totalitarianism, has characterized Putin’s Russia as a fascist government, and contended that it is currently waging “a fascist war of destruction” in Ukraine. In this insightful New York Times op-ed piece, Snyder explores significant commonalities in the nature of the Putin and Hitler regimes.

Since first taking power in 2000, Putin has also ushered in an abrupt close to a period of relatively good relations with Russia's neighbors, which culminated in the signing of the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997. The document states that “NATO and Russia do not consider one another adversaries and cites the sweeping transformations in NATO and Russia that make possible this new relationship.” After Putin became president, he cast aside those sentiments as easily as he takes off his shirt for photo-ops.

It’s also worth noting that in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Russia made a guarantee to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine,” in return for Kyiv turning its share of the Soviet nuclear arsenal over to Moscow. Putin has made clear that agreement isn’t worth the paper on which it’s written.

The Russian president’s overarching goal has long been to reverse previous territorial losses born by his country. Much like Hitler, his revisionism focuses on recovering lands populated by his people’s ethnic kin (or those, like Ukrainians, he claims are kin, even if they reject such an identity). An estimated 25 million people who identified as ethnically Russian suddenly found themselves living outside the Russian Federation when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. Some moved back to Russia, while others went elsewhere, but approximately 20 million or more remain living in Russia’s near abroad.

but our people ...

Exactly as Hitler did regarding ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland and Poland in the 1930s, Putin has been employing rhetoric decrying how Russian-speakers in the former USSR were supposedly being mistreated. Putin used this to justify military action against Georgia in 2008—where South Ossetia and Abkhazia have large ethnic Russian populations—and Ukraine, both in 2014, when it outright annexed Crimea and put troops into eastern Ukraine, as well as now.

Thinking beyond places where Moscow currently has armed forces or otherwise exercises control today (i.e., Belarus)—which also includes Transnistria, a breakaway, Russian-speaking part of Moldova bordering on Ukraine that has de facto sovereignty—significant numbers of people identifying as Russian live in every post-Soviet state. The largest in raw numbers reside in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Most ominously for European security, Russian-speakers also constitute large percentages of the population in Lithuania (15%), Estonia (30%) and Latvia (34%). These last three are members of NATO, but Russia has attempted to sow “disruption and discontent” in those countries nonetheless.

To take the long view, one can characterize European history from German unification in 1871 through 1945 as being centered around that country’s push to expand its borders and dominate the continent, and the period from 1945 to the present as being dominated by a similar push from Russia. Many once thought the latter push ended in 1991, but, as with Germany, a second phase began fewer than twenty years after the first one met defeat. The apocryphal Mark Twain quote applies here: "History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes."

the difference in U.S. responses

We can also explore parallels, as well as differences, between the U.S. response to the outbreak of the Second World War and to Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine. Concerning the former, Franklin Roosevelt faced significant isolationist sentiment in the U.S. These were embodied by the strong restrictions contained in the Neutrality Acts of 1935 and 1936, which imposed a U.S. embargo on the sale of all arms and military supplies to any party involved in a war. However, after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, FDR overcame the opposition of isolationists and began aiding the enemies of Nazi Germany.

First, President Roosevelt convinced Congress to allow him to sell military equipment on a “cash and carry” basis—as long as Britain and France could pay up front and get what they had bought home on their own, such sales were allowed. France fell to Hitler in June 1940, and Britain needed much more help, so FDR and newly minted British Prime Minister Winston Churchill got creative.

Next, the U.S. sent 50 outdated but still useful destroyers to help the British protect against a naval invasion of their island in return for 99-year leases on British bases in the Caribbean and off the Canadian coast. By the end of 1940, it was clear that far more was needed, so FDR introduced legislation, the Lend-Lease Act, that would authorize the necessary assistance without requiring any payment from those receiving it. It passed in March 1941. Here’s more on the act’s impact:

Roosevelt soon took advantage of his authority under the new law, ordering large quantities of U.S. food and war materials to be shipped to Britain from U.S. ports through the new Office of Lend-Lease Administration. The supplies dispersed under the Lend-Lease Act ranged from tanks, aircraft, ships, weapons and road building supplies to clothing, chemicals and food.

By the end of 1941, the lend-lease policy was extended to include other U.S. allies, including China and the Soviet Union. By the end of World War II the United States would use it to provide a total of some $50 billion in aid to more than 30 nations around the globe, from the Free French movement led by Charles de Gaulle and the governments-in-exile of Poland, the Netherlands and Norway to Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Paraguay and Peru.

Let’s compare FDR to our two most recent presidents: Donald Trump and Joe Biden. First, we have The Man Who Lost An Election And Tried Steal It. Sticking just to what became public, we know that he not only sucked up to Putin, but he also engaged in a long-running extortion campaign aimed at getting Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to smear Biden in hopes of weakening the Democrat for the 2020 campaign. You might remember that when Zelenskyy sought to buy Javelin missiles in 2019, to protect against the Russian invasion he rightly feared, Fuck a L’Orange replied “I would like you to do us a favor, though.” Trump wanted the Ukrainian president to announce that his government was going to investigate Biden for argle-bargle. That’s what brought about his first impeachment. It wasn’t exactly a Rooseveltian response to a request for help made by a country facing attack.

President Biden, on the other hand, responded to the Russian invasion by strongly supporting Ukraine, with a robust diplomatic effort and billions of dollars in military assistance. His echoing of FDR even includes a revival of the historic Lend-Lease Act in the form of the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022. Just one more way Biden is the polar opposite of Trump.

The response of the U.S. and its NATO allies to Putin’s attack on Ukraine demonstrates a key difference between now and the events of Hitler’s day. Despite unleashing the greatest evil humanity has yet seen—and hopefully ever will see—the Nazi leader actually found military allies. The Nazi-led Axis included Italy, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania in Europe, as well as Japan, because other countries not only had fascist governments too, but also shared Hitler’s aggressive desire to remake the map in their favor (democratic Finland, which was attacked by the USSR in 1939 and again in 1941, fought with the Axis as well after the second attack before reaching an armistice and switching sides in 1944).

Thus far, Putin’s Russia fights alone (except for tiny Belarus) against a country whose military efforts—and even its overall government functions—are being funded to a significant degree by the rest of Europe plus the U.S. The European Union in late June even made Ukraine an official candidate to join. NATO is working together more successfully than it has done in decades, coordinating their efforts to help Kyiv and punish Moscow. Furthermore, with the forthcoming accession of Sweden and Finland—the latter of which shares an 830-mile border with Russia—NATO will have more resources and strength than ever with which to contain Putin’s aggression.

Hitler’s war divided Europe (please note that, in addition to the countries fighting with Germany, the USSR was his “de facto ally,” as seen in the simultaneous Nazi/Soviet 1939 invasion of Poland, an alliance that lasted until he invaded the Soviet Union in 1941) whereas Putin’s war has united Europe against him. This is the great success of the institutions—NATO and the EU—created in the post-WWII years to incentivize democracy and peace on the continent. Hitler succeeded to the degree that he did because pre-WWII Europe lacked such institutions.

However, having the institutions exist on paper isn’t enough. Joe Biden deserves much credit for the NATO response to Ukraine, in particular given how much his disgraced predecessor weakened the U.S. relationship with NATO. Of course, Trump is now trying to “rewrite history” on this. Why not, I guess? He’s lied about literally everything else.

Ian Reifowitz is the author of  The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)

Far-right Marine Le Pen pledges submission to Moscow, reminding us what Trump 2.0 would look like

In the span of a few weeks, the tilt of the geopolitical world has shifted so quickly that perhaps Americans just haven’t had enough time to digest how fortunate they are Donald Trump did not win the 2020 election. Doubtlessly the Ukrainians are aware, and those living in the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are as well because their very lives would have been entirely forfeit or at grave risk right now. But given the soothing comfort of its giant pick-up trucks, guns, and doorbell cameras, it might be asking too much of American culture to pause and consider the alternative reality we could all be living in.

Still, many—both in this country and elsewhere—would gleefully embrace that reality with open arms. Even as Vladimir Putin’s appalling army systematically rapes, tortures, and beheads helpless civilians in its murderous invasion of Ukraine, the Russian dictator has found a fawning ally in the French far-right, with the re-emergence of Marine Le Pen. Last week, Ms. Le Pen drew 23% of the vote in France’s splintered election, forcing a runoff on April 24 between herself and French President Emanuel Macron, who garnered approximately 28%.

On Wednesday, Le Pen—apparently unperturbed by what is now aptly characterized as a genocidal campaign by Russia to eradicate the Ukrainian population—pledged to effectively abandon the 70-year-old NATO alliance in order to ratify Putin’s brutality, should the French people vote her into the presidency. 

PARIS — Rejecting a “herd-like conformity” with the Biden administration, Marine Le Pen, the French far-right candidate for the presidency, said Wednesday that France would quit NATO’s integrated military command if she were elected and would seek for the alliance “a strategic rapprochement” with Russia.

As reported by Roger Cohen for the Washington Post, Le Pen’s rationale for accommodating Putin’s aims echo the same sentiments espoused by Donald Trump, who, according to former aides, was also intent on appeasing Putin by withdrawing the U.S. from the NATO alliance had he managed to be re-elected. This brand of Putin-envy appears to be particularly common among more autocratic, fascist-leaning politicians who have traditionally applauded the Russian despot as exemplifying what they call “strength” and resolve. In reality, they admire and envy the lack of any real constraints on his power, which they all shamelessly covet. We now see the end product of that lack of constraints playing out in Ukraine.

As Cohen observes, Le Pen’s agenda, to the extent she has one, mirrors Trump’s in all its essentials. 

Dismissing multilateralism, blasting Germany, criticizing the European Union, relegating climate issues to a low priority, attacking “globalists” and maintaining a near silence on Russia’s brutal assault in Ukraine, Ms. Le Pen gave a taste of a worldview that was at once reminiscent of the Trump presidency and appeared to directly threaten NATO’s attempts to arm Ukraine and defeat Russia.

The similarities between Le Pen and Trump were evident in the first days of the latter’s administration. As James Traub observed in a column written for Foreign Policy, Le Pen’s xenophobic brand of so-called “populism” (by now simply a more pleasant word for “fascism”) and the race-baiting lies she espoused to support it were simply more glib and soothing in their delivery than Trump’s general penchant for crudeness and bombast:

Le Pen repeated Donald Trump’s canard that Barack Obama had “banned” immigrants from Iraq; denied, despite vast evidence to the contrary, that her supporters routinely fire off racist and homophobic tweets; and claimed, wrongly, that immigrants can automatically gain French citizenship through marriage. And then there were the Trumpian delusions: that a policy of “economic patriotism” penalizing French companies that move abroad would not raise the cost of French products but rather would foster a “virtuous circle” boosting growth and employment.

As Traub points out, Le Pen’s calculated delivery of her trademark nationalism and bigotry largely stems from her need to distance herself in the French public’s eyes from her ultra-radical and unabashedly antisemitic father, Jean Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front party she now leads. Still, Le Pen and Trump appear to be cut from basically the same cloth, even where Le Pen will, as Traub puts it, “demonize Muslims with a gracious smile instead of a vicious Twitter tirade.” Both are adept at cynically manipulating their public through fear of the “other.”  Both display an instinctive aversion to the very idea of cooperation between nations, which they perceive only as a means to undercut their own aspirations for control and power.

Both are also intolerant of any dissent. Just as Trump encourages his rabid base to attack journalists and protesters at his rallies, Le Pen exhibits a similar hostility against perceived political enemies:


🇫🇷France🇫🇷 A protester holding a picture of Le Pen and Putin shaking hands was tackled and dragged outside by security mens during a press conference in Paris.#MarineLePen #FrenchElection #EmmanuelMacron #Paris pic.twitter.com/M5IlF9rB8r

— Zaid Ahmd  (@realzaidzayn) April 14, 2022

Le Pen is currently expected to lose the run-off election, mainly because the majority of those who originally voted for the far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon will be unable (at least in theory) to stomach a Le Pen victory. And even if she wins, the NATO alliance will most likely remain standing, albeit with France as a thoroughly diminished and unreliable presence.

But suppose the 2020 U.S. election—which Trump may have lost simply because of his dismal handling of the COVID-19 pandemic—had gone the other way. What would have been left of American strategic power and influence in this world would have withered and died on the vine in brutally short order, probably from the moment Putin sent troops into Ukraine. It’s impossible to know how much resolve to assist Ukraine would have existed among the remainder of NATO, but without a credible leader, it’s difficult to imagine how that response would have been effective. The world has never seen a nuclear-armed pathology like Putin invade a peaceful neighboring country for wholly irrational reasons, wielding his nuclear capability as a threat against any country that dares to oppose him, and even worse, vowing to continue his efforts until he is stopped. History suggests that such countries will not stop until they encounter an immutable opposing force.

And Trump would not have delivered that force. A mercurial buffoon with no grasp of (or interest in) foreign policy or even a basic understanding of what NATO stands for—and against—might have been cajoled into reluctant action by an exasperated military. But the sheer weakness of that position would have been evident to anyone paying attention. And Putin, for all his now glaringly apparent flaws, pays attention.

Law professor Alan Rozenshtein, writing for Lawfare, described the “nightmarish” scenario that this country would have faced if Trump were still in office:

From this perspective, it is sobering, if not downright terrifying, to think of how Trump would have handled this current crisis, had he won in 2020. Consider first the question of loyalty. Trump’s infamous phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in which he responded to the Ukrainian president’s request for more Javelin anti-tank missiles (which have proved vital for the Ukrainian defense) by asking for Ukrainian help in digging up dirt on his main political rival, betrays a disloyalty to the national interest whose geopolitical implications are now all too clear.

Nor is it clear that Trump would even feel that it was his responsibility to rally the world to confront Russia, as the Biden administration has skillfully done. After all, Trump’s response to criticisms of his administration’s early missteps in handling the coronavirus pandemic was to say “I don’t take responsibility at all.” Why expect that he would feel different about a war half a world away, or that he wouldn’t simply have delegated weighty foreign policy decisions to informal advisors, thereby maintaining distance and plausible deniability, as when Rudolph Giuliani effectively ran the White House’s Ukraine policy. Even worse, given Trump’s personal affinity for Vladimir Putin, which he reiterated even as Russian forces entered Ukraine, is the very real possibility that Trump would have supported Russia’s invasion.

The world we all still live in—the world of liberal democracies with a legitimate transfer of power untainted by autocratic, fascistic propaganda, coercion, and repression—is now sitting atop a knife-edge, susceptible to one misguided election by an apathetic, self-absorbed and frankly historically ignorant electorate. Racist demagogues like Le Pen and Trump are perfectly willing to push us off into the abyss simply to realize their dreams of power—the rest of the world be damned. They are both aided by a radicalized base that sees no problem with simply watching the world burn if only to validate its own delusional, stoked-up grievances.

In 2020 we dodged a bullet. But that gun is still pointed at us. If Democrats can’t wake Americans up to that reality, no one else is going to. 

Editor’s Note: This story’s lead image has been changed.