Finita la commedia. Donald Trump soon will be gone from the White House, if not from the news or our collective unconscious. But will Trumpism outlast Trump? And if so, what will be the impact of post-2020 Trumpism on the conservative movement and the Republican party?
Even though Trump often struggled to articulate his philosophy, if it can even be called that, his original campaign in 2016 proceeded from a number of key insights. The most important was that ever since the neoliberal era began in the 1980s, America had become two nations, divided by geography and class. The rift, as in most developed countries, grew between knowledge workers in the prosperous and socially progressive metropolitan areas that formed the hubs of the new global economy, and the conservative, non-college-educated inhabitants of rural areas and post-industrial towns.
While the “blue” areas recovered rapidly after the 2007-08 financial crisis, the situation for the left-behind “red” states and regions went from bleak to dire. The joblessness, hopelessness, family dissolution and “deaths of despair” that afflicted those areas were largely overlooked by the media and the Obama administration.
Trump, alone of the 2016 Republican presidential candidates, noticed that the party had come to represent the votes but not the interests of the white working – class. He defeated his competitors because he paid more attention to the problems of the base, offered unsubstantiated but emotionally convincing explanations for their plight, played upon their cultural and racial resentments, and rejected the worn-out Reaganite solutions touted by the rest of the field. He then went on to defeat the historically unpopular Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, by the slimmest of electoral college margins while losing the popular election by nearly 3 million votes.
When Trump entered the White House in January 2017, it was plausible that he might put policy flesh on the bones of the nationalist-populist synthesis he had outlined in his campaign. After all, in his first week in office, he invited the leaders of the major construction and building trades unions to the White House to discuss spending hundreds of billions of dollars on rebuilding the national infrastructure, which he correctly observed in his inaugural address had “fallen into disrepair and decay”.
Trump might have rallied the Republican-controlled Congress to pass an infrastructure program along with the paid family leave and affordable childcare programs championed by his daughter Ivanka. He might 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 might 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 had promised more affordable and inclusive healthcare, but he went along with the Republican congressional attempt (which came within one vote of succeeding) to repeal Obamacare and replace it with nothing.
Trump’s 2016 “Make America Great Again” slogan was a powerful weapon aimed at an inequitable status quo supported by both parties. But by the fall of 2020, the Trump administration’s inability to contain the coronavirus pandemic or its resulting economic damage, combined with his failure over the previous four years to implement anything resembling a populist program, meant that he could hardly run on a program of Trumpism, at least as he had defined it in 2016. All he could offer was his persona, which appealed mainly to the hard core of his supporters.
In the final analysis, Trump proved to be more a continuation than an alternative to standard Republican conservatism, at least as it has been defined since the Newt Gingrich era in the 1980s and 90s. Trump promised to drain the swamp but instead turned into the swamp. He took the conservative anti-government impulse and delivered corrupt, cruel, incompetent government. He redistributed prosperity upward and left the working class worse off. 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. Although the court may overturn Roe v Wade, for example, such a decision would alienate the 45% of Trump’s 2016 voters – largely non-evangelical, blue-collar voters – who either leaned pro-choice or held mixed views on abortion.
Nonetheless, 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, like the communist apologists of yesteryear, that Trumpism didn’t work because it was never really tried.
Might they be right? Could a repurposed Trumpism, in the years beyond 2024, succeed where Trump himself failed?
Most would-be Trump successors will try to imitate his unique line of showmanship, braggadocio, and insult comedy, and inevitably will fall short. But Trump wasn’t wrong to perceive China as a competitor and threat, even if his trade and tariff responses proved largely ineffective. Trump’s promise to deliver an alternative to Obamacare went unfulfilled, but he did break with conservative orthodoxy by refraining from cuts to the social security, Medicare and Medicaid programs on which the working class heavily depends. Trump’s anti-establishment shtick proved hollow, but he tapped into legitimate outrage against the ways in which both parties permitted elites and special interests to capture so much of the economy through tax dodges, anti-competitive arrangements and outright corruption. The Trumpian indictment of the status quo, in other words, corresponds to reality and can’t be dismissed as mere demagogy.
A 2024 Republican candidate running on circa-2016 Trumpism undoubtedly will play upon working-class fears that their wages will be undercut by unskilled immigrants. But such a candidate may at the same time repudiate Trump’s racism, in recognition that the working class is multiracial and that the Republican party must reach beyond white Americans without college degrees, a group that shrank from 71% of the electorate in 1976 to 39% in 2018.
The prospects for populist-nationalist conservatism will depend, more than anything else, on Democratic performance over the next four years. If Democrats fail to address the economic plight of the working class or check the excesses of their cultural left wing, or if they allow unauthorized immigration or crime to return to past peaks, the banner of Trumpism may once again fly over the White House.