WASHINGTON -- France and the United States think of themselves as sibling founders of modern republican democracy -- and of a two-party system that shuts out extremism.
But that reassuring and generally accurate idea is being shredded this week by votes, polls and campaign rhetoric in these two offspring of the 18th-century Enlightenment.
Fears of refugees, immigrants and radical Islamic terrorists are forcing to the surface a virulent, xenophobic nationalism in the U.S. and France -- the antithesis of the inclusive, tolerant values that both countries cherish and have repeatedly fought to preserve.
It’s well-known that Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's reactionary National Front party, and Donald Trump, front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in the U.S., are riding that wave of fear in their respective countries.
In the process, they are also demonstrating a more subtle truth: that major political parties may no longer be moderating influences, or really influences at all.
In most places, political parties are viewed not as vehicles for change but as methods of elite control in a corrupt system.
And social media now allows groups to form spontaneously, around one vivid personality or cause. The history of a given political party, its values and priorities and actions over the decades, matter less now than they once did.
Then there have been the moves in both countries by the parties themselves.
In France, Le Pen and her National Front were validated by mimicry, especially in the aftermath of the ISIS attack that left 130 dead in Paris.
Les Republicans, the center-right party led by former President Nicolas Sarkozy, moved to the right in an effort to co-opt the Le Pen vote. Sarkozy denounced Le Pen, but also copied her tough proposals on crime, immigration and an end to the Schengen open border system.
In France's regional elections this week, Sarkozy got clobbered for his efforts.
President Francois Hollande, leader of the Socialists, assumed the roles of tough cop and war leader in the aftermath of Paris. He moved in the Le Pen direction too, pushing for extraordinary domestic surveillance powers and sending sortie after sortie against ISIS in the skies over Syria.
Hollande was likewise not rewarded, in large part because his new focus on foreign policy obscured the real threat to his power, in the form of rising, double-digit unemployment.
The first round of election results allowed Le Pen to declare that she was leading “without contest the first party of France.”
The same dynamic is visible in the U.S., but with a twist. The Democrats are validating Trump by running against him. The Republicans, meanwhile, have been validating Trump -- at least up until now -- by welcoming him with open arms.
From the time of his entry into the 2016 presidential race, Democrats have been deliberately raising Trump’s profile. Their theory is that the bigger he gets, the greater a burden he'll be to the Republican opposition.
On Tuesday, for example, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton used a major speech in New Hampshire to denounce “The Donald’s” recent proposal of a sweeping ban on all Muslims seeking to enter the U.S., even as tourists.
Republicans took the bait -- and are now hooked.
In May, when Trump announced what many considered to be a foolish, unserious candidacy, Republicans decided to embrace him. He was, after all, a high-profile businessman and TV star who could raise money for the party.
He had proved his nettlesome worth in 2012 by raising doubts about whether President Barack Obama was genuinely an American citizen and a Christian -- explosive taunts that “mainstream” Republicans dare not utter, but that played to their base voters.
Party leaders thought they were smart by demanding that Trump sign a “loyalty” oath stipulating that he would support the party nominee, whoever it eventually was.
But they were too smart by half. As part of that pledge, the other GOP candidates also had to promise to support Trump if he won.
Nobody thought it was possible at the time -- except Trump.
Having empowered him, they are now stuck with him. After Trump proposed his “shutdown” ban on all Muslim immigration -- an outrageous, manifestly hateful and possibly unconstitutional idea -- even former Vice President Dick Cheney denounced him.
So did the chairman of the Republican Party, GOP leaders in Congress and many (but not all) of the 2016 candidates.
But the Republicans have already made him the front-runner. And it's too late to do anything about it.