One can understand why Hawley and Cruz gambled — at least in a strictly political sense. But for their gamble to pay off, there has to be a concrete legacy that Trump can pass on to heirs, a Trumpism that extends beyond the man himself. Trump clearly believes this legend — see Tuesday’s threat to assist primary challenges to Republicans who voted against him. It’s far from clear, however, that such a thing exists.
Many people think they see some larger movement, but often what they see seems suspiciously close to what they themselves are most interested in. The liberal Democrats who think the Republican Party is animated by little besides hatred of racial and sexual minorities saw voters flocking to a candidate brazen enough to ditch the code words and say the awful stuff straight out. For heterodox conservative policy wonks thwarted by their own coalition, Trump demonstrated that their flavor of populism was key to the party’s future. Republicans who were mainly incensed at perceived disrespect from liberal institutions tended to locate Trump’s appeal in his belligerent refusal to mouth liberal pieties.
But what if those millions of supporters were thinking about something else entirely?
For example, it’s clear that many people liked the idea that Trump was a rich businessman. They assumed that he must be very smart and competent to have made so much money. Others liked his policy stances, but which ones? Immigration and trade got most of the attention, but Trump said a whole lot of things on a whole lot of topics.
He wouldn’t raise minimum wages, and then he would; he briefly endorsed a Canadian-style single-payer system, then walked it back. He was like the human version of those junk-mail marketing campaigns that send out two versions of a mailer, see which one gets a better response, then test two versions of the more successful mailing. Unhindered by principle, he could promise a thousand voters a thousand different and often mutually contradictory things. Arguably, the core of Trumpism was less a policy agenda than the utter lack of one.
Well, that and the celebrity persona.
For the sort of people who write about politics for a living, there are few greater indictments of Trump than “reality television star.” But to attain such stardom, one has to shine on camera — to attract viewers’ eyes even in a frame crowded with the famous and the beautiful. Trump had that ability, an enormous asset in a presidential campaign.
He also fascinated as a wealthy guy who talked like a working-class guy, a rare breed these days. “A poor person’s idea of a rich person,” his critics sniffed, which was exactly right and, indeed, the point: Working-class voters like and trust people who seem like them, for the same reason that the professional class dropped into a dead swoon before Barack Obama’s impeccable credentials, soaring rhetoric and mediocre record of concrete accomplishment.
But also, Trump was just famous. He got billions of dollars’ worth of free media partly because he was compulsively watchable but also simply because he is Donald Trump, celebrity buffoon, rather than, say, Scott Walker, sad-eyed governor of one of 50 states. Disaffected voters who had watched “The Apprentice” for season after season felt as though they knew Trump. And just as we like and trust people who resemble us, we also like and trust our old friends. When these people flooded the primaries to vote for their friend, the GOP went along because political parties are ultimately there to win elections, not make principled, pyrrhic gestures.
Obviously, that didn’t work out so well in practice. As president, Trump’s greatest policy achievements were helping the Republican Party establishment appoint exactly the sort of judges, and enact the sort of tax cuts, they’d been planning before he entered politics. The Trumpier stuff was abandoned, or done via executive orders that are now being busily undone.
Which brings us back to the original point: There is no legacy. Trump’s voters can’t be captured by some watered-down imitator or slavish henchman because the only way to win his voters is to be him; there is no Trumpism that can be carried into the future by some new standard-bearer or even carry an ambitious politician along for the ride. There is only Trump, a singular and selfish figure whose coattails are far too tattered for anyone else to grasp.