Americans might be forgiven for regarding Europeans as a puzzle. And not an intriguing one, but an irritating, what-the-hell-are-they-thinking kind of puzzle. The global survey books by American thinkers this year – Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Strategic Vision, Robert Kagan’s The World America Made and Ian Bremmer’s Every Nation for Itself – profess to be in frustration more than sorrow with Europe’s passivity. Why don’t they pay more to protect themselves and to project force? We do. Why can’t they unite into a federal state and get a properly integrated economic policy so they can get over this euro crisis? We did. Why can’t they get over their obsession with immigration – especially since their populations are shrinking, and they need more labor? We have.

Europe, a continent whose elite had long condescended to America, regarding it as a place of extremes and crudities, is now in danger of seeming both effete and weird. The surge in support for Marine Le Pen in Sunday’s election in France – the largest piece of news, since the Socialist François Hollande had been expected to beat President Nicolas Sarkozy in the first round – makes her National Front party, if not she herself, a kingmaker, and deposits her at the center of French politics.

She rejoiced in Paris, and less than 400 kilometers away in the Hague, the Dutch government fell – as the far-right Party for Freedom, led by Geert Wilders, withdrew its support, citing opposition to a budget that, prompted by the EU’s new fiscal pact, strove to bring the deficit down to 3 percent of GDP. For Wilders, this asked the Dutch people to “pay out of their pockets for the senseless demands of Brussels … we don’t want to follow Brussels’ orders.”

All over Europe, now, parties of the far right and far left see their support grow as they denounce the EU or immigration, or both; as they direct the frustrations of hard-pressed people into channels of blame; as they flatter their supporters by telling them that they, the ordinary folk, have in their common sense and in their experience of life, the real answers to the woes afflicting the countries of Europe. Both on the right and on the left, a fevered populism denounces the experts, the “old” politicians and parties, the self-interested elites, those who are against “us” – us, the people.

There is not a little political charlatanry here: Le Pen and Wilders are educated people; they know well enough that the answers to Europe’s woes are complex, time-consuming and dependent on consensus. But they choose to ignore that. And there is more than a little racism bubbling away, toward Muslims and immigrants of every kind,  both of color and from Eastern Europe. It finds it harder to speak its name now, unlike the Jew-hatred before the last world war – but it’s not less powerful for being partially suppressed. These movements are not, to be sure, fascist armies. But the breakdown of government they may provoke could open up spaces for greater extremes than they.