Donald Trump promised to shake up the Republican establishment, but it took less than three months as president for him to ratify GOP orthodoxy. He ran as an America First nationalist who would tear apart free-trade agreements, protect entitlements, and make free-riding NATO allies pay their fair share at the threat of losing America’s military support. But that Trump is gone, as he’s become a fairly typical right-wing Republican. As New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait argued on Friday, “Donald Trump Is Just George W. Bush but racist.” With the notable exception of immigration, where his extremely restrictionist policies are well to the right of the Republican establishment, Trump is very much a party man.
So what happened to Trumpism? Some writers across the political spectrum, including at this website, have argued that Trumpism never existed in the first place. I disagree. Trumpism was a reasonably coherent ideology—and its death deserves to be mourned even by his political enemies.
“Trumpism was never a coherent worldview, much less a moral code that anchors the president,” Graham Vyse argued in the New Republic. “Trump is not so much flexible or unpredictable as rudderless, and that’s what makes him so scary.” In making his case, Vyse drew on conservative critics of Trump like National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru, who wrote in Bloomberg View:
Intellectuals, whether they are for or against Trump, want to construct an “ism”into which they can fit his politics: an “ism” that includes opposition to free trade, mass immigration, foreign interventions that aren’t necessitated by attacks on us, and entitlement reform. But Trumpism doesn’t exist. The president has tendencies and impulses, some of which conflict with one another, rather than a political philosophy.
Ponnuru and Vyse are right about Trump’s fundamental incoherence, slipperiness, and unprincipled opportunism. Still, they go too far in arguing that Trumpism was a fiction. Despite his tendency to babble and digress, Trump did repeatedly hit four themes in his campaign that comprised a coherent white nationalist populism: a unilateralist foreign policy, immigration restriction, trade protectionism, and a defense of the entitlement programs most popular with the white working and middle classes (Medicare and Social Security).
This cocktail of issues is neither arbitrary nor accidental. They derive directly from the paleoconservatism promoted by Pat Buchanan and a small band of right-wing thinkers since the 1980s. Trump likely got his grounding in paleoconservatism from Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, who emerged out of the fringes of the American right to become Trump’s chief strategist and policy director, respectively. But now Bannon has been demoted in the White House, while Miller “has managed to endear himself” to Bannon’s moderate rival Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. With Kushner’s power rising in the White House, Trumpism has quickly withered—except on immigration, thanks to nativist Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Trumpism didn’t die simply because Bannon’s star faded. Trumpism’s survival would have required the president to be someone he isn’t: knowledgeable on policy, savvy about how Washington works, intellectually curious, and willing to give power to people outside his small circle of family members and cronies. Such an imaginary Trump would’ve dealt with his staffing problems by reaching out to foreign policy realists like Stephen Walt or Andrew Bacevich, who might not like Trump but share his basic belief that American military power is overextended. But the real Trump was incapable of doing anything like that (indeed, it’s almost certain that Trump doesn’t know who Walt or Bacevich are). Lacking any of the skills needed to pull off a policy revolution, Trump fell back on the laziest possible solution, which was to defer to the national security establishment. Trump has embraced NATO, bombed Syria, and made his peace with China to help contain North Korea.
That’s a shame, because American foreign policy did need the kind of reset that Trump promised on the campaign trail. The U.S. has been caught in unending wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East for 15 years or more. Trump promised to be “very cautious” about further military entanglements, and, like President Barack Obama, believed that toppling Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad would make matters worse. The idea of scaling back America’s military commitments and focusing on more limited objectives, like defeating the Islamic State, makes a lot of sense. But now, with Trump handing his military strategy over to the national security establishment, any hope of a reset is over.
The same is true of trade. The promise of agreements like NAFTA was that they would make America as a whole richer, and that a wealthier society would be able to help those workers dislocated by globalization. But in practice, these free-trade deals have contributed to an increasingly unequal society, where the rich enjoy the benefits while the poor and working class shoulder the costs. Trump’s eagerness to reopen these agreements had the potential to create a new social contract, one that would more justly weigh the impact of trade on vulnerable Americans. But Trump has already broken his promise to renegotiate NAFTA on “day one” of his administration, nor is he likely to change NAFTA since many of his top economic and foreign policy advisors are ardent supporters of trade agreements. Trump does have a few appointees who agree with him on trade—notably Peter Navarro, the head of Trump’s National Trade Council, but they are decidedly outgunned by free traders. If personnel is policy, the direction of the Trump administration on trade is clear.
Finally, Trump’s defense of Medicare and Social Security seemed to herald a new era in national political discourse where the Republicans would abandon their long-nursed dreams of rolling back the welfare state. “I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid,” Trump promised on the campaign trail. But his first stab at health care reform, the American Health Care Act, included cutting federal spending on Medicaid by $880 billion over 10 years, thereby cutting Medicaid for 14 million Americans. Trump’s approach to health care in general has no relation to his pledges as a candidate, and instead are driven House Speaker Paul Ryan’s agenda of the austerity and tax cuts for the rich.
Trumpism was doomed to fail. He lacked the focus and knowledge needed to carry out so daring an agenda. There are good reasons to celebrate Trumpism’s death—its racism, for instance, was and is despicable. But on issues not related to reasserting white supremacy, Trumpism had much to offer. Its death all but ensures that American politics will return to the very status quo that gave us Trump in the first place, and the nation will find itself in the worst possible situation: with an incompetent manager in charge, and without the benefit of the few positive policies he once promised.