Trumpism did not begin with Trump, it will not end with him, and it probably will not be entirely confined to the Republican Party, because it offers something of great value to the enterprising populist demagogue: a politics of blame. The lesson Republicans will take from this election is that, Trump’s personal failure notwithstanding, his kind of it’s-not-my-fault-ism has far wider appeal than Democrats, liberals, progressives — or traditional conservatives — are willing to admit. Republicans are not going to give that up simply because they lost a closer than expected race with an easily exposed candidate.
Trumpism is not the philosophy of free-market and limited-government conservatives like me, and it isn’t even nationalism, really. It is something more like group therapy for conservatives and others who feel alienated from, and hostile toward, the progressive social consensus: political, corporate and media elites who all seem to have gone to the same schools and belong to the same clubs. Trumpism is, at heart, not a philosophy but an enemies list. It is the reiteration of a bipartisan populist current with a pedigree that stretches back through Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, Huey Long, William Jennings Bryan and Andrew Jackson.
Trump’s followers may thrill to the promise of trade wars and border walls, but what excites them even more is his gleeful transgression. They do not embrace him in spite of the schoolyard insults, Twitter tantrums and conspiracy nonsense, but because of these things, which represent weapons in a fight to liberate public life from the straitjacket of respectability as defined by Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, the dean of students and the human resources department.
Trump’s large and, it turns out, diverse constituency consists in no small part of Americans who resent being scolded by such worthies; ordinary people who woke up one morning to find themselves re-christened “Latinx” or were sent to a corporate reeducation seminar because they didn’t get the memo on nonbinary pronouns. For them, Trumpism’s bumptious character, theatricality and venom are selling points: the unfiltered id kicking the bossy superego in the shins.
Trumpism is an acquired taste, and some unexpected constituencies have increasingly acquired it: Mexican Americans in Texas’s Zapata and Starr counties; Venezuelan Americans and Cuban Americans in South Florida; a smaller but growing number of African Americans, particularly Black men; and a larger percentage of LGBT Americans — who, according to early exit polls, nearly doubled their support for Trump from 2016. Presumably, these voters were not motivated by “White nostalgia” and evangelical fanaticism. Trump even did a little better with White women.
Trump’s apparent success at enlarging the tent is celebrated by Republicans such as Rush Limbaugh, who notes that while GOP campaign advisers spent years bleating about minority outreach (remember the party’s 2013 “autopsy”?), it was the impolitic Trump, not slick political consultants, who got it done. Democrats mocked his efforts to court Black voters — the “Platinum Plan,” the Lil Wayne photo op. But they stopped laughing after it became clear that Joe Biden’s Latino outreach was a flop and when they realized Trump had done something no Republican presidential candidate had done in years: make an apparently credible direct pitch to Black voters for their support.
Trump’s populist formula came up short. And Trump isn’t all populism: He pushed a lot of conventional Republican country-club priorities. (Rich White guys and 50 Cent ostensibly agree on supply-side tax policy.) But the essence of Trumpism’s policy legacy is found in destructive measures that are anti-trade and anti-immigration, and that undermine multinational institutions such as NATO and the World Trade Organization — positions that cast Americans of all stripes as the victims of foreign predations.
The passion for such policies is exclusive neither to Trump nor to Republicans. In 2016, there was overlap between Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) evolving stances on immigration’s impact on jobs, and in 2020 between Trump and Biden on trade (particularly with China). What this kind of pseudo-nationalism offers is an opportunity for the American people to blame the languishing state of the country on someone — Beijing, “elites,” anyone — other than themselves. It was always a mistake to believe that “Make America Great Again” would appeal only to angry White men or only to traditional Republicans. When Trump raged and raged against NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership as plots hatched by the billionaire class, many Democrats’ hearts raged right along with him.
That raging is the other big part of Trumpism.
Trump may be the least woke man in America, but the would-be White saviors of the progressive metros generally do not understand the working classes or ethnic minorities nearly as well as they think. Hispanic Texans can be pretty hawkish on illegal immigration. Floridians who fled the Nicolás Maduro regime hear the socialist rhetoric of Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) as watered-down versions of the same.
Plenty of working-class White Americans aren’t moved by the promise of college loan forgiveness — a sop to the educated and affluent dressed up as social justice. Democrats often take a proprietary attitude toward Black voters, something of which Biden, with his repugnant “you ain’t Black” remark, is especially guilty.
These aren’t exactly right-wing concerns: A lot of New Deal Democrats and moderates reject socialism, illegal immigration and promiscuous allegations of racism, too.
Trump “discovered” what should have been obvious all along: Lots of Latinos think of themselves as unhyphenated Americans first. Lots of Black voters are sick of empty Democratic promises. A lot of members of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina are more interested in federal recognition than in bland paeans to multiculturalism. Despite setbacks in court, lots of Asian Americans understandably resent what they see as a do-gooder admissions scheme artificially holding down their numbers at Harvard. Lots of White voters are tired of being tagged as bigots and white supremacists for any kind of political or social nonconformism. Trump may not have been successful in his approach to the trade deficit, but he was spectacularly apt at annoying and insulting the people his voters want to see annoyed and insulted.
Pushback against the lords of culture is to be welcomed, though there is no particular reason that the effort has to be led by the president of the United States instead of, say, political-correctness foe Dave Chappelle. In fact, culture war hampers governance, which is why Trump was unable to turn the rage into smart policy: It’s impossible to reach a stable consensus when you think everybody on the other side is guilty of treason or worse. Ronald Reagan didn’t keep an enemies list. He famously said that, in politics, someone who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend. Trumpism demands 100 percent loyalty, because its tribal commitments supersede any governing agenda.
Those commitments are seductive, and they’re much more engaging than a close study of tax structure or a debate about America’s foreign alliances. Trump whetted many Americans’ appetite for an angry politics of cathartic confrontation, a sort of soft civil war. That genie is not going back into the bottle easily or quietly, because Trump is not so much a divisive figure in his own right as an expert at exploiting the bitter divide in our society and culture that will be there long after he has decamped to Mar-a-Lago. Biden can promise to be a president “for all Americans,” but when about half of the country understands the interests and demands of the other half to be antagonistic to their own aspirations, that presents a nest of thorny problems that will take a broader mind than Biden’s to negotiate.
Trumpism will live on in a Trumpified GOP led, in no small part, by born-again Trumpists such as Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.); its future presidential prospects are personified in Trump-aligned or Trump-adjacent figures such as Gov. Kristi Noem (S.D.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.).
Democrats were hoping for a thundering national repudiation of Trump, his program and his allies. Happily, they exorcised the man himself, but they leave his movement not only undefeated but also entrenched by its partial electoral success. Democrats may be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief. But they ought to be thinking about the prospect of a Trump-style right-wing populist movement led not by a fading cartoon but by someone like Cruz or Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) — smart, disciplined politicians who took away one unforgettable lesson from these four years of rage: As an operating model, Trumpism works.