Trumpism: The Last Gasp of a Failed President or the Legacy of Donald Trump?
In last week’s election, Democrats performed terribly, despite running during a period of unprecedented crisis against a uniquely unpopular and ineffectual president. You would think that Trump’s four years of demagoguery and corporate giveaways would have been easy to run against (a fucking slam dunk) but the Democratic Party is unable (or unwilling) to pose any alternative to Trumpism. And even though Trump is now (let’s be honest he was before too) a certified loser, his hold on his supporters is impressive. (Side note: now that Biden has won watch how I don’t fly a flag or wear merchandise with his name on it for the next four years like some fucking weirdo).
Trumpism first started its development predominantly during Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. And denotes a populist political method that suggests nationalistic answers to complex political, economic and social problems. It attempts to mobilize the "white disenfranchised" of growing social inequality, with stated opposition to the established political establishment. (Ideologically, it has a right-wing populist accent that can mostly be defined, not by policy, but by a gleeful and vehement loathing of anything Democrats, the left, and the media, which to Trumpists are one and the same). Peter J. Katzenstein of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center believes that Trumpism rests on three pillars: nationalism and religion with the largest pillar being race. (In other words Trumpism is nothing more than white supremacy by another name).
For the last four years, Trump has emboldened hate groups, struggled to denounce white nationalists pushed xenophobic policies, and unapologetically aligned himself with bigots. To the millions of Americans (mostly white) who still decided to vote for him again — this was a resounding endorsement that they wanted such racism to continue. But the less obvious aspects of Trumpism is that it has given conservatives permission to transgress. In this, as in so many other aspects, Trump comes to resemble Silvio Berlusconi. Starting with the cheeseburgers in the White House to the faux French aristocratic decorations (read: garish), there was a promise that sinning would now be OK (and thereby also owning those earnestly awful puritan libs).
Unlike Bush (I or II), Reagan, or any other GOP politician prior, Trump's support is built on the joy that his followers derive from his sadism. And they are willing to let him do or say anything as long as that spectacle continues. (Even when he abandons them, e.g. when he left his faithful supporters to die of hypothermia after a Nebraska rally, necessitating medical treatment for at least thirty people). There are also many stories of Trump supporters whose family members died from the coronavirus, yet who still possess admiration for him, even though he enabled the virus to spread uncontrolled throughout the population.
Yet, paradoxically, his supporters love him because we live in an epoch in which so many of us have completely given up on politics: we no longer believe politics is capable of materially improving our lives. (This applies to both Democrats and Republicans). And if you believe politics can't actually do anything for you, it makes sense perhaps that it would become an arena in which you get emotional satisfaction from absorbing the president's epic owns, with no material effect on your own life.
Trump could have rallied the Republican-controlled Congress to pass an infrastructure program along with paid family leave and affordable childcare programs. He could have called for tax reforms to reduce income inequality by making hedge-fund managers and other financial fat cats pay their fair share, as he had pledged to do early in his campaign. He could have promoted training programs and apprenticeships for the skilled trades, or implemented an industrial policy to achieve economic independence from China, or adopted any number of other Republican ideas aimed at strengthening the beleaguered working class.
Trump, of course, did none of these things. As a culture warrior, he played to his base’s appetite for social division, racial antagonism and malignant conspiracy theories. But in the economic sphere, he governed largely in the interests of the Republican party’s donor class. The 2017 tax cut, which was his most significant (and nearly his only) legislative accomplishment, delivered the overwhelming majority of its benefits to the most affluent. It even preserved the carried-interest tax loophole, the Wall Street giveaway that Trump had repeatedly vowed to repeal. Trump even promised more affordable and inclusive healthcare, but instead he went along with the Republican congressional attempt (which came within one vote of succeeding) to repeal Obamacare and replace it with nothing.
Perhaps Trumpism (and its specific articulation of an us-versus-them mentality) is not unprecedented in American politics. But the rhetoric which underpins it is only half of what it is about. The other half is your standard deregulation, privatization, and upward wealth redistribution — the kinds of neoliberal policies that move wealth upwards to the top 1%. Trump seems to have stumbled into this formula, the realization that sadism is the specific key towards continuing this right-wing, semi-authoritarian neoliberal agenda. Hence (aside from that single measly $1,200 check) Trump has delivered few observable material improvements to the lives of his supporters, who are largely not of the super-rich variety who benefited from, say, his tax reform bill. Rather, many of his policies have hurt them.
And so in the final analysis, Trump has proven himself to be more of a continuation than an alternative to standard Republican conservatism. Trump promised to drain the swamp but instead became the swamp. He took the conservative anti-government impulse and delivered corrupt, cruel, incompetent government. He redistributed prosperity upward and left the working class to wither on the vine. His most durable legacy will be the three US supreme court justices appointed during his presidency, but the working class is unlikely to benefit from, or even approve of, significant decisions by this new conservative majority. His rallies (the apotheosis of his politics) were both rhetorically meaningless and politically crucial: it was where you could see his politics most clearly, as an arena of mocks, brags, and boasts. (The political equivalent of a DJ Khaled track). And Trump's sadistic bullying only served to rile voters and enable the GOP to continue their agenda of redistributing wealth upwards without them even noticing. (All the while hooting and hollering at their TV each time Trump belittled someone they didn’t like). As Keith Spencer writes: “The lesson of Trumpism — be obstinate, gloating and sadistic, and your followers will become zealots, freeing you to keep redistributing wealth upwards.” Trumpism literally offers less than nothing (except maybe a life of immiseration) coupled with the promise that it’s adherents will learn who their enemies are, and then see their enemies get "owned." (Epic bullying and a public display of cruelty that makes them feel good, like they're part of some kind of "in" crowd).
“He’s a born demagogue,” says Sarah Kendzior, author of Hiding In Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America. “He’s someone who played a fake version of himself on reality TV, and before that built a fake version of himself in the New York tabloids, and that’s all he knows how to do. He needs to be a brand because he’s terrified of being a person, because there’s just no there there, it’s just nihilism and emptiness and cruelty. But he knows how to package that into something else for the American public.”
Conservatism is unlikely to return any time soon to the pre-Trump status quo. And despite his failures in office, the Trumpian faithful will say (much like those dreadful capitalism apologists) that Trumpism didn’t work because it was never really tried. Which means that while Trump himself will soon be gone, Trumpism (and all the destructive ignorance the term conveys) will long endure.