Elections

Will Trumpism Endure in the GOP?

Will Republicans have a party that regresses back to the altar of soulless neoliberalism or will they endeavor to think deeply and be humble enough to chart a nobler course?

The Republican National Convention took to the virtual stage this week to accomplish what no one thought they could do: make a positive case for Donald Trump’s reelection to a beleaguered base.

But accomplish it they did, largely because of an intentional choice in format and speakers that emphasized Trump’s working-class voters over the razzle-dazzle of Hollywood celebrities and ladder-climbing politicians. 

The showmanship and production skills of the Trump team combined with the compelling personal narratives of ordinary Americans resulted in a convention that echoed with cautious optimism, a defense of the American way of life, and genuine gratitude for the extraordinary country we have been given.

But the convention also reflected a party transformed—though not yet fundamentally—by the opportunity Trump’s election has given Republicans to engage in some necessary introspection. In other words, the convention gave us the first comprehensive fashioning of the still-nascent philosophy of “Trumpism”—what it is, what it could be, and how it might leave its imprint on the GOP.

“Trumpism” vs. the Left

This was, of course, entirely lost on the Left. Ryan Lizza was out with a hot take in Politico after the convention’s first night, proclaiming very loudly that the GOP convention represents nothing more than a binary choice for the party’s soul:  Racist or Not-Racist, as embodied by the speeches from Donald Trump, Jr., and former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.

The details of their remarks aside, Lizza’s absurd and reductive framing reflects the identity-politics obsession of the mainstream press, and more broadly, a fundamental misunderstanding of the shifting nature of the GOP by someone who clearly has never taken the time to understand the dynamics at work.

For Lizza, “Trumpism” is merely all about Trump and a proverbial cult of personality that goes no deeper than the delight Trump’s base takes in the president’s raucous tweets.

And, sure, cults of personality in the American presidency are a deep and enduring phenomenon—see John F. Kennedy. Or Barack Obama. See the Left’s genuinely weird rehabilitation of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney as paragons of democratic virtue. It’s legitimate to assume that some of Trump’s appeal to his base is because some people just like his unconventional style.

But that assumption hits a wall when you realize that Trump is also personally disliked by many people who still approve of the job he’s doing. There’s something deeper at work here than the superficial racist box into which Lizza attempts to stuff “Trumpism.”

The GOP Is Not Unanimous on the 2016 “Consensus” 

Trump’s election brought together blue-collar voters from both parties who felt disillusioned and disenfranchised by national parties engulfed by and entangled with what former Democrat House Speaker Sam Rayburn aptly identified as “The Interests.”

In doing so, the Trump election shattered—in ear popping ways—decades of assumptions about the state of the country and the people who live in it. It blew the walls off of a Republican Party defined by a plodding commitment to Dole, Bush, McCain, and Romney-style politics, and in doing so, let gusts of oxygen into what had become a very stale room.

The last four years on the Right largely have been defined by how different parts of the institutional GOP have responded to this changed air. 

There are those in the GOP who steadfastly refuse to see Trump’s election as anything more than an anomaly; a confirmation that their own voter base is dumb and probably racist, desperately in need of leadership by their betters. In their telling, there was nothing wrong with institutional (Bush) Republicanism. In fact, it was perfect: ideologically sound, and intellectually robust. (This raises the obvious question: if the pre-Trump party was so strong, how did a reality TV show host so easily sweep in and knock off the other 16 highly qualified GOP candidates?) 

This wing of the party is desperate for a Biden election to restore the “normalcy” of baby-killing, corporation-deferring, faith-hating, China-simping, woke progressivism, because that Orange Man is Very Bad! Most of these people are named Jeff Flake or work at The Bulwark or the Lincoln Project. They’ve largely responded to Trump’s election by becoming Democrats. 

But a less reflexive, clear-eyed portion of the party saw Trump’s election as a wake-up call, one that created an urgent need to engage in nuanced soul-searching about where the Republican party has been, and where it needs to go—both to remain relevant, but also to meet the needs of the people it purportedly intends to serve. 

Those conversations were being heard at a trickle (and largely dismissed) prior to 2016. Trump’s election put them on blast, and made it painfully clear that the GOP had no coherent answer to the vast changes that have occurred at home and around the world since the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

This is also true of conservatives, who lack a unifying answer to the challenges of globalism, woke Stalinism on the Left, the consequences of a functionally open borders immigration policy, or the massive concentration of corporate power that now dominates our economy.

This is not to say conservatism is ill-equipped for this moment. As I’ve written before, the tapestry that is conservative thought it so much rounder and richer than the reductive sing-song about the triumph of free-market economics—which, in D.C., is usually just an excuse to justify the encroachment of mega-corporate power onto civil order and individual liberty.

But institutional conservatism and Republicanism has been entrenched for so long, staggering forward like a zombie Ronald Reagan, that it hasn’t thought creatively about these problems in years—or even realized the extent to which the policy solutions that actually worked in the 1980s no longer fully encompass the challenges of 2020.

 2020: Will Trumpism Survive?

In this sense, Trump’s election was less a coup and more of a reality check. 2016 provided an opportunity—an imperative, even—to return the Republican party to its roots, when it was once genuinely influenced by the needs, concerns, and priorities of middle America, instead of exclusively by Wall Street executives, global corporate scions, and economic indicators that only reflect the health of tech stocks.

In that way, “Trumpism” is not at all about Trump himself. It’s about his election shaking the GOP awake to the challenges of the 21st century, and using the opportunity to thoughtfully pursue a coherent policy response to what globalism, America-last trade policies, a cheap labor immigration policy, and the decades-long failures of neoconservative foreign policy have wrought. This work has been ongoing, and will continue long after Trump leaves office.

Commentators like Ryan Lizza—detached and uninterested in the actual substance of the debates going on within the GOP—would like you to believe that the 2020 election is merely about changing “the way Republicans talk about race.” This, as the progressive Left and the Black Lives Matter movement are openly advocating segregated campus housing, race-based health care, and telling people to hate themselves for having the wrong skin color. 

But sure, in Lizza’s world, it’s the GOP—which, for decades, has largely sought to embrace Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for a society that emphasizes the content of character over skin color—that is overtly racist.

Lizza and the rest of the mainstream press can only see things through the lens of race, which is why they so consistently and intentionally miss what this election—and the Trump era, writ large—is really about. And what it is about was heard far more clearly at the convention this week from working-class Americans than it was in the garbled rage of woke liberal reporters.

But the question isn’t settled. Trump has changed the way Americans, and Republicans in particular, think about basic policy questions related to economics and foreign policy. It’s a question for the GOP that will endure through 2020 and beyond—will we be a party that regresses back to the altar of soulless neoliberalism, having learned nothing, or will we endeavor to think deeply and critically about the lessons of 2016, the areas in which our party has failed, and be humble enough to chart a nobler course?