Trumpism After Trump
One does not have to be a science-fiction writer to imagine what will happen if Donald Trump is defeated in November, especially if he loses more states than Mitt Romney did in 2012.
Members of the #NeverTrump wing of the Republican establishment will change their hashtag to #ToldYouSo, contemplating how Jeb Bush, with his reassuring high-school-principal persona and traditional conservative-Republican positions, could have easily defeated the untrustworthy and lefty Hillary Clinton.
The neoconservative knives will be out, with all the usual suspects explaining that what the American people wanted was a president willing to use the full force of American military power to achieve regime change in Damascus and Tehran, among other foreign interventions. In fact, Hillary won because voters embraced her hawkish views while rejecting Trump’s isolationism. The election proved that Americans do want to make the world safe for democracy!
The Club of Growth and the Wall Street Journal editorial page will blame the Donald’s defeat on his drift toward social welfarism and protectionism. Wasn’t it obvious that Americans were in favor of abolishing Medicare and reforming Social Security, and just could not wait for Washington to sign a new free-trade deal with another emerging economy? Americans might have lost their manufacturing jobs and been driven into poverty; but, hey, everyone knows that liberalizing global trade does eventually make everyone more productive and prosperous.
And of course, Trump’s stunning defeat will be a clear sign that the American people have rejected nativism and xenophobia and are in favor of pursuing the current immigration policies (in some “reformed” version) and transforming America into a vigorous multicultural society.
Moreover, any Republican politicians or conservative pundits who dare to question the wisdom of deploying U.S. troops to Syria, or threatening Russia with the use of military force over Ukraine, or allowing China to bombard the American market with cheap and unsafe products—or who call for reinforcing the Mexican border—will be branded Trumpist, isolationist, protectionist, or just racist. How could you adopt the political agenda of a man who had referred to Mexicans as “rapists,” pledged to bar all Muslims from entering into the U.S., and mocked women and the disabled? Shame on you!
These attacks on the defeated presidential candidate and his message could, in turn, prompt those who challenge Republican and conservative orthodoxies, including the Donald himself, to whine that they knew all along that the system was rigged—and to conclude there isn’t much to do now but retreat to the confines of this or that peripheral political sect. The establishment could then depict the Trumpists as a fringe group, the followers of “another Buchanan.” The status quo would be saved. See you in Davos next month!
But it’s quite possible that this depressing scenario will not unfold even if Hillary wins big in November. A loss, even the loss of a political amateur with a narcissistic personality and anger issues, would suck for Republicans. But it would force them to confront the fact that his message has resonated with the base of the party and holds the potential for an electoral realignment.
If Trump loses, a Republican political entrepreneur searching for ways to revive the GOP should try to refashion Trumpism—not as a white ethno-nationalist ideology, but as a new and inclusive political movement along the lines of a New Nationalism, an American Gaullism, or a modified version of globalism that places the national interest at its center. It would be more communitarian than libertarian in its general approach, more Hamiltonian than Jeffersonian on economic policy, and more Nixonian than Cheneyan on foreign policy.
When #NeverTrump honcho Bill Kristol tweeted in July that “I’m old enough to remember when the Republican nominee was pro-war, pro-TPP, and pro-Wall Street … and proud of it!” he demonstrated the extent to which the neoconservatives and free marketers who lead the GOP live in a bubble.
Another telling moment of this year’s Republican presidential campaign was the primary in South Carolina, where Republican voters (including many veterans) traditionally support a strong military. The early conventional wisdom was that Trump’s brutal attacks against President George W. Bush and his Iraq fiasco would backfire and provide a win for Jeb Bush, especially since the entire Bush clan showed up in the state to campaign. But Trump won, a clear indication that the foreign-policy axioms represented by the neoconservative wing of the party have lost their appeal to Republican voters and the American people in general.
That conclusion has been buttressed by results of numerous public-opinion polls that reflect growing American resistance to military interventions abroad, especially in the name of nation-building and exporting democracy, and explains why President Barack Obama has rejected the advice of Democrats like Clinton and the majority of the Republican talking heads to do a rerun of the Iraq War in Syria and launch World War III against Russia.
Similarly, as the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries proceeded during the year, it has become clear even to Tom Friedman what many of us at TAC have been pointing out for years: that the economically squeezed and culturally marginalized members of the American middle class are just not tired of the never-ending wars in the Middle East. They are also turning against the entire set of political and economic dogmas represented by “globalism” or “neo-liberalism” favored by both the Republican and Democratic elites.
This anti-globalism inclination is also driving the growing opposition to mass illegal immigration, international trade agreements, and supranational institutions. It was anticipated long ago by Samuel Huntington—and, for that matter, Pat Buchanan and Sam Francis. It is now a political reality and explains why Trump has emerged as the presumptive Republican presidential candidate.
Anyone who is not consumed by the wishful thinking of globalism needs to recognize these electoral trends and respond to them. Republican strategists should advise politicians, including presidential candidates, to adjust to this new reality.
Supporters of free trade and open immigration don’t have to turn into born-again protectionists or nativist “know nothings”; neoconservatives don’t have to turn into isolationists. Between the extremes is a long continuum on which presidents (including Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon) have operated in the past—with strategic prudence on foreign policy, coupled with trade and immigration policies that advance U.S. national interests as opposed to fuzzy universalist goals.
Instead of seeking out this middle ground, the Republican elites, joined by the mainstream media, have mounted a counter-revolution based on a political narrative that portrays Trump and his supporters as bigots, racists, and nativists. And Trump played into the hands of these critics by making comments that were easily construed as bigoted or just plain stupid, and by failing to promote a coherent policy agenda (notwithstanding telepromptered speeches on foreign policy and trade). Even when he made the reasonable point that ousting Saddam Hussein harmed U.S. interests, for example, he hurt himself and his argument by complimenting Saddam.
Some of Trump’s Republican critics projected empathy toward the Trumpists—you know, those poor white folks who lost their jobs and resent the changing demographics and culture in the country. They are angry, the thinking went—but then they are old white men who will soon disappear from the lists of voter registration. So the main task of the GOP in the coming post-Trump era should be to resurrect the coalition between the national-security neoconservatives and the economic libertarians, backed as usual by the social conservatives, and to continue to appeal to blacks, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, Millennials, and other rising demographic groups.
But whom do the foreign policy hawks and the free marketers really represent, except for the financial donors who sustain their think tanks and magazines? If anything, a Republican presidential candidate running on “a pro-war, pro-TPP, and pro-Wall Street” platform would not win the Republican primaries and is certain not to win the general election. If the United States had a parliamentary system, Kristol’s version of the ideal GOP would probably win around 15 percent of the votes in a general election. And that assumes the neoconservatives, the libertarians, and the social conservatives could find enough political common ground to work together.
A different kind of nationalism—a New Nationalism, an American Gaullism—is far more promising. Indeed, there is no reason it couldn’t also appeal to African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and new immigrants. Trumpism without Trump could actually prove to be more successful than Trumpism with Trump.
Leon Hadar is a senior analyst with Wikistrat, a geo-strategic consulting firm, and teaches international relations at the University of Maryland, College Park.