Have We Figured Out Trumpism Yet?

One thing we do know: It’s not economic populism.

By Kevin Mattson

Tagged Donald Trumplawpolitics

It’s nearly impossible, and perhaps even dangerous, to try to get a handle on something that is essentially moving at lightning speed. Such is the challenge of writing about “Trumpism” today, for doing so would mean holding to a faith that there’s something coherent in the impulses of our current President. And, of course, as we’ve witnessed over his first few weeks in office, that’s become harder and harder to believe. Today, the media may be fixated on a particular off-hand remark or on a new executive order. Wake up tomorrow and a new tweet has set the web alight, trundling us down a whole different alley. Still, perhaps dim outlines can be gleaned from some of the more dizzying moments of the past few weeks.

But let’s start with what Trumpism is definitely not. It’s not, first of all, as some would have had it, economic populism. Theo Anderson, at In These Times, zeroed in on one of the ideologues who now perches atop our National Security Council: Steve Bannon, who helped spread the President’s message to white evangelicals. Anderson tracked down a speech Bannon gave to a “conference on poverty held at the Vatican” in 2014, in which he tried his best to portray himself as a populist. For example, he said: “[N]ot one criminal charge has ever been brought to any bank executive associated with the 2008 crisis. …Middle class taxpayers, people that are working-class people … bailed out the elites.” And of course, throughout the campaign, Trump spoke similarly. But now? Just look at the Administration’s cabinet appointments.

Over at n+1, Rebecca Liao has written on “Trumpism and the Davos Man” (in other words, the global capitalist). She points out, correctly: “Many of the people picked for the administration, or likely to work with it, are not only perfectly fine with free trade, but are boosters of it. Secretary of Commerce nominee Wilbur Ross, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, and Goldman Sachs veterans Steve Mnuchin and Gary Cohn—the probable future heads of American economic policy—are all beneficiaries and defenders of the current global economic system.” You could very likely add Betsy DeVos to that list. And who would not concede that Donald Trump has done well by international capitalism? Populism and Trump Towers just don’t mix.

Let’s not forget here either one of Trump’s recent executive actions: Following a meeting with corporate executives just over a week ago, he signed an order that will make it much easier to move toward the repeal of Dodd-Frank. There have been debates about the effectiveness of the law on the left. What’s telling, though, is how Trump explained his decisions regarding financial regulation by referring to Jamie Diomon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase. “There’s nobody better to tell me about Dodd-Frank than Jamie,” he pronounced. The financial firm was often a target of the Obama-era law. And Trump, as usual, didn’t just stop there, explaining further: “We expect to be cutting a lot out of Dodd-Frank because, frankly, I have so many people, friends of mine, that have nice businesses and they can’t borrow money. They just can’t get any money because the banks just won’t let them borrow because of the rules and regulations in Dodd-Frank. So we’ll be talking about that in terms of the banking industry.” And in the same setting, with the same CEOs still sitting around him, Trump pledged to cut taxes, seemingly for his “friends,” who clearly don’t include anyone vaguely part of the working class.

So this is why Liao uses the term “authoritarian capitalism”—rather than populism—to describe Trump’s worldview, a form of economics and governance she sees as currently spreading around the globe. And I’d agree that that term seems to more closely explain Trumpism than does any reference to “populism.” However, her insistence that Trump is in keeping with authoritarian globalists in China and Singapore is off-key. Nationalism is still more important than globalism in Trump’s vision. The “ban,” which the courts just last week refused to reinstate, is all about national borders (and “national security”); it stands in direct opposition to open globalism. And we must not take for granted the claims he made in his inaugural address to ensure “America first.” So although her definition may have gotten us somewhat closer to the essence of Trump, it still doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head.

Therefore, instead of breaking down each and every executive action bit by bit, let’s step back and try to consider the essence of what is meant by an “executive action.” This would mean that, to understand the implications of these orders, we must not only consider the number (Obama issued more than Trump did during his first days in office), but, rather, their largesse: the “wall” with Mexico (whether or not we pay for it), the “travel ban” (the term the President uses, even if his press secretary doesn’t), the admittedly unclear “pathway” for dismantling the Affordable Care Act. In Trump speak, these are yuge. These are also executive actions that have been taken when Trump has Republican majorities in both houses. More telling still is how the Donald couples his orders with a bold, open attack on the judiciary branch, whose “so-called” judges he chides for being “so political,” and apparently unable to grasp what “a bad high school student would understand.” Trump suggests here that bold, aggressive action (as long as he is the one pursuing them) should never have to submit to judicial review or constitutional debate.

All of this suggests a particular kind of love for the notion of executive action as a good in and of itself, not a technique but a value-laden principle. It’s the love of the “unitary” executive branch, an idea reignited during the George W. Bush Administration (recall his “I’m the decider” line) but that reaches back to Richard Nixon’s time as President—in political theory terms, “decisionism.”

This outlook has become increasingly evident in Trump’s speech, his catchphrases, and his public announcements. Consider his spat with Rep. John Lewis. What mattered there wasn’t that Lewis has a remarkable track record in the civil rights movement (which is irrefutable). Trump was talking about Lewis as a Congressperson, suggesting that he hadn’t done much for his district recently. Unsurprisingly, this came after Lewis had needled Trump on a question that is consistently sure to get under his thin skin—the question of his “legitimacy”—a definite sore spot what with the loss of the popular vote and the stories of Russian influence on the election. Trump’s words for Lewis were telling: “All talk, no action.” That sounds an awful lot like criticisms that have been leveled at Congress and the Senate, two institutions that emphasize deliberation over centralized action, which is apparently different from how Trump perceives his own role.

In many ways, this view of unitary executive action over “talk” fits perfectly into our present-day “post-truth” dimension (perhaps best exemplified by the likes Kellyanne Conway). Great leaders generate their own truths. Steve Bannon, for one, took his views from Breitbart straight to the White House. In a 2015 interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, Bannon argued “that most readers don’t approach the news as a clinical exercise in absorbing facts, but experience it viscerally as an ongoing drama, with distinct story lines, heroes, and villains.” Here, fear of the unknown—the next terror attack just around the corner—will win out anytime against concern for constitutional order or with whether or not a policy will work in reality. Likewise, the President is not just the acting man-in-chief, he’s the one often creating his own narrative, forging a new “reality” as he goes along.

It’s still early days in Trump’s presidency, and we’re still barely through the first chapter of this story he’ll want to continue telling us about himself. His campaign still lingers in the background as the President turns to governance. Some wonder which campaign promise Trump will move on to next and what that will tell us about his presidency. I’d say there is in fact one that he appears to be clinging onto: His consistent championing of Putin, even when that has meant positioning himself against his own country’s apparent interests and against his President (at the time, Barack Obama). For Trump, Obama was everything he wasn’t—an intellectual, a thinker, a law school professor trained at Harvard, for Christ’s sake. This relationship is a good reflection of another campaign promise that Trump has lived up to so far: being consistently aggressive and hyper-macho; he’s a decider, not a deliberator. What that tells us about the rest of his presidency remains to be seen. But for those who cherish democracy, the last few weeks do not bode well.

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Kevin Mattson teaches American history at Ohio University. He is author, most recently, of Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech and the "Rocking, Socking" Election of 1952.

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