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Welcome to the New Trumpism

The president's "America First" agenda is in tatters. But now he's damaging the country in different, perhaps even more permanent ways.

Pool / Getty Images

Six months into Donald Trump’s incompetent presidency, most of his major promises are stalled and unlikely ever to be achieved. The “big, beautiful” Mexican border wall is so far off that Trump has taken to talking about in fantasy terms, promising it would have solar panels and be “transparent” so Americans can make sure that drug dealers would not be able to throw “large sacks of drugs over.” Repealing and replacing Obamacare is not entirely dead, but has returned to its zombie state, which means Trump will have trouble passing large tax cuts (since a big chunk of the revenue was supposed to come from reducing health care spending). Tax reform, supposedly the next big effort, is as fraught as health care reform. A big infrastructure bill also looks unlikely, given Republican aversion to deficit spending.

And that’s just domestically. On the international front, there’s still talk of, but little movement on, renegotiating NAFTA. Trump’s signature idea—to cultivate a friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin—is meeting resistance from Trump’s own administration, not to mention Congress. More broadly, American foreign policy is now an incoherent combination of isolationist gestures from the president, like not promising to defend NATO allies, while his foreign policy team reassures them that America’s global commitments remain unchanged. Trump is sending dangerously mixed signals to the world, but his behavior here isn’t necessarily transformative because it doesn’t appear to be precipitating any permanent institutional changes that the next president couldn’t undo. (Notably, Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement doesn’t take effect until a day after the 2020 presidential election.)

Some liberals perhaps are heaving a sigh of relief that Trump is such an inept head of state, his policy agenda in tatters. But if many of his more grandiose dreams are broken, he’s become ever more committed to a narrower and more focused, but equally pernicious agenda. Call it Rump Trumpism. By relentlessly focusing on ethnonationalism and court appointments, he maintains the rabid loyalty of his hard-nationalist base, a faction large enough to discourage Republican-elected officials from challenging Trump’s many norm-violations. Although less ambitious than the “America First” agenda, Rump Trumpism will do serious, permanent damage in its own right.

With Trump’s protectionism and isolationism dulled, what remains of his “America First” agenda? Immigration. Trump’s Muslim travel ban goes before the Supreme Court in October, but is still, in modified form, being carried out today. For immigrants inside America, the situation is equally dire. As Vox’s Dara Lind argued in May, Trump’s failures in the legislative realm have to be set against his successes in remaking immigration policy by executive fiat, without congressional approval.

“The administration has already left a huge mark on the lives of nonwhites in America—particularly immigrants, and particularly unauthorized immigrants,” she wrote. “It’s quietly, without pronouncements or hiring surges, ratcheted up the risk that immigrants will be apprehended and deported.... By creating an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty in immigrant communities, the Trump administration has embraced the extreme discretion it has in enforcing these laws. It still has the potential to wreak lasting damage on nonwhite American communities—to unsew them from public life.”

It’s not surprising that immigration is the main issue where Trump is keeping his promises. He rode to power on a white nationalist campaign that demonized immigrants, particularly Muslim-Americans and Mexican-Americans, and promised a return to the older racial hierarchy that was unsettled by the election of Barack Obama. Hence Trump’s birtherism, his “law and order” rhetoric, and defense of the police against criticism from groups like Black Lives Matter. While Trump also ran on economic themes, ethnonationalism was the emotional heart of his political identity, and remains so today.

While ethnonationalism is one pillar of Rump Trumpism, the other is filling the courts with conservatives. Both are policies that please the hard-right base of the Republican Party, keeping it fiercely obedient to Trump. It’s hardly an accident that Trump’s poll numbers, while dismal, have been fairly consistent for the last six months, wavering between 36 percent and the low 40s. So far, Trump seems to have a solid floor of Republican partisans who will stick with him, even as he loses the rest of the country. And as long as Trump has these hard-core supporters, the Republican Congress will turn a blind eye to his every transgression against democratic norms.

But the Republican right has also stuck with Trump because he’s given them victories in areas they care about, ethnonationalism and the courts. On the ethnonationalist front, Trump has gone above and beyond anything the most ardent supporter of white nationalist could have hoped for, bringing into the White House the likes of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and adviser Steve Bannon. As Jonathan Chait wrote in New York magazine in April, “Where he has defined Trumpism most clearly is in his sharply distinguished theory of race. Race is the unifying idea Trump has used to recast not only his party’s place within the country but his country’s place in the world. It is where his administration has been most passionate—and also most effective.” The White House is similarly committed to remaking the courts, with Justice Neil Gorsuch filling the late Antonin Scalia’s seat and the president primed to fill the lower courts with reliable conservatives. Asked by a journalist about the lack of accomplishments in Trump’s first six months, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell responded, “Well, we have a new Supreme Court justice.” Many on the right no doubt agree.

Many pundits have been puzzled at the way McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan have indulged Trump’s many norm violations: his outlandish tweets (including those attacking federal judges), his nepotistic employment of his daughter and son-in-law, his conflicts of interest, his refusal to divest himself of his businesses while president, his firing of FBI director James Comey, his threats against special counsel Robert Mueller, and his reported discussions of pardoning himself and his cronies, among many other acts that defile the office of the presidency. Ryan, McConnell, and most other Republican officeholders have responded to these norm violations with a shrug. America faces a constitutional crisis as a result.

This could be Trump’s most far-reaching impact: He’s shown how corrupt a president can go unpunished because of hyper-partisanship. Future presidents will know that there are many laws and settled conventions that can be broken for the small price of giving the party’s base a few key demands.

The conventional wisdom is that Trump is a weak president, a string of failures in his wake. Hard stop. As BuzzFeed’s Tarini Parti, Adrian Carrasquillo, and John Hudson wrote lately:

The White House has lost control of its foreign policy to the military and to allies who couldn’t work with a globally loathed American leader even if they wanted to. Trump has lost control of his domestic policy to Congress, which has been unable to give him a signature win despite Republicans controlling both chambers. He has lost control of his own aides to leaks and investigations, of his old television cronies to spiteful personal feuds, and most of all, of the narrative of an “America First” presidency with a coherent vision or promise.

It’s true, so far as it goes, that Trump is weak. But a weak president is not necessarily an inconsequential one. While much less ambitious than Trump’s campaign promises, Rump Trumpism will damage America for decades to come. The Republican Party under Trump is becoming ever more ethnonationalist, further dividing politics along racial lines. And Trump’s subversion of government will leave a legacy of cynicism as surely the Vietnam War and Watergate did. America will be paying for Trump’s weakness long after he leaves—or is evicted from—the White House.