This week, U.S. newspapers were frothing with updates about the national outrage that was comedian Michelle Wolf’s monologue at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, the Trump team’s leaked list of potential questions by special counsel Robert Mueller III and performative accusations from Republican House members on the state of the FBI.
In France, meanwhile, the newspaper Le Monde sent out a news alert about how French President Emmanuel Macron likes ... wine.
Your correspondent was away in Paris this past week, where the heat and light surrounding political discussion are noticeably diminished. This calmer approach to politics suggests a more pleasant — and productive — path that we Americans might do well to follow.
The tenor was in stark contrast to the President Donald Trump obsession so prevalent at home, where the latest incremental developments, the reaction to them and — most insidiously — matters of tribal affiliation have become all-consuming, even a sort of personal identity.
It’s not that the French citizenry is uninformed or uninterested in its government; quite to the contrary. When I admitted to a shop owner that I was from Washington, she noted that France’s president had just finished visiting ours there, and said she was personally rather wary of their relationship. After reading about dandruff-gate, I saw her skepticism was warranted. After all, Gallic politics are not functioning with perfect smoothness, either. There is plenty of controversy to go around, as the railway and airport strikes and Paris’s May Day labor protests make clear.
No question, politics are discussed vigorously in the City of Light, but I heard a certain healthy distance that we Americans have left behind. Macron’s “platform” and policies were the topic of interest, not what his personal existence said about his voters’ hearts or beliefs. It was difficult to imagine an epidemic of politicized French dating profiles, for instance, which apparently is the newest red vs. blue scourge to befall the District.
So what’s the cause of this difference? I’m sure there’s no perfect answer, but here are a few guesses.
First, my business — the American news media — has quite a bit to answer for. One thing that Wolf surely got right in her polarizing roast is that our media’s fascination with Trump has proved astonishingly profitable — too profitable, perhaps. The constant social media drip of outrage updates is our latest addiction. Following the latest Mueller/Michael Cohen/Stormy Daniels news has become a national sport. We need to find some healthier hobbies.
Of course, politics is also about personalities. Trump is not, after all, a relatively normal politician like Macron. He’s a uniquely unpredictable, unmoored and destructive figure. The circus surrounding him is something of an understandable response.
Yet while it is possible to imagine a Trump-level frenzy taking over France had far-right candidate Marine Le Pen defeated Macron, the politics in that country nonetheless seem much less tribal than our own. There are cleavages between globalists and nationalists, clearly, but arguments for and against candidates remain much more centered on ideas than about which personality is a stand-in for a voter’s own identity. Attempting to disaggregate the two here at home would do us some good.
Because what are we getting out of this daily downpour of a 24-hour news cycle? Aren’t we deriving a bit too much meaning from something that gives too little back? Yes, it’s true that Trump’s policies are affecting real lives — a state of affairs making it difficult for anyone to relax, even for a moment. But our particular form of political obsession may be making the whole system worse.
Has this constant state of agitation been particularly successful in creating sustained policy change? I’d argue the opposite: Our fascination with the newest scandal may be crowding out the things that do matter, whether regulatory policy, day-to-day governance or the fact that Flint, Mich., still doesn’t have clean water.
There are ways to make a difference that don’t involve being a news-alert junkie. Mueller is methodically doing his job with nary a tweet, remember. Candidates at the grass-roots levels are organizing to run for office in the fall, and the better ones are meeting constituents, not fixating on scandalous minutia.
Still, I would propose that the rest of us make like the French and take a step back from our politics when we can. Perhaps we could talk about wine?
Christine Emba is an opinion columnist and editor for The Post.