Column: There’s no such thing as Trumpism without Trump
In the aftermath of President Trump’s 2016 victory, many supporters of the president wanted to construct an ideological worldview that would — they hoped — not only supplant traditional conservatism but, as the wave of the future, redefine American politics.
As an intellectual project, it was close to a complete bust. For instance, Julius Krein started a journal, American Affairs, with the goal of providing an intellectual framework for Trumpism. As I noted at the launch, coming up with a coherent and consistent ideological program for a president who, as a point of pride, eschews ideological coherence and consistency is an impossible balancing act. Either you defend the ideas or you defend the man, you can’t really do both because Trumpism was never an ideological phenomenon, but a psychological one. No wonder that six months later, Krein, to his credit, withdrew his support of Trump and said he regretted voting for him.
Other outlets tried the same thing, and — unlike American Affairs — ended up simply becoming cheerleaders and “Trumpsplainers” that start with the conclusion Trump is right and then work backward to prove it.
Now, in the wake of Trump’s defeat, the project to create Trumpism-without-Trump has been reborn as electoral analysis. Trump supporters claim that he bequeathed to the right and the country the makings of a new, multiethnic, workers party.
It’s a convenient conclusion for those who’ve argued all along that “Republican elites” were too “stubbornly moored to laissez-faire fundamentalism and limited government as an end in itself,” in the words of Newsweek’s Josh Hammer, a leading proponent of this theory. Yet, he writes, it “is the Republican Party that disproportionately represents a multiethnic, non-college-educated working class.”
There’s obviously some truth to this. The erosion of the old Franklin D. Roosevelt coalition, with the white working-class migrating toward Republicans, and college-educated suburbanites inching toward the Democrats, has been a long-standing trend for decades. Trump accelerated these trends. What was new — and surprising — was how Democrats lost some ground with people of color, particularly Latino people.
But this theory, which has already received endorsements from presidential wannabes like Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), seems like just another version of starting with the conclusion and reasoning backward.
First, contrary to the hype, Trump’s performance with Black voters and even Latino voters was not so earth-shattering. Exit poll data are not entirely reliable, but since they’re what many proponents of the new workers party theory are basing their analysis on, they’re worth looking at.
Trump received 12% of the Black vote, 32% of the Latino vote, and 34% among Asian Americans. In 2004, George W. Bush received 11% of the Black vote and 44% of both the Latino and Asian votes. An increase of 1% among Black voters and a double-digit decrease among Latino and Asian voters is not exactly a seismic event. More important, unlike Trump, Bush not only won reelection but won the popular vote.
As for this new working-class party, whatever that means, it’s worth noting that the average showing among union households for GOP presidential candidates since 2000 is about 41%. Trump got 40% in 2020, down 7 points from 2016.
Moreover, there’s very little in Trump’s record that suggests his support among voters had much to do with pro-worker policies. Deregulation, conservative judicial appointments, corporate and income tax cuts: This is ambrosia for the “Zombie Reaganite” elites, the kind who are “stubbornly moored to laissez-faire fundamentalism and limited government.” The most aggressive policy Trump pushed in the name of the American worker was protectionism, which ended up hurting more workers than helping, and made free trade more popular.
In short, the problem with seeing the Trump coalition as the foundation of Trumpism without Trump rests on the same misdiagnosis of intellectual Trumpism. It assumes there is more to Trumpism than his entertainment value, his thumb-in-the-eye attacks on the media, and his stoking of resentment. That is a hard model to replicate. Who among the current GOP hopefuls could fill one of his rallies? I mean, Mike Pence could repeat Trump’s lines — just as I could sing Beyonce’s songs — but that doesn’t mean people will show up to listen.
From the outset, Trump’s 2016 coalition was a minority coalition in terms of the popular vote, but it was almost perfectly distributed to take the electoral college. It might have worked again in 2020, except for the fact that Trump ignited an anti-Trump coalition much larger than the pro-Trump one. Going forward, the demographics of the electorate are moving in the wrong direction for the GOP.
The proponents of a new Trumpy Republican Party are certainly right about many of the Democrats’ shortcomings and vulnerabilities. There’s just very little evidence that Zombie Trumpism is the best way to exploit them.
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