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Society 03/11/2016

Trumpism will live long after Trump

Even if Trump loses the election, his legacy has won the political war 

Like a newborn child seeing his reflection in a shiny new toy, Donald Trump has been utterly captivated by the mass media and public interest in his presidential campaign as much as the mass media and public have been captivated by his antics. An egomaniac of the highest order, it is attention and validation Trump seeks, not political power. This is the one silver lining to the Trump phenomenon: that the malignant demagogue at its core is not, ultimately, interested in becoming leader of the free world but rather the centre of the world’s attention. This is befitting a man with the emotional maturity of a toddler. More than once have I observed, in heated discussion with friends or even random acquaintances, that just by talking about Trump so obsessively we had granted him some small victory. Add up the countless millions of dinner table conversations and frenzied barstool arguments about Trump, his outrages, or the size of his endowment over the past 16 months, and you get one, big victory for a man who seems to live his life according to Oscar Wilde’s maxim that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Like a catchy song, Trump has gotten into the world’s collective head, driving some of us to the therapist’s couch. 

The really scary thing is that if Trump actually wanted to win the presidential election, he could. There have been countless, easily avoidable sins of commission (attacking the parents of a fallen soldier, urging his supporters to assassinate Hillary Clinton, threatening not to accept the results of the election, etcetera ad infinitum), as well as countless sins of omission (refusing to spend much money on get out the vote efforts) which cumulatively suggest that Trump is actively trying to lose the election. 

His reluctance to campaign seriously for the job is not difficult to understand because President of the United States is a tough job and Donald Trump is a lazy ignoramus with the attention span of a five-year-old. Far more lucrative and enjoyable would it be to spend the next four years atop a new media empire, travelling the country and speaking before adoring crowds than answering the 3am phone call about violent instability in Whatitstan. 

The more important question for Americans after 8 November is the fate of the tens of millions of people who voted for Trump. Is Trump a one-off, a celebrity figure who, thanks to a series of flukes – 16 Republican primary challengers, a slavish media willing to give him billions of dollars in free air time – was able to capture the presidential nomination of a major political party? Or is Trumpism – populist, isolationist, nativist – a significant political force that will plague American politics for generations to come? 

Elsewhere, I’ve argued that conservatives and the Republican Party – to the extent that it exists after this election – will need to take a scorched earth approach to Trump and his enablers, shunning them from polite company. That will be a difficult task, to say the least. With a handful of exceptions like Mitt Romney, the Bush family, Senators Ben Sasse, Jeff Flake and Lindsay Graham, most high-ranking Republican officials either endorsed Trump along the way – fully knowing that he would be a disaster for the country – or stayed silent. Ridding the GOP of Trumpism and its enablers means more than just a few pink slips. As far as Trump and his clan go, it means organising and sustaining boycotts of all his properties and investments, just as decent citizens of a previous generation declined to patronise restaurants that refused service to black customers. It means that respectable media outlets, consultancies, lobbying shops and law firms should not contract the services of those who tried to foist this dangerous charlatan on the country. 

The more important question for Americans after 8 November is the fate of the tens of millions of people who voted for Trump.

I fear that this may not happen because Trump, despite winning only a plurality of GOP primary voters, has pushed the Republican Party towards his brand of populist nationalism over the course of this bruising campaign. A Bloomberg poll asking Republicans who should lead their party after the election found 27 percent in favour of Trump’s running mate Mike Pence (who, whatever his attempts to subtly distinguish himself from the man at the top of the ticket, will forever be associated with Trumpism) and 24 percent for Trump. Paul Ryan, once the great hope of the GOP establishment, received only 15 percent support and fellow establishmentarian John Kasich got 10 percent. Asked point blank “which leader better represents their view what the Republican Party should stand for,” 51 percent said Trump and only 33 percent chose Ryan. 

Though he will likely never run for political office again, Trump’s impact on our politics may be far-reaching. His legacy could well be providing the initial spark to what becomes a permanent feature of the American political landscape: an ethno-nationalist, völkisch voting bloc in the style of the French National Front, Alternative for Germany, and a slew of other European populist parties. Of course, this constituency of voters always existed, and has always existed, in America (as it does in every country), but never before had its dark impulses been appealed to so nakedly by a major party presidential nominee, or had it cohered into a political movement of nationwide standing. According to the political scientist Justin Gest, 65 percent of white Americans—about two-fifths of the population—would entertain voting for a hypothetical party that stood for “stopping mass immigration, providing American jobs to American workers, preserving America’s Christian heritage, and stopping the threat of Islam.” Like Corbynistas who see moderate Labour MPs as a greater enemy than the Tories, these Leninist Trumpkins are primarily concerned with hijacking the GOP and remaking it in their image. If they’re unable to seize control from within, Bloomberg Businessweek reports that the insurgent movement around Trump may develop into “an American UK Independence Party that will wage war on the Republican Party.” 

Pat Buchanan, the former Richard Nixon aide and paleoconservative media personality who ran for president three times on a Trumpian platform avant la lettre, writes admiringly of Trump supporters that “it is the populist-nationalist right that is moving beyond the niceties of liberal democracy to save the America they love.” Come 9 November, it will be the duty of small “l” liberal democrats to save America from them. 

James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington, a correspondent for The Daily Beast and a columnist for Tablet. His first book, The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age, is forthcoming from Yale University Press.