‘Trumpism’ Without Trump Is an Inkblot Without Ink

Even in defeat, President Donald Trump is a master of branding. People are rushing to slap his name on their favorite version of the Republican Party.

“Whatever the GOP once stood for, voters today associate it with one thing: Donald Trump,” writes Bloomberg’s Joshua Green. “Trumpism” is the word of the season.

But what exactly is it, or was it?

Those on the left, long convinced that the GOP is a bunch of hateful, greedy racists who want grandma to die, brandish the word “Trumpism” as an accusation that there’s no gap separating Trump’s worst qualities from Republican policies and Republican voters. “In 2020 his sexism, racism and lie-telling have been legitimised and emboldened,” writes David Smith in the Guardian.

“We cannot separate, disentangle, Trump from the Republican Party,” declares Eddie S. Gaude Jr., chairman of Princeton University’s African American studies department. To try is to pretend “that somehow Democrats have to reconcile with Republicans as if these were rational actors who have been behaving in good faith the past 40 years. They haven’t.” In this reading, Trumpism has ruled the GOP since President Ronald Reagan’s day, and it amounts to being hateful and divisive.

On the right, politicians and commentators hope to attach Trump’s powerful brand, minus the less savory associations, to their own ambitions and favored policies. “Republicans won elections down ballot because of Donald Trump, not in spite of Donald Trump,” Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton told Wall Street Journal reporters for an article about the “future of Trumpism.” With two Harvard degrees, a nerdy manner and a military bearing, Cotton is an unlikely successor to the flamboyant president. But he’s a torchbearer for Trump’s economic nationalism and populist resentments.

“All the high wardens of popular culture in this country, they love to make fun of Donald Trump, to mock him, to ridicule him,” he told an Arkansas fundraising dinner in 2017. “They make fun of his hair, they make fun of the color of his skin, they make fun of the way he talks — he’s from Queens, not from Manhattan. They make fun of that long tie he wears, they make fun of his taste for McDonald’s. What I don’t think they realize is that out here in Arkansas and the heartland and the places that made a difference in that election, like Michigan and Wisconsin, when we hear that kind of ridicule, we hear them making fun of the way we look, and the way we talk, and the way we think.”

For Senator Mario Rubio of Florida, Trumpism offers a chance to jettison the GOP’s devotion to free markets and its association with big business. “The free market exists to serve our people. Our people don’t exist to serve the free market,” he told the Wall Street Journal. Before Trump descended his famous escalator to enter the 2016 race, Rubio’s so-called reform conservatism was the next big thing on the intellectual right. That was essentially a U.S. version of European-style Christian democracy, with policies favoring families, workers and stable communities. Protectionism and industrial policy are in. Free markets are out. Now it’s supposed to be the kinder, gentler version of Trumpism.

There’s some truth in all these interpretations, but they miss what makes Trumpism distinctive. I often tell new readers of my 1998 book, "The Future and Its Enemies," that they can update the first chapter by replacing the words “Pat Buchanan” with “Donald Trump.” Buchanan — a conservative columnist and TV host who got his start as a speechwriter for President Richard Nixon — was a Republican presidential primary candidate in the 1990s. Like Trump, he advocated a return to a static ideal of mid-20th-century America, with heavy industry unthreatened by international competition or new technologies, and an apparently homogeneous culture unblemished by immigrants. Both men found fans among workers fearful of losing their jobs to outsiders or to unseen, barely understood market forces.

When you read Buchanan’s famously dark “culture war” speech to the 1992 Republican convention, however, it doesn’t take long to detect a major difference. As policy, Trumpism and Buchananism may be the same. They even share the ethos of the schoolyard brawler.

But Buchanan saw himself, and the Republican Party, as upholding norms. He spoke in the stern voice of traditionalist Catholic schools: against abortion, against homosexuality, against feminism, against pornography, against Bill Clinton’s draft dodging and Hillary Clinton’s legal career. “There is a religious war going on in this country,” he declared. “It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.” Buchanan was judgmental.

Trump would never give a speech like that, any more than Buchanan would boast about grabbing women by their private parts. Trump is all id, and so is Trumpism. It offers supporters not just policies but emotional release.

Trump’s rallies are famously fun. He’s a showman who doesn’t mind his tongue, unless you count making sure he keeps the audience laughing. “It’s a lot easier to act presidential than to do what I do; anybody can act presidential,” he told a Florida rally, stiffening and taking a few paces to great laughter before resuming: “Ladies and gentleman of the state of Florida, thank you very much for being here. You are tremendous people and I will leave now, because I am boring you to death.” Trump cares less about power than about applause. And he wins that applause by telling fans to let it all hang out.

Embodied in a man for whom bankruptcy is as routine as divorce, Trumpism’s radical departure from Republican Party tradition isn’t its protectionist economics but its anti-bourgeois character. It avoids hypocrisy, the tribute that vice pays to virtue, by scorning virtue. For people tired of being bossed around, Trumpism offers relief: from minding their manners and policing their speech, from regulatory niggling and environmental pieties, from wearing masks and being nice. Breaking norms is its emotional core.

With their message discipline and pristine resumes, conventional politicians like Cotton and Rubio offer no such release, however much they may adopt Trump’s policies and seek support among his followers. Trumpism without Trump is like chocolate chip ice cream without chocolate chips. Missing its defining ingredient, it’s plain vanilla.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her next book, "The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World," will be published in November.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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