by Noah Jenkins
As election day came and past, it is inevitable the Trump era will come to a close. To many this represents the end of a grand populist experiment in America that proved politicians—at least in the standard sense—are not the only way. Yet others breathed a sigh of relief, saying, to put it in the words of President Ford, “our long national nightmare is over.”
Irrespective the reactions, however, is the fact while President Trump will no longer physically abide in the White House, his legacy most certainly will resound within its halls and throughout the nation.
It would be nonsensical for one to say the end of Trump’s presidency equates the end of the movement he founded five years ago. A famous Time Magazine cover from October 2018 depicting Trump yard signs successively reading Trump 2020, Trump 2024, and so on encapsulates the longevity the movement vies to have, so it is no doubt the period following the election—say the next couple of years—will see a considerable cadre of Americans continuing to carry the banner. Add atop this Trump challenging the legitimacy of the election, especially since it was (arguably) close, and this effect is only amplified.
This situation appears identical to the intent, quite ironically, of the “Not My President” movement following Trump’s upset win in 2016, except then the dissenting were cognizant of the fact the president at the time was actually legitimate. Their lament was largely symbolic in nature and was reflective of the first stages of grief, if you will, over what they thought was the beginning of a dark chapter in our nation’s history. It, I believe, is a very real possibility many Trump supporters will wholeheartedly believe he is still the bona fide president—not in that they will take literal marching orders from him, as the more hyperbolic theories claim, rather they will likely continue to carry his banner politically.
With that said, this certainly does not mean his influence will not be limited.
If history be our guide, there is credence to the notion that Trump’s power—like any other president’s—will wane when he leaves office. Returning to the previous analogy of grief, the last stage is acceptance and moving on—an effect seen in every election upset from President Jefferson’s win against the Federalists in 1800 to today. With the notable exception being President Lincoln’s win triggering the Civil War in 1860, even if the losing party made a considerable fuss after a hard-fought race, the dust always settled.
The role of ideology
This leads me to the crux of this analysis: ideology.
One aspect intrinsic to the “moving on” process is not making the same mistake again. This is conventional political knowledge. If running on, say, healthcare failed one year for a given party, why on earth would they run on it the next? So, as applied to the situation at hand, does this mean since running on Trump—which, quite literally, is what the RNC did—fails this year, Republicans will drop his ideals like a hot potato?
After all, in nearly every recent electoral loss a political realignment or rebranding ensued. Secretary Clinton’s loss in 2016 saw Democrats begin to embrace Progressive policies more, Senator McCain’s loss in 2008 saw the testing of the Republican establishment with the founding of the Tea Party, Vice President Gore’s loss in 2000 presumably would have precipitated a mellower Democratic Party if 9/11 didn’t completely realign the national focus, and President Bush’s 1992 loss produced Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America that went onto define the Republican Party of the ‘90s—a loss, of course, provided by President Clinton’s win, which itself was thanks to Democrats correcting course from 1988.
But then again Trump is different—that is to say Trumpism is different.
Whereas preceding ideologies revolved around ideas or, at most, a given leader’s spin on those ideas, Trumpism is first in the modern era, at least in my opinion, to put the leader ahead of the ideas. In other words, instead of Trump completely submitting himself to an ideology, he seems to meander from idea to idea when politically expedient, while managing to maintain some semblance of harmony between them.
Perhaps it is because the drivers of Trump’s actions are less predictive in this way why many of his supporters support him unconditionally—similar to how students in a class may passively copy what a teacher writes on the board, trusting the teacher is right in how they are leading the class, or, as in Trump’s case, the nation.
Of course, this characterization is not one hundred percent true in all cases, as some could argue he has remained quite consistent through his entire five year political career—issues such as immigration, China, and the now-defunct NAFTA are just some examples. In fact, as James Brown, fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney concisely put it, “Every time Trump has called for a new strategy, he’s ended up doubling down on his instincts.” Although seeming contradictory to the theory I posited earlier, the key in his statement lies within the idea of his motivations being instinctual instead of fundamental.
The role of instinct and linkage
Many of the key issues Trump has touted over the years, like those prior listed, have a veneer of cohesiveness because these issues are at the core of his brand. To put it in terms of instincts in its most basic sense, touting these issues are quite literally routine.
Presumably, for example, Trump could drop everything right now and talk in length about building the wall on the southern border just as easy as we could do a repetitive task such as brushing our teeth. This fact is definitely not unique to Trump, however. I am sure we would all agree this instinctual effect is present in most politicians.
The heart of my understanding of Trumpism comes when what these instincts are linked to is considered. This is where convention breaks down in the ideology. Following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida in February 2018, Trump had an emotional sit-down with many student survivors and parents, some of the deceased, in the White House where he promised that gun reform, such as the introduction of background checks and the raising of the minimum age of gun ownership, would be imminent. Days later, the NRA had talked him down, and besides a ban on bump stocks—a gun modification device—not much was done policy-wide in response to the incident.
Although this could be written off as an extremely influential interest group, particularly within Republican circles, pushing their priorities over that truly of the president’s, one must also consider how this upholds Brown’s interpretation of Trumpism. As a reminder, my hypothesis is whereas typical politicians have an underlying principle to refer to, Trump has his instincts. And while following his instincts may result in predictable results when dealing with familiar and repetitive events, as previously stated, when an irregular event occurs, say a school shooting—though they are still much too common in frequency—an impulse may break with the pattern.
On its own this may not seem significant, but when the unpredictable nature of politics is considered the outward perception of Trumpism appears more as a scatterplot rather than a straight, directed path toward some greater political goal as in the standard situation.
As an even clearer, and quite comical, example of this phenomenon, a man back in 2019 made headlines by selling literal flip-flops as a representation of Trump’s ideological flip-flops via tweet. Despite there being fundamental, logical flaws in some of the pairs of tweets he compiled—most noticeably the fact the tweets were sometimes posted over four years apart—when the context behind many of the tweets are considered, it becomes apparent the ideological position made at the time was not made with the long term in mind, rather the short term.
Ironically, this “little forethought of the consequences” is one of the pillars of impulsivity two Yale psychiatrists cited when writing about the condition—although, to be clear, I am not suggesting at all Trump has a mental condition as I am merely drawing a comparison between his political style and the clinical definition. Just as one being anxious does not necessarily mean they have anxiety, my conjecture of the president being deeply instinctual is not claiming he struggles with impulsivity.
Trump’s appeal and the “cult of personality”
Going back to the scatterplot versus straight path analogy from earlier, supporters of a traditional candidate may have found it more natural to, like the candidate himself, tie themselves to a galvanizing issue like an anchor amidst the countless waves of political attack and triviality. Thus, when the candidate breaks from the path and “goes rogue,” so to speak, there is room for criticism and questioning of their motives, so much so there is a real possibility of their base shifting entirely.
I would consider the loss of Southern Democrats in the Kennedy-Johnson era as civil rights reform became a priority to be the simplest to identify, granted I could not come up with a clear, specific example of this—perhaps due to the fact doing this is practically political suicide, allied with the fact towing the party line is almost always easier for a candidate.
In fact, it may just be by happenstance this political status quo may have turned many onto Trumpism, as they wanted to see someone who would test the waters for their sake. Still, our now perennial problem of what to make of the scatterplot-like nature of the ideology presents itself. Luckily, the answer is clear as this leads right back to the unique kind of support Trumpism garners: near unconditional support. Therefore, instead of his supporters constantly putting him up for a litmus test repeatedly, out of desperation perhaps, they latch on—not tying themselves to an anchor with the candidate, but tying themselves to the candidate who rides the political waves.
While I see this as interesting, many critics see this as a “cult of personality” or, on the more extreme end, borderline authoritarian or, at least antidemocratic. Do not get me wrong, I see where they are coming from. Many authoritarians in times past have started as charismatics that won the souls of their people before, of course, going authoritarian. However, there are two problems with this idea.
One, America is not eternally or indefinitely tying itself to Trump, as we saw on Election Day, nor is there any reasonable expectation there will be made a mechanism by which he could make this happen if he wanted to. Two, as touched on in the introduction, a vast majority of his supporters back him for political reasons only—the clearest example of this being with evangelicals who support him solely for the purpose of having conservative judges appointed. In other words, if the president were to tell them to take up arms and do something crazy, although we might see some radicals take action, we would not see his supporters, en masse, follow in suit.
At any rate, the scatterplot analogy I have heretofore been subscribing to does have one feature I have mostly neglected: it has correlation. And while this fact does not change the idea of Trumpism being unique in all the ways I have claimed thus far, it discredits the notion—the notion that has been propagated through the media for nearly all of Trump’s presidency—that Trumpism is completely random and incoherent, being defined solely by the whims of his mind at a given moment. Although his impulses, as proven, are a large part of what characterizes it, we must remember impulses do not exist in a vacuum.
Enter neoliberalism or, more precisely, the rejection of it—or a part of it. In any case, let me explain.
To recap, neoliberalism is the revival of the original, economically liberal ideas of Adam Smith and the like who argued the most optimal economic model is one which has the least amount of governmental controls that can be pragmatically achieved. More specifically, as an alternative of its Keynesian counterpart, neoliberalism can be summed up by perhaps the most neoliberal president: Ronald Reagan. His lowering of taxes, deregulation of business, and disdain for what the welfare state in America had become all hit at the core of the ideology of restimulating America’s economy after the interventionalist period that had been ushered in by FDR in the 1930s.
But this seemingly innocuous set of ideals had some problems, one of them being globalization. One of neoliberalism’s tenets is the breaking down of governmental barriers to trade. This includes the tariff in many cases, therefore allowing trade to diffuse, if you will, naturally, irrespective of national borders. In theory this system would mean that every economy in the world would benefit from some positive of another, and vice versa, creating symbiosis of sorts. The problem with this frame of thought comes as severe trade deficits occur—that is, to put it simply, when one country benefits more than the other. The aforesaid natural diffusion of trade results in its benefits disproportionally concentrating in certain areas while being scarcer in others. Perhaps the early neoliberals should have seen this coming—and maybe they did, thinking the benefits would settle on America—however, as anyone who has listened to Trump knows, we have received the short end of the stick, and China the long end.
To Trump, tariffs were traditionally referred to as protective tariffs for a reason: they were meant to protect American interests in the face of the world’s. While Chinese labor working for American companies provide America with cheaper goods, as Chinese labor is cheaper than American labor, herein lies the major problem: the jobs are over there, not here. To make matters worse for the American worker, the cheaper labor also means more profits, except the profits go to the companies, the companies that might as well be American in name only. Add intellectual property concerns atop all this, and, well, suddenly we do not seem so protected.
This is not an effort to necessarily promote the president’s philosophy pertaining to this matter, rather it is to put in context a comparison initially made by the National Review where they cite Trump simply saying “I am a Tariff Man” in 2018 and Reagan saying in 1987 “We should beware of the demagogues who are ready to declare a trade war against our friends—weakening our economy, our national security, and the entire free world—all while cynically waving the American flag.” Suddenly Trumpism, or at least this aspect of it, becomes a more tangible concept.
But I think his ideology transcends being contextualized by neoliberalism the economic construct and can be extended to being a repudiation of certain aspects of neoconservatism broadly—specifically the “forever war” and U.S. involvement in global conflict in general. In addition to this there is a whole other social sphere underlining the disparity between Trump and neoliberalism. But in an effort not to get drawn onto another tangent, I will spare you the details and just say Trump’s slogan of “America First” embodies much of Trumpism and what I believe it will continue as, regardless if it remains in the mainstream.
In fact, upon further inspection, Trumpism resembles much of paleoconservatism. This makes sense given the paleo flavor of conservatism is opposite its neo cousin, and Trumpism is seemingly opposite much of neoconservatism. It is a bit confusing, but there is a reason Pat Buchanan—the famous paleoconservative known for challenging neoconservative President Bush in 1992—is such a staunch supporter of the president.
Though more analysis could be done as to the more minute points of Trumpism and its departure of neoconservatism and/or its ties to its paleo counterpart, to return to the main purpose of this piece, this is precisely why I do not see a situation where what Trump says post-presidency won’t have at least some influence on his remnant following.
To believe the Trump era was just a fluke, a result of an egoist taking advantage of a delicate time in American history reflects what is in my opinion a narrow-minded understanding of the political world post Trump’s escalator ride five years ago. As shown through this analysis, at least, even if all of this was a coincidence to Trump—a notion arguably substantiated by the prior section on his instinctual thinking—he started a political revolution that will transcend him.
Thus, whether this is the end of a great populist experiment or the beginning of the recovery from our national nightmare, know this: Trumpism is here to stay, at least for now.