In praise of Trumpism

After four long years in office, each day of which brought some new dramatic declaration of a crisis from the self-styled resistance, Donald Trump went before the American people on Tuesday night and won – at the time of writing – four million more votes than he had in 2016.

Republicans were supposed to lose 20 seats in the House of Representatives, according to the experts. Instead, they have gained six at the time of writing, and may end up gaining as many as twelve, slashing Nancy Pelosi’s majority to an extent where she will find it difficult to govern. Republicans were supposed to lose the Senate – instead, they won shock victories in North Carolina, Maine, and Montana, and seem likely to end up with a minimum of 52 seats and a Senate majority.

An election that was supposed to be an absolute repudiation of Donald Trump, and Trumpism, has instead resulted in the closest Presidential election in twenty years, and one of the two closest elections since the second world war.

When Donald Trump came onto the scene, nearly all experts and observers – including this observer – thought that he would destroy the Republican Party for a generation. Instead, if he departs the scene in the coming weeks, he will leave a Republican Party much stronger, and with a bigger base of supporters, than he found it.

Democrats, even if they take the White House in the coming days, will have to come to terms with the fact that their dreams of what they could achieve in power have turned to dust. There will be no expansion of the Supreme Court, where Trump’s three appointees will serve lifetime terms. There will be no Green New Deal. There will be no big Government intervention in healthcare. There will be no amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants. There will be no new states, or new Senators, no new gun laws, no taxpayer funding of abortions, nothing. Biden will be in office, but only to a very limited extent, in power. The Trump legacy is secured, for the next few years, even if Trump himself is not.

So how did Trump achieve this, in the second election in succession in which he was expected not just to lose, but to be crushed? How did he make Trumpism so popular?

The first thing to note is that few ideologies succeed without a huge helping hand from the opposition: The Bolsheviks would not have taken power in Russia if the Czar had been more popular, Margaret Thatcher would not have won in the UK if socialism had been working, and Sinn Fein would not have surged in Ireland had we no housing crisis.

Trump recognised, faster than anybody else, just how unpopular the modern left is with huge sections of the population – and not just white voters, either. On Tuesday, in Texas, he became the first Republican to win a poor Hispanic county in Texas where the median income is just $17,000 per year. In Florida, he won historic margins amongst Cuban and Guatemalan immigrants. In Chicago, he won nearly 15% of the black vote, a rate not seen in 50 years for a Republican.

Poor black and Hispanic voters, it turns out, are almost as put off by censorious preaching about gender identity, racial justice, climate justice, and defunding the police as poor white voters are. Trump has made the Republican Party more than what it once was – a sort of Christian conservative party that liked low taxes – and made it into a comprehensively “anti-woke” movement.

But he’s done more than that. The Republican Party of Bush and Reagan was nominally socially conservative, but its true love was economic liberalism – cutting taxes and regulations, promoting free trade, cutting Government spending, and cutting welfare programmes. Its voters were a combination of white collar business types, and “god and guns” voters in the south.

Democrats, by contrast, won votes from the poor, and from social liberals and academics.

But in recent decades, the problem for Republicans has been that wealthier white voters are no longer as motivated by lower taxes and economic opportunity. As the upper middle class became more entrenched, it began to embrace cultural liberalism – what has evolved into “wokeness”. Where once big business favoured Republicans and conservatives, it now aligns itself with liberalism almost all the time. And that’s not just true in America, but the world over.

So, Trump’s conservatism has become much more working class. His position on free trade, for example, would horrify Ronald Reagan. It still horrifies many establishment republicans. But it does not horrify voters who have seen their towns and communities, once industrial hubs, become hollowed out shells as the young move to the cities, and the jobs move to Mexico and China.

The Republican Party today then, is not the party of economic liberalism and low taxes. It’s the party of industrialisation and good paying jobs – witness Trump’s emphasis, in the final days of the election, on fracking and energy jobs, compared to the Democrat’s “transition to a green economy” message. The roles of the two sides – left and right – have been almost perfectly reversed. In 1980s Britain, Margaret Thatcher wanted to close the mines and “transition” people to new jobs. In 2020’s West Virginia, Trump is closer to Arthur Scargill than he is to Thatcher.

Not everything in Trumpism is new for the right – the most effective revolutions, after all, are evolutions. And Trump has retained the nationalism of the Republican Party he took over – a flag waving pride in the power of the American idea that simply isn’t shared by Democrats who (not uniformly, but in large part) consider the country’s history a source of shame, not pride. Trump’s sentimentalism about America’s past might not be shared by liberals, but it is shared by a great many voters, who think obsessions about slavery and racial justice are nuts, and that America is broadly speaking a force for good.

Patriotic, nationalist, anti-war, sceptical of globalisation, strong on law and order, and relentlessly opposed to campus-style woke politics. That’s what Trumpism is. And it is remarkably popular, and, as he has demonstrated this time out, likely to grow in popularity amongst demographics that liberals think and assume should be theirs by right.

For several decades now, Liberals have been crafting an identity politics of grievance and victimhood. How it works is simple enough: If you are gay, a woman, dark skinned, transgendered, or any one of fifteen other demographics, then you share a common victimhood and should vote against your enemies, who are broadly white, straight, male, and wealthy.

Trump’s genius, by contrast, has been to foster an identity politics of his own: If you like your country, if you like your job, if you like law and order, and free speech, and any one of fifteen other things, then you are with him. What he’s done is to take identity politics and weaponise it against the left. And it is paying handsome electoral dividends, even if he ultimately does not win on this occasion.

Donald J. Trump was supposed to destroy conservatism. What he’s actually done is to reinvigorate it, give it purpose and identity, and a common tribal identity that is blind to colour and creed.

Reagan and Thatcher’s conservatism dominated Global politics for nearly two decades after they left office. Trump’s brand of conservatism, you suspect, will dominate global politics for just as long.

Even if Trump leaves office in January, Trumpism will be with us – and winning elections – for years to come. Bidenism, on the other hand, may not last so long. In this election, Biden was a passenger of his party. Trump defined, and will continue to define, his.

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