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In Defense of Intellectual Trumpism

Leave aside the man's personal defects. Let's look at his policy positions and whether they are still worthy of 'thinking conservatives.'

In his recent New York Times review of Andrew Bacevich’s new anthology of “conservative” writings, columnist George Will tosses out a dig at “self-described ‘national conservatives,’ convinced that ‘the thinking person’s Trumpism’ is not an oxymoron.” These poor souls, he adds, are “struggling to infuse intellectual content into the simmering stew of economic nationalism, resentment of globalization’s disruptions and nostalgia for the economy and communities of the 1950s.” 

Though Will issued his characterization merely in passing, part of a broader point about conservatism’s ambiguous attitude toward modernity, it was meant to sting. In terms of intellectual content, he seems to be saying, Trump and Trumpism are the same thing. 

But are they? Trumpism got Donald Trump elected in 2016. If he loses in 2020, as seems increasingly likely, it won’t be because of Trumpism but because of his own severe limitations as a leader. As president, Trump has been a haphazard and largely hapless exponent of Trumpism.

Leaving aside Trump, what is Trumpism? And why is it inherently contradictory to the thoughts of thinking people? Of course, Trump himself is not a thinking person. He operates by instinct and viscera. But those attributes provided him with enough insight in 2016 to understand that a host of issues were agitating a substantial constituency that had been forgotten or dismissed by the political establishment. So he ran against the establishment and won. That doesn’t reflect particularly well on the establishment—a habitat, of course, of thinking people. 

If we confine ourselves to the general policy positions that Trump ran on in 2016 and leave aside his empty governance and his incapacity to build a governing coalition, we can distill the essence of Trumpism. And then we can assess whether it is worthy of thinking people. The component parts: 

The World We Live In: One of Trump’s sharpest insights was that we no longer live in the world that brought us Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley, and Ronald Reagan. Their conservatism was right for their time, and Reagan was the right man to carry it to national prominence. But the country and the world have changed since then. In 2016, Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders were the only politicians who pressed the view that the status quo was crumbling. And Trump, in capturing the Republican Party in the primaries, made clear he had little regard for the issue clusters and sensibilities that had guided the party since Goldwater. 

Immigration: Nothing illustrates this more starkly than immigration, which likely was the single most powerful issue that propelled Trump into the White House. When Reagan ran for president in 1980, the proportion of foreign born persons in the country was 6.2 percent. In 2016, it was 13.5 percent. Today, it is approaching 15 percent. History tells us that, when this important metric approaches or exceeds 14 percent, as it did around the turn of the last century, political concerns emerge about the ability of the country to assimilate such immigration numbers smoothly. Smart politicians pay attention, but the establishment politicians of 2016 ignored it. 

This no doubt was part of what George Will was talking about when he referred to those seeking to infuse intellectual content into the “simmering stew of…globalization’s disruptions.” But why is it smart to disdain those concerned about the disruptions wrought by immigration flows exceeding anything ever seen before in the country? Particularly when the last time they approached today’s level, a century ago, the country became agitated and moved decisively to curb that inflow? To understand this political reality is an element of Trumpism, and to have a finger on the pulse of political sentiment would seem to be an example of a “thinking person’s Trumpism.” Further, those who either missed it or ignored it don’t look much like thinking people, and their ignorance or ideological zeal helped give us Donald Trump.

Trade: The Republican Party of Goldwater, Buckley, and Reagan was a free-trade party (though Reagan was willing to stray from that doctrine in deft and often camouflaged ways when political pressures impinged upon him). Trump ripped away the free-trade label. Does this represent another of those disassociations of Trumpism from thinking people? Well, the Republican Party was consistently protectionist from its beginning in the 1850s right up until the end of World War II. One president during that time, William McKinley, sought to craft a new doctrine, called “reciprocity,” dedicated to multiple bilateral agreements in which two countries mutually reduced trade barriers. He didn’t have a chance to demonstrate how well it could work before he was killed in 1901. His successor, Theodore Roosevelt, promptly abandoned the concept. 

The Trump trade policy bears a serious resemblance to McKinley’s “reciprocity” concept. Whatever one thinks of it, no one can deny that the free trade regimen wasn’t working as advertised. Indeed, it helped hollow out America’s industrial base and devastated the blue-collar working class long considered the country’s brawn and backbone. Further, it became an invitation for other nations, particularly China, to game the system and undermine America’s ability to compete in the global marketplace. And where were our establishment politicians? Clinging to the status quo and refusing to see or address the devastation. Who were the thinking people in this tale?

Financialization of the Economy: Trump went after the big banks of Wall Street during his campaign but hasn’t taken them on as president. He was right the first time. Today, $1 out of every $12 of GDP goes to the financial sector; in the 1950s, it was only $1 for every $40 of GDP. This represents a huge additional cut for people who don’t make anything, don’t create many jobs, and generally just move money around. “The financial system we have now,” wrote Matthew Stewart in The Atlantic a couple years ago, “has been engineered, over decades, by powerful bankers for their own benefit and for that of their posterity.” The federal government favors these elements of society further with lavish tax preferences and other juicy perks of crony capitalism. If Trumpism is what Trump campaigned on in 2016, then the big financial institutions would be under political pressure today, as they should be. 

Foreign Policy: Before Trump, the Republican Party was thoroughly under the sway of internationalists bent on remaking the world in the American image, including through regime change wars and threats of war, and dedicated to preventing the emergence of regional powers allowed to pursue their own interests in their own neighborhoods. Trump ran against all this. As president, severely beleaguered by allegations of Russian “collusion” that turned out to be bogus, he has had to abandon his desire to forge better relations with Russia. He has avoided any new Mideast wars, though his bellicosity toward Iran could yield that result and he has been unable to get the country out of ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. And his foreign policy rhetoric during the campaign clearly was popular with many voters and set new terms of debate both within the party and in the broader political environment.   

Political Correctness: After the 2016 presidential campaign, mathematician Spencer Greenberg conducted a study indicating that anger over political correctness was the second most reliable predictor of Trump support, behind party affiliation and ahead of social conservatism, protectionism, and anti-immigration sentiments. This provided a remarkable window on the frustrations and anger on the part of those who felt they were being dismissed and marginalized by the nation’s liberal elites. No serious presidential candidate had ever taken on the PC forces with Trump’s brand of pugilism, often accompanied by his unsavory mode of expression. It was a brutal pushback against those seeking to silence conservatives by declaring their views to be outside the bounds of proper discourse. It turned out, based on Trump’s forcing the issue onto the national stage, that many Americans were fed up with that political ploy. 

These Trumpian positions of 2016 represent a repository of political sentiment in the country and constitute Trump’s tightly formed political base, which has been and remains about 43 percent of the electorate. Could these positions also serve as bedrock for a broader political movement undergirding a governing coalition for the future? We don’t know because Trump has proved himself incapable of building any such governing coalition. Besides, as he has proved recently, it’s tough to disguise buffoonery in a crisis. But not all of Trumpism is divorced from intelligent thinking, and some of it will still be out there, beckoning a politician, even perhaps a thinking politician, interested in building that coalition. 

Robert W. Merry, former Wall Street Journal correspondent and Congressional Quarterly CEO, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (Simon & Schuster).