Better times for Trump, back in his Reform Party days.
I have no doubt that Donald Trump will win the Republican nomination. I’m also pretty sure he’ll lose in the general election.
Neither of those statements are particularly controversial. Plenty of pundits have reached the same conclusion already. But many of them also seem to think that once Trump loses, his brand of politics will disappear. The weird joke will be over. Things will go back to normal.
They won't. Trump most likely won't win the White House. He may not ever win anything, and he may even decide to quit politics altogether. But that shouldn’t be too comforting, because the future of Trumpism doesn't depend on Trump. Trumpism is bigger than Trump. And it's here to stay.
The arrival of Trumpism is the biggest story of the 2016 election. I don’t want to diminish how much Bernie’s accomplished, and I'm genuinely excited about what his popularity says about the possibilities for social-democratic politics in the US. Still, the substance of Bernie-ism isn't that original—as Jedediah Purdy and others have observed, it's basically Great Society liberalism, the kind that used to be mainstream in the Democratic Party.
Trumpism, on the other hand, feels like something we haven’t seen before. Or, maybe more accurately, something we haven’t seen in awhile, at least in the US.
What is Trumpism? The question might seem a little ridiculous when you think about Trump himself. He's extremely light on policy detail—he basically has no policies at all, at least in the conventional sense. He does have promises—his promise to build a wall on the southern border and make the Mexican government pay for it, for example—but these don’t generally cash out to specific proposals. The “Issues” page on Marco Rubio’s website has a decent amount of detail about what Rubio hopes to do as President. Trump’s has a series of videos on vaguer topics: “The Establishment,” “Unifying the Nation,” and so on.
So Trump’s a lightweight on policy—so what? In the early days of his candidacy, it was widely seen by the media as fatal. When Trump was a joke, his lack of specifics was just another punchline. Now that he's a serious contender, the pundits have come around to the obvious: Republican voters like Trump’s lack of specifics. And it's not because they're all catastrophically stupid—the Idiocracy theory of American politics as pure cretinism. It's because Trump’s policy vagueness facilitates his biggest strength as a candidate: his ideological flexibility.
Trump has been accurately called a racist, misogynist, and warmongerer. He's also promised to tax Wall Street, punish corporations for outsourcing jobs, block the Trans Pacific Partnership, and renegotiate or rip up NAFTA. Now, it’s fair to ask whether he has any intention of following through on any of these promises—if his extraordinarily regressive tax plan is any indication, the answer is almost certainly no. Still, Trump’s rhetoric is significant. As Edward Luce has observed, he sounds significantly to the left of Hillary on economic issues. And this is his great strength as a candidate: by breaking with Republican orthodoxy on the economy, he can more powerfully speak to the anger and hopelessness felt by so many Americans, especially the white working-class voters that make up Trump’s base (the ones who aren’t voting for Bernie, that is). He can capture the ground long vacated by the Democratic Party, and tap into widespread rage over decades of social rot, sliding wages, and rising uncertainty and immiseration.
The result is a political juggernaut. Trumpism combines the fearmongering and racial hatred that have long been the emotional core of the Republican Party with a populism that is significantly more anti-corporate than the Republican Party can comfortably handle. Politically, this heterodox approach is paying huge dividends. But it scares the hell out of the Republican establishment—not because of Trump’s bigotry, as some Republicans have pretended. Bigotry is the bread and butter of Republican politics: when Trump says horribly racist things, he’s merely saying as text what many Republicans prefer to leave as subtext.
No, the real reason that Republican elites are freaking out over the prospect of Trump becoming the nominee is their terror at his populism. The Republican Party has faced insurgents before—but never an insurgent as ideologically dangerous as Trump. The Tea Party represented a radicalizing of Republican orthodoxy, not a departure from it. The problem with the Tea Party from the Republican establishment’s point of view was that it took right-wing ideology too seriously, memorably threatening to nuke America’s credit rating to make a point about small government. Trump’s problem is that he doesn’t take it seriously enough.
What kind of conservative says hedge fund managers are “getting away with murder”? Or that he wants “fair trade,” not “free trade”?
If Trump loses and disappears, maybe his heresy doesn’t matter. But if Trumpism catches on—if Trump clones start popping up in races at the state and local level—then the corporations and wealthy individuals who form the power base of the Republican Party will start to worry. The Republican Party is a very reliable political organ of big business—even more reliable than the Democratic Party, which is saying something. If Trump or Trumpists take elected office and enact even a portion of their populism, the traditional link between big business and the Republican Party might start to fray. Then you might have a Republican Party that starts to resemble the far-right insurgent parties of Europe: ultranationalist, racist, and authoritarian, yet full of invective against free trade, economic elites, and the professional political class.
Fortunately, we have two parties in America, for the same reason that Google keeps multiple copies of your Gmail inbox in case one goes down: redundancy. If one party isn’t doing its part for what Bernie calls the billionaire class, there’s always another to take its place. If and when Trump wins the GOP nomination, every elite with any reasonable sense of class interest will line up behind Hillary Clinton. And, in fact, this is just what Trump wants. The capitalist class closing ranks around Hillary makes it easier for him to portray her as the quintessential insider, the establishment darling, the favorite of Wall Street. And easier to portray himself, the billionaire son of a slumlord, as the savior of the working class.