The troubling similarities between Donald Trump and François Hollande
This could tell us a lot about what's in store for the Trump administration
Sitting here in France, in the waning days of the presidency of François Hollande, the most unpopular French president on record — his approval rating bottomed out at 6 percent before edging back up when he announced he wouldn't run for re-election — I've been slowly reaching an insight: Hollande and Donald Trump are the same person. And this might actually tell us a lot about how the Trump administration will turn out.
At first blush, these two men couldn't seem more dissimilar. One is tall and blonde, the other short, portly, and dark-haired. One is polished, the other very much not. One is the consummate insider, a political party hack his entire career, whereas the other is the outsider's outsider. One rocketed to the top of politics through extremism, the other climbed his way up inch by inch through the center.
And yet they are similar. Here's how:
They are both strangely empty. Many people who have met and spent time with President Trump say he is actually quite affable and likeable in person, but he also seems oddly distant. He has few close friends outside of his family, and names as friends people who are more business relations and acquaintances. Hollande is the same way: By all reports he is a likeable fellow, always ready with a clever joke (even though too many of those jokes are biting and belittling of others). Yet the more you know him, the more strangely distant he is, as if an eerily cold and calculating machine lies beneath the affable exterior.
Inside the Socialist Party machine, he was known as "the surgeon" for his skill at eliminating inconvenient hacks, like a doctor coolly excising a tumor. "A stone" is how one of his close political allies once described him — unaffected, unmoveable, smooth, cold, unfeeling. Obviously one would not describe Trump as "a stone"... and yet one can't escape the feeling that under all the noise and movement there is a cold, almost insect-like being.
They are both vainly (and disastrously) obsessed with their public persona. No politician is immune to caring about how they are perceived. But some, like Trump, take it to extremes. He's engaged in a petty ongoing fight with the press over the size of his inauguration crowd. Hollande, meanwhile, is well known for spending an absolutely inordinate amount of time in off-the-record chats with journalists talking about himself, his image, his legacy, and often referring to himself in the third person. He bragged to journalists about signing death warrants for terrorists, thereby exposing France's classified covert assassination program, and by all accounts his only motive for doing so was to show off. He once handed to journalists a classified presentation on French Air Force strikes against Islamic State holdouts, a presentation which revealed that the true range of the latest type of French missile is higher than its official reported range — talk about a real national security breach with real national implications. Again, the goal seems to have been to show off to the press.
Two reporters who spent most of Hollande's term chatting with him produced a book titled A President Shouldn't Be Saying That... It is full of things a president should never say to the press, from snide comments about every political figure (especially allies), to almost certainly illegal backroom deals, to classified national security information, to criticism of judges, to gossip about his own romantic life. Does this combination of vanity and carelessness remind you of anyone?
They care profoundly about the mechanics of politics, but not at all about government. President Trump is addicted to cable news, and speaks about politics like someone who watches cable news obsessively. Meanwhile, Hollande, who spent his entire career as a Socialist Party apparatchik but never had a job in the executive branch of government before being elected to supreme office, came in singularly unprepared. Trump seems to want to "presidentate" by instinct (an often keen instinct, it must be said), lobbing ideas into the ether of the Twitter stream as the news cycle goes, without any idea that policy has to actually be implemented and followed through on. Hollande the surgeon was much more cerebral about his triangulation, but the overall mode of governance has been eerily similar.
So, what can we learn from these similarities? If history does rhyme, then the Trump administration looks set to accomplish nothing of importance and to become abysmally unpopular in short order. Both men came to office already unpopular, elected by default (Hollande's main qualification was not being Nicolas Sarkozy; Trump's main qualification was not being Hillary Clinton), and with little sense of where they wanted to take the country beyond slogans and instincts, and without a clear agenda.
The first two years of Hollande's administration — and the beginning of a presidential administration is always the most crucial — were spent essentially doing nothing. Ministers and officials squabbled, often in public, and Hollande showed little interest in adjudicating their disputes, only encouraging the behavior. With the chaos rising and revolt bubbling among his officials, he ended up appointing the centrist Manuel Valls as prime minister, and essentially outsourcing government to him, but by that time, it was too late. Look for the Trump administration to be chaotic for the first two years, with no major bills getting passed (or bills hailed as "major" but so watered down they're essentially moot), until a midterm whooping when, perhaps, Trump outsources the government to Vice President Mike Pence, or Jared Kushner, or Steve Bannon, or whomever, and just spends his days watching Fox News and tweeting.
God bless America.