After an astonishing election campaign, it looks possible that Donald J. Trump may no longer be President after January 2021. But while many of his harshest and most unrelenting critics wait to celebrate, even if he does lose it will be harder to dispense with Trumpism than with Trump. For while the inevitable recounts and legal challenges test the fabric of American governance over the coming days and weeks, we shouldn’t overlook the appeal of Trumpism even if Trump may no longer be around to distract us from it.
Not all political leaders are honoured with an ‘ism’, and even those who are might not appreciate it. Thatcher and Reagan gave rise to Thatcherism and Reaganism, but the extent to which they would have remained adherents is doubtful. The idea of Reagan, for example, facilitating the deindustrialisation of the American Midwest is absurd. Trumpism, however, is more often used as an insult, referring not to a philosophy, but to a style of behaviour and speech. As if to be a ‘Trumpist’ is to ‘enable’ creeping authoritarianism and habitually subvert the integrity of institutions. Whether this accusation is credible or not, however, this would be to mistake the man for the ideas he has come to represent. These ideas did not emerge out of nowhere, and aren’t going away. But in their desire to remove Trump by all means necessary his critics have paid little attention to Trumpism except as an extension of all they affect to loath about Trump.
The truth is, however, that Trump was not elected on his personal merits, or because of some cult of personality, but because the American people believed the Washington elite had failed them and that the U.S. was on the wrong track. More importantly Trump was the only one saying it, leaving the field open for him to dominate the Republican primaries and defeat Hillary Clinton for the Presidency. Clearly a very great many still believe this broad critique. And that is a far bigger problem for the U.S. than whether the President follows time honoured protocols, or wears the wrong kind of tie. Though Trump is always happy to draw attention to himself the importance of Trumpism is separate to the man. He was elected because he proposed a reorientation of U.S. policy on trade, immigration and military interventionism, and whoever sits in the Oval Office will need to have an equally persuasive approach to the same underlying problems.
The Trump Trade
So much more is publicly known today than was known when Trump came to power. It is now widely acknowledged that letting China join the WTO in 2001 has had serious negative effects in parts of the U.S. China has also adopted more hostile rhetoric towards the U.S. and is no longer seen as a partner, instead as a competitor. In 2016 the difficulty of ensuring China lives up to its international agreements was well known, but Trump was the first to take the problem seriously. His approach was direct and confrontational though few argue now that it was overdone. Japan simply followed the U.S. lead on this, and Europe are coming swiftly around. This shift in posture is of enormous significance for the years ahead and both heralds the partial re-industrialisation of the U.S. and offers a formula for redressing some of the regional inequalities between the coastal elites and country in between.
Furthermore, this shift in posture away from the liberal economist’s spreadsheet towards a consideration of the inevitable human consequences is to some extent cross-party, and was traditionally more of a Democrat concern in any case. Under Trump this policy of moderate economic nationalism will continue, but given the electoral dynamics at play, trade policy under any other President would be much the same, if pursued with less alacrity. And though there may be talk of institutional reform at the WTO etc, the hard realities remain and the Senate is still Republican, so U.S. policy will likely not deviate from the consensus established under Trump.
Walls of Silence
Perhaps Trump’s best known domestic policy was his determination to build a wall across the southern border. There are aspects of this political issue that are mystifying to non-Americans, but the wall is now largely built or is underway, and illegal immigration levels have been brought down significantly. For all the criticism Trump received about this, it is noteworthy that the EU has funded the construction of physical barriers in parts of its southern border for much the same reason, to stop the unrestricted flow of migrants across borders. Equally the numbers of people on the move around the world is a problem not remotely unique to the United States.
In this sense Trump is just a megaphone for a real and widespread anxiety over the value and meaning of citizenship which won’t be addressed by simply wishing the problem away. Indeed, the rash of statue toppling and increasing opposition to ‘critical race theory’ in the U.S. might be seen as part of a wider cultural reexamination of ‘who we are’ that has a bearing on migration. Then Trump’s notable success (for a Republican) in attracting electoral support from minorities suggests this problem is not simply a preoccupation of ‘white America’ but of America in general. No doubt a different occupant of the White House will speak differently to these issues than Trump does, but it’s mere pretence to suggest a radically different approach is either warranted or indeed possible. This conversation will simply go on, even in silence.
The last broad strand of Trumpism centred on a restoration of military strength, while refocusing on operational capabilities rather than wasting time, resources, and lives, patrolling utopian liberal development plans. No more democracy promotion, no more garrisoning the world’s fly blown trouble spots in never ending hopes of peace. To some extent, as with trade, the world has come around to this view. The U.S. today is more transactional and conditional in its involvements but much happier developing political alliances with regional proxies and helping them achieve their aims. It is also less wedded to the pieties of outmoded liberals still in thrall to the Cold War verities of overseas engagement. NATO, for example, a child of the Truman administration, must finally learn to walk as even Eisenhower demanded. No more free-riding.
In other theatres US engagement in Asia has been remarkable, cementing a proto-alliance with India, formalising and institutionalising ‘the Quad,’ breaking the deadlock in the Middle East by brokering peace and recognition between Arab states and Israel. These achievements will stand, and demonstrate what’s possible when you’re prepared to leave the foreign policy specialists to sleep in their think tanks and seminar rooms, while talking turkey with the power brokers instead. North Korea hasn’t yet yielded to this approach, but it can hardly be argued the U.S. is in a worse position now than in 2016. The world is a restless place right now, but the U.S. military is equipped with new capabilities, a new resolve, and a flexible orientation. A stark contrast to Trump’s Inauguration Day in 2016 when it was bogged down across the Middle East, defensive, and every single large aircraft carrier in the U.S. Navy was laid up in port.
For all the millions of words written about Trumpism as a psychological condition, an American strand of demagoguery, or a set of personal flaws, we should remember that Trump was elected by tens of millions of voters who responded to his message of moderate economic nationalism, immigration reform and cultural renewal, and a stronger, more capable military. Changing the direction of US policy was opposed right across the board, but is now broadly set. That his message gained a hearing was because Washington elites had become uninterested in the daily realities of American life, preferring instead the global role they imagined for themselves, happier driving the car than fixing the engine.
Reduced to its essentials though, Trumpism would be a normal U.S. policy orientation for almost the whole of American history. Sustain the manufacturing base, protect borders, promote patriotism, strengthen the military, and keep foreign entanglements to a minimum. That was Trump’s platform, and if it doesn’t survive then America might not either. That’s why tens of millions came out to vote for him again this week, and that’s why Trumpism will likely survive, even if Trump doesn’t.