Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Populism of the Elite

France's elites are proud. They'd never stoop, as John Kerry did, to donning a hunting jacket and shouldering a shotgun to prove he was a real man and not just a windsurfer (or antiwar war hero). They'd never demean themselves, as Hillary Clinton did, by aping Bernie Sanders. When challenged by populisms of the right and left, the French elite chose to fight fire with fire: they mounted a populism of the elite.

The concept is less oxymoronic than it sounds. You cast about among the best and the brightest. You find a brilliant and handsome young man, le gendre idéal, as the French like to say. You portray him as the prodigy he is: pianist, philosopher, footballer, banker, énarque, tennisman manqué, cool, affable, confident to a fault. You equip him with a narrative to counter that of the scowling populisms that threatened--and still threaten--to bring down the Republic: like them, he, too, claims to represent the good People, but his good people are optimistic, forward-looking, striving, upwardly mobile, ambitious. Leave "globalism's losers," les laissés-pour-compte, for the others. Emphasize his qualities as a "uniter, not a divider": et de droite et de gauche, he has forgotten those bygone, shopworn distinctions of the old world and keeps his eyes resolutely fixed on the new.

You have him say no more about what he is for than they do. Concentrate, as they do, on what he is against. They are against the system, the banks, globalization, capitalism. He is against pessimism, passéisme, and passivity. He is for dynamism, le roman de l'énergie nationale, as Barrès once put it.

And above all do not misrepresent what you will do in office. This was Hollande's mistake. There is an elite consensus on What Is to Be Done. Do not deny this, as Hollande did, but do not describe it, either, because it will only make a lot of people unhappy. Once elected, make it clear that you truly believe in this consensus, that it was not merely a myth toward which you gestured to get elected. Nominate as your prime minister another true believer, another prodigy like yourself, another énarque who has proved that he can thrive in both the private sector and the public, who gets on with everyone, but whose steel fist (he is a boxer, after all) is evident beneath the velvet glove. Welcome the cheers that emanate from the others like yourself, all of whom are eager to join you now that you have won, who admire your audacity even as they nurse an undeniable envy that you were the Chosen One each of them had hoped to be.

And then hope beyond hope that it all works, somehow, because in your heart of hearts you know that bold experiments often go wrong. You are not really as confident as you appear. Your wife trained you while still quite young to be a good actor. In your private moments, and precisely because you are the prodigy you've been made out to be, you know that you're walking a tightrope, and that the moment you show signs of losing your balance the slings and arrows will start flying from below, aiming to knock you off. Et voilà, there you are, eighth president of the Republic. You can't quite believe it, mais en même temps, as everyone is now mocking you for saying, you knew all along that you would win. You just had that feeling--as all great gamblers do. Sometimes the odds catch up with them, of course, but for all your training in the arts of calculation, you've never really been a calculator. You've always trusted your instincts, no matter how unconventional, no matter what disapproval they aroused. Your presidency will be a classic contest of virtù contra fortuna. And we in the gallery will be grateful for what promises to be one of the better shows of recent times.