The Economist, a weekly news magazine of British pedigree, devoted a recent cover to an obituary. The stiff in question is the GOP, once the party of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt but now decidedly that of Donald Trump. He has taken it over. He demands personal loyalty, refuses to abide dissent and rules by whim. For the once Grand Old Party, its mascot is no longer the elephant but the chicken, and its parade march is the grovel. Watch most Republicans do it.
President Trump’s way of governing and his almost absolute lack of political principles is often referred to as “Trumpism.” This is a dandy term, because it moves us past the temptation to say “fascism” — the subject of countless articles and books, including two important ones. The respected Dutch public intellectual Rob Riemen calls his book “To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism”, while Madeleine Albright, as befits her admirably direct style, comes right out and says it: “Fascism: A Warning”.
But to Americans the term fascism is off-putting. It comes freighted with all sorts of baggage that does not describe Trump. Foremost, he is not an anti-Semite. Jew-hatred was the sine qua non of the most prominent fascist movements, particularly Germany’s, where the murder of Jews was of the highest priority. Italy, where the term fascism originated, followed suit.
Trump has an authoritarian bent, but as his Jewish friends can attest and the conversion of his daughter to Judaism proves, he lacks fascism’s most recognizable feature. Michael Cohen, I dare say, would not take a bullet for a Jew-hater.
So the term “Trumpism” works best because it describes something uniquely American. It’s true that nations all over the world have moved to the authoritarian right, but China, Russia, Poland, Hungary and others are returning to their histories. These nations were never democracies for very long. The United States is different. The closest thing we previously had to Trump was Huey Long, the 1930s-era governor and then senator from Louisiana. He had the makings of a dictator, but he was killed before he could mount a presidential campaign. Long, to his credit, actually had a program.
Trumpism has no such program. He sometimes mentions jobs, but that’s just a talking point. His most consistent reference points are his own grudges. For all his wealth, Trump is a bundle of insecurities and resentments. In that way, he validates similar feelings in others. If they loathe the establishment, so does he. If they loathe foreign aid, so does he. If they misunderstand trade agreements, so does he. If they fret over an America that is less white and more tolerant of homosexuality and immigrants, then so does he. If they recoil from a news media that talks the PC language they abhor, so does he. They are him. He is them. That’s the program.
If Trumpism needs an emblem, I suggest a bust of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). He was once renowned as a congressional iconoclast, a team player for his own team only, and widely disliked as a result. During the presidential primaries, Cruz hit his stride, denouncing Trump as an “utterly immoral” “pathological liar,” “serial philanderer” and “sniveling coward.” Trump, of course, responded in kind, even suggesting that Cruz’s father was somehow linked to John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
No matter. In a recent issue of Time magazine, Cruz revealed his new-found admiration for Trump. His joy at the Trump administration could hardly be contained. The article is a model of “sniveling” political cowardice.
Trumpism did not come out of nowhere. The GOP has long reviled the so-called mainstream media. Trumpism is Sarah Palinism updated. It is the GOP’s acceptance of white racism — the reason segregationist Strom Thurmond left the Democratic Party — and is an extreme version of Reaganism and his dictum that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” In a way Ronald Reagan did not intend, that is certainly the case now.
Does Trumpism have a future beyond Trump himself? Maybe. The woods are thick with Trumps-in-waiting, but none so far have his celebrity mojo. More likely, America’s political immune system will kick in and install a more conventional government. But Trump — with his tweets, his vulgarity, his appeal to bigotry, his insults, his carefree ignorance and his ability to maintain himself as an addictive spectacle — has changed things forever. Trump is where the end begins. He will be gone, but Trumpism will remain.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.