Symposium | Election 2020: What Comes Next

Trumpism’s Long Tail

By Hussein Ibish

Tagged Donald TrumpJoe BidenRepublicans

Among the most widespread conclusions in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 election is that, while Donald Trump may have been repudiated by the American public—who elected Joe Biden by a majority that appears headed to the 6 million mark—Trumpism (however defined) has nonetheless been powerfully reinforced within the Republican Party. Therefore, the argument suggests, Trump’s brand of politics will define the Republican future for many years to come. This debatable assertion, and the underlying assumptions behind it, require careful unpacking.

First of all, was Trump himself repudiated? Among the broader U.S. public, clearly the answer is “yes.” Given current levels of political polarization along geographical lines, and far sharper distinctions between red and blue states, twentieth-century-style landslides are no longer plausible. Biden appears headed toward 306 Electoral College votes, the same number Trump won when he beat Hillary Clinton in 2016, as well as the aforementioned popular vote majority. One can certainly imagine a candidate doing better than this. But not all that much. Too many states are simply noncompetitive, with little apparent chance of being flipped under current circumstances. In other words, Trump was delivered a decisive defeat, considerably more robust than the one he called a “landslide” and “the greatest election ever” in 2016.

However, and this is the important point, within the Republican Party, Trump can still claim a strong level of vindication. He actually performed quite well as a vote-winner, turning out most of his 2016 supporters and adding gains among Latinos and African Americans, particularly among young men. Nearly 73 million Americans voted for him, a huge number. But between Trump’s even greater power of repulsion than attraction and Biden’s evident appeal to Trump- and COVID-weary Americans, the Democratic candidate did considerably better.

One could argue that any first-term presidential incumbent who is defeated these days has suffered a catastrophic failure, but it’s unlikely Republicans will see it that way, especially given their strong chances of retaining control of the Senate and unexpected gains in the House of Representatives and in many crucial state legislatures. These congressional successes invite the interpretation, quietly spreading among many on the Republican right, that the problem is not Trumpism but Donald Trump himself. Such arguments suggest that, while Trump is a candidate with unparalleled popularity among Republicans, for the general public he is too combative, erratic, mercurial, and obnoxious for long-term success. The implication is that a more disciplined and focused purveyor of the same policies and attitudes would be the ideal Republican standard-bearer in a post-Trump political landscape.

This assumption does not rest on a great deal of evidence. First, there is no indication the country and the Republican Party are actually entering a post-Trump phase. At time of writing, virtually the entire Republican leadership is united in supporting Trump’s refusal to recognize the outcome of the election, with the exception of just a few senators. The rest are all effectively backing what amounts to a bitter repudiation of American democratic processes without any evidence whatsoever of fraud or improprieties. Many reportedly privately say they are merely “humoring” Trump in order to slowly and gently talk him into accepting the inevitable and allowing a peaceful transfer of power and the transition to a new Administration, even though he will never admit defeat. “What’s the harm?” they reportedly ask.

But to ask that question is to answer it. Out of fear of Trump and his base, these Republican leaders are sowing the gravest mistrust of the most fundamental American democratic institutions at home and abroad. It’s hard to imagine anything more unpatriotic and unprincipled, and that’s a measure of the continued power, largely stemming from fear, that Trump continues to wield over most other senior Republicans. And what reason is there to believe that, even if he is ultimately dragged away from the presidency, he will likewise relinquish his grip on the party? Power, attention, and adulation without the burden of governance and with one of the greatest grievance narratives in recent American history—the “2020 stolen election” would make birtherism seem reasonable and constructive—combined with the prospect of huge profits and a potential media empire could be far more enjoyable for Trump than the presidency itself, at least on a day-to-day basis.

The real threats to Trump’s continued dominance of his party have nothing to do with other Republicans. One could be dramatic aging or ill health, in which case one of his children may well take up his mantle. The obvious other significant threat is potential prosecution and conviction on one or more of the myriad potential criminal charges of which he may well be guilty. That, too, doesn’t necessarily mean he and/or his children will continue to dominate the party, but it opens the possibility of a non-Trump alternative that presently does not exist.

Moreover, a second question remains: Is there really such a thing as “Trumpism” without Trump, beyond the personality cult that has developed around him? The Republican Party of 2020 doesn’t seem to think so, given that its party platform amounted to simply a commitment to doing whatever he thinks is best. The inability of Republicans to put a Trumpian vision in writing is perfectly understandable because there is, concretely, no such thing. There are some vague attitudes—xenophobia, chauvinism, grandiosity, an impulse toward white nationalism, Christian supremacy, and nostalgia—but nothing that could amount to a set of predictable policies. Judging from his term in office, Trump did not deal in policies at all, insofar as those are linked to intended outcomes. Instead, he was engaged in a permanent campaign, with all his decisions made on the basis of how something might play to his base on television in a rapidly evolving news cycle.

Efforts to define “Trumpism” beyond Trump himself and the atavistic attitudes listed above have been strikingly underwhelming. The December 2017 National Security Strategy document is an excellent case in point on foreign policy, incongruously and incoherently mashing together traditional idealistic American exceptionalism with a realist and ultimately mercantilistpursuit of self-interest in a Hobbesian world. In the first paragraph, the document insists the strategy is based on “realism” and “is guided by outcomes, not ideology.” Two sentences later it proclaims that “American principles are a lasting force for good in the world.” This bizarre document reflects that Trump’s Republican Party included both isolationists and internationalists, and rather than coming down on either side or reconciling them, he simply accommodated both and navigated between the two in order to maintain his leadership.

Forget about intellectual content; mere coherence has been elusive in the extreme. Some consistent Trump positions, which he mainly adopts because they are popular, are shared with the left and the far left: economic nationalism, non-interventionism bordering on neo-isolationism, the drift toward a mercantile foreign policy, hostility to multilateralism and fixed alliances, and skepticism about immigration. With the exception of immigration, which may be the one area in which coherence can be consistently identified, these are simply populist and demagogic forms of pandering. And all of them have their advocates on the Democratic and even socialist left. There is also no evidence that, apart from hostility to all forms of immigration, Trump would necessarily stick to any of these if he suddenly thought it was in his interests to reverse course. He has spoken for and against NATO, loves his own multilateral trade agreements, such as the USMCA, and can be as easily imagined driving the country into conflicts as extracting us from them. And while he poses as an insurgent Republican outsider,in some key ways he has governed as a typical Reaganite Republican, pushing tax cuts, deregulation for its own sake, and Federalist Society-approved judicial appointments, all of which again points to the essential hollowness of a distinctive “Trumpism.”

Far from suggesting that a transferable “Trumpist” ideology has been reinforced among Republicans while Trump himself has been widely repudiated by the American public, the election results point instead to the continued dominance of Trump and his family over the Republican Party until at least the next midterm elections. The loss of practical political power may break the spell for other Republican leaders, but if he’s able to wield tremendous influence with the party base from the sidelines, the fever may persist. As long as Trump and his progeny remain dominant, Trumpism of a kind will rule the GOP. Yet Trumpism in practice simply means whatever is politically and financially in the interests of Trump and his nuclear family. So, without a Trump at the helm, it’s hard to imagine it bequeathing anyone a coherent set of policies on a wide range of issues or serve post-Trump Republicans as the core of a governing national coalition.

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Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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