Trump class #3: What is Trumpism? Why was Trump elected?

The readings:

Part 1. The Election

Lafsky, The Complete History of Dirty Politics: A Q&A on Anything for a Vote, Freakonomics (2007)

Profiles of U.S. Presidents, Richard M. Nixon—Dirty Tricks

Washington Post, Trump’s Campaign Promises [skim!]

Silver, Education, Not Income, Predicted Who Would Vote For Trump, Nov. 22, 2016

Osnos et al., Trump, Putin, and the New Cold War, New Yorker, March 6, 2017

Part 2. What is Trumpism?

Public Decius Mus [Anton], The Flight 93 Election, Claremont Review of Books (2016)

NPR, Interview of Richard Spencer, Nov. 17, 2016

Chait, Donald Trump, Pseudoauthoritarian, New York, Feb. 21, 2017

Taub, White Nationalism Explained, New York Times, Nov. 21, 2016

Inglehart & Norris, Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash (2016)

I taught this class a few weeks ago, based on assignments chosen about a month before that, and it hasn’t taken long for them to seem dated. At one time, I would have defined Trumpism as “economic nationalism + cultural backlash + personalist leadership.” That is the rhetorical Trump that carried him to victory in the primaries. I’m not sure it helped him much in the general election, where he mainly depended on Republican party stalwarts to show up to cast the ballot. After he was elected, Trump filled his cabinet with plutocrats, not populists. According to media reports, the populists’ standard bearer, Steve Bannon (a plutocrat-populist), is being shoved aside by Wall Street types in the administration.

Trump’s economic nationalism has generated few policy changes, just a lot more talk, while he has backed away from it by reversing his position on the export-import bank and other issues. On the cultural backlash front, many of his decisions seem little more than reflections of conventional Republican policy views—that, plus an occasional all-white-men photo. He’s even dropped much of his politically incorrect rhetoric and has adopted the politician’s conventional stance of obeisance to any group with political power.

By hurdling some cruise missiles into Syria, Trump might have hoped to strengthen his macho bona fides, but the action just made him look like every other modern U.S. president, and disappointed his intellectual followers who saw in him something new. The “personalist” style—the tweets and the reckless statements and the symbolic politics—have done him little good, producing an elite backlash among the press, the judiciary, and even the Republican Congress. While the base might like it, the base might also eventually catch on that Trump has accomplished little that he promised them and has instead kowtowed to the Establishment.

If the major element of Trumpism is anti-immigrant sentiment, as Anton argues, he has little to show for it. There is the botched travel ban and now the surrender to Congress on the Mexican border wall, and—this just in!—another defeat in court, this time on sanctuary cities. “Trumpism” might be remembered as a style of political bloviating rather than a set of substantive positions, one that the Democrats have already begun to imitate without having to give up any of their political commitments.