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Trumpism is a term for the political ideology, style of governance, political movement, and/or set of mechanisms for acquiring and keeping power that are associated with Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States (2017–present), and his political base. It is an American politics version of the right-wing to far-right, national-populist sentiment seen in multiple nations worldwide and holds some aspects of illiberal democracy.
Ideologies and themes
Trumpism started its development predominantly in Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. It denotes a populist political method that suggests nationalistic answers to complex political, economic, and social problems. As a political method, populism is not driven by any particular ideology. Former National Security Advisor and former close Trump advisor John Bolton states this is true about Trump, disputing that "Trumpism" even exists in any meaningful philosophical sense, emphasizing that "[t]he man does not have a philosophy. And people can try and draw lines between the dots of his decisions. They will fail."
In the Routledge Handbook of Global Populism (2019), multiple co-authors note that populist leaders are instead pragmatic and opportunistic regarding themes, ideas and beliefs that strongly resonate with their followers. Exit polling data suggests the campaign was successful at mobilizing the "white disenfranchised", the lower- to working-class European-Americans who are experiencing growing social inequality and who often have stated opposition to the American political establishment. Ideologically, Trumpism has a right-wing populist accent.
Trumpism differs from classical Abraham Lincoln Republicanism in many ways regarding free trade, immigration, equality, checks and balances in federal government, and the separation of church and state. Peter J. Katzenstein of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center believes that Trumpism rests on three pillars, namely nationalism, religion, and race.
The roots of Trumpism in the United States can be traced to the Jacksonian era according to scholars Walter Russell Mead, Peter Katzenstein and Edwin Kent Morris. Mead, a noted historian and distinguished fellow at the conservative-leaning Hudson Institute acknowledges that the Jacksonians were often a xenophobic, "whites only" political movement.
Andrew Jackson's followers felt he was one of them, enthusiastically supporting his defiance of politically correct norms of the nineteenth century and even constitutional law when they stood in the way of public policy popular among his followers. Jackson ignored the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Worcester v. Georgia and initiated the forced Cherokee removal from their treaty protected lands to benefit white locals at the cost of between 2,000 and 6,000 dead Cherokee men women and children. Notwithstanding such cases of Jacksonian inhumanity, Mead's view is that Jacksonianism provides the historical precedent explaining the movement of followers of Trump, marrying grass-roots disdain for elites, deep suspicion of overseas entanglements, and obsession with American power and sovereignty. Mead thinks this "hunger in America for a Jacksonian figure" drives followers towards Trump but cautions that historically "he is not the second coming of Andrew Jackson", observing that "his proposals tended to be pretty vague and often contradictory", exhibiting the common weakness of newly elected populist leaders- commenting early in his presidency that "now he has the difficulty of, you know, 'How do you govern?"
Political science scholar Morris agrees with Mead, locating Trumpism's roots in the Jacksonian era from 1828 to 1848 under the presidencies of Jackson, Martin Van Buren and James K. Polk. On Morris's view, Trumpism also shares similarities with the post-World War I faction of the progressive movement which catered to a conservative populist recoil from the looser morality of the cosmopolitan cites and America's changing racial complexion. In his book The Age of Reform (1955), historian Richard Hofstadter identified this faction's emergence when "a large part of the Progressive-Populist tradition had turned sour, became illiberal and ill-tempered."
Prior to World War II, conservative interests of Trumpism were expressed in the America First movement in the early 20th century, and after World War II were attributed to a Republican Party faction known as the Old Right. By the 1990s, it became referred to as the paleoconservative movement, which according to Morris has now been rebranded as Trumpism. Leo Löwenthal's book Prophets of Deceit (1949) summarized common narratives expressed in the post-World War II period of this populist fringe, specifically examining American demagogues of the period when modern mass media was married with the same destructive style of politics that historian Charles Clavey thinks Trumpism represents. According to Clavey, Löwenthal's book best explains the enduring appeal of Trumpism and offers the most striking historical insights into the movement.
Writing in The New Yorker, journalist Nicholas Lemann states the post-war Republican Party ideology of fusionism, a fusion of pro-business party establishment with nativist, isolationist elements who gravitated towards the Republican and not the Democratic Party, later joined by Christian evangelicals "alarmed by the rise of secularism", was made possible by the Cold War and the "mutual fear and hatred of the spread of Communism."
Championed by William F. Buckley Jr. and brought to fruition by Ronald Reagan in 1980, the fusion lost its glue with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was followed by a growth of inequality and globalization that "created major discontent among middle and low income whites" within and without the Republican Party. After the 2012 United States presidential election saw the defeat of Mitt Romney by Barack Obama, the party establishment embraced an "autopsy" report, titled the Growth and Opportunity Project, which "called on the Party to reaffirm its identity as pro-market, government-skeptical, and ethnically and culturally inclusive." Ignoring the findings of the report and the party establishment in his campaign, Trump was "opposed by more officials in his own Party [...] than any Presidential nominee in recent American history", but at the same time he won "more votes" in the Republican primaries than any previous presidential candidate. By 2016, "people wanted somebody to throw a brick through a plate-glass window", in the words of political analyst Karl Rove. His success in the party was such that an October 2020 poll found 58% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents surveyed considered themselves a supporters of Trump rather than the Republican Party.
In terms of foreign policy in the sense of Trump's "America First", unilateralism is preferred to a multilateral policy and national interests are particularly emphasized, especially in the context of economic treaties and alliance obligations. Trump has shown a disdain for traditional American allies such as Canada as well as transatlantic partners NATO and the European Union. Conversely, Trump has shown sympathy for autocratic rulers, especially for the Russian president Vladimir Putin, whom Trump often praised even before taking office, and during the 2018 Russia–United States summit. The "America First" foreign policy includes promises by Trump to end American involvement in foreign wars, notably in the Middle East, while also issuing tighter foreign policy through sanctions against Iran, among other countries.
In terms of economic policy, Trumpism "promises new jobs and more domestic investment." Trump's hard line against export surpluses of American trading partners has led to a tense situation in 2018 with mutually imposed punitive tariffs between the United States on the one hand and the European Union and China on the other. Trump secures the support of his political base with a policy that strongly emphasizes nationalism and criticism of globalization.
Journalist Elaina Plott suggests ideology is not as important as other characteristics of Trumpism.[Note 1] Plott cites political analyst Jeff Roe, who observed Trump "understood" and acted on the trend among Republican voters to be "less ideological" but "more polarized". Republicans are now more willing to accept policies like government mandated health care coverage for pre-existing conditions or trade tariffs, formerly considered burdensome government regulations by conservatives. At the same time, strong avowals of support for Trump and aggressive partisanship have become part of Republican election campaigning in at least some parts of America, reaching down even to formerly collegial, issue-driven, non-partisan campaigns for local government. Research by political scientist Marc Hetherington and others has found Trump supporters tend to share a "worldview" transcending political ideology, agreeing with statements like "the best strategy is to play hardball, even if it means being unfair." In contrast, those who agree with statements like "cooperation is the key to success" tend to prefer Trump's adversary Mitt Romney.
Journalist Nicholas Lemann notes the disconnect between some of the Trump campaign's rhetoric (anti-free-trade nationalism, defense of Social Security, attacks on big business) and campaign promises ("building that big, beautiful wall and making Mexico pay for it", repealing Obama's Affordable Care Act, a trillion dollar infrastructure-building program), and the "conventional" Republican policies and legislation enacted by the Trump administration (substantial tax cuts, rollbacks of federal regulations, and increases in military spending). Many have noted that instead of the National Republican Convention issuing the customary "platform" of policies and promises for the 2020 campaign, it offered a "one-page resolution" stating that the party was not "going to have a new platform, but instead [...] 'has and will continue to enthusiastically support the president's America-first agenda.'"[Note 2]
According to civil-rights lawyer Burt Neuborne and political theorist William E. Connolly, Trumpist rhetoric employs tropes similar to those used by fascists in Germany to persuade citizens (at first a minority) to give up democracy, by using a barrage of falsehoods, half-truths, personal invective, threats, xenophobia, national-security scares, religious bigotry, white racism, exploitation of economic insecurity, and a never-ending search for scapegoats. Neuborne found twenty parallel practices, such as:
- Creating what amounts to an alternative reality in adherents' minds, through direct communications, by nurturing a fawning mass media, and by deriding scientists to erode the notion of objective truth
- Organizing carefully orchestrated mass rallies
- Bitterly attacking judges when legal cases are lost or rejected
- Using an uninterrupted stream of lies, half-truths, insults, vituperation, and innuendo designed to marginalize, demonize, and eventually destroy opponents
- Making jingoistic appeals to ultra-nationalist fervor
- Promising to slow, stop, and even reverse the flow of "undesirable" ethnic groups who are cast as scapegoats for the nation's ills
Connolly presents a similar list in his book Aspirational Fascism (2017), adding comparisons of the integration of theatrics and crowd participation with rhetoric, involving grandiose bodily gestures, grimaces, hysterical charges, dramatic repetitions of alternate reality falsehoods, and totalistic assertions incorporated into signature phrases that audiences are strongly encouraged to join in chanting. Despite the similarities, Connolly stresses that Trump is no Nazi but "is rather, an aspirational fascist who pursues crowd adulation, hyperaggressive nationalism, white triumphalism, and militarism, pursues a law-and-order regime giving unaccountable power to the police, and is a practitioner of a rhetorical style that regularly creates fake news and smears opponents to mobilize support for the Big Lies he advances."
Rhetorically, Trumpism employs absolutist framings and threat narratives characterized by a rejection of the political establishment. The absolutist rhetoric emphasizes non-negotiable boundaries and moral outrage at their supposed violation. The rhetorical pattern within a Trump rally is common for authoritarian movements. First, elicit a sense of depression, humiliation and victimhood. Second, separate the world into two opposing groups: a relentlessly demonized set of others versus those who have the power and will to overcome them. This involves vividly identifying the enemy supposedly causing the current state of affairs, and then promoting paranoid conspiracy theories to inflame fear and anger. After cycling these first two patterns through the populace, the final message aim to produce a cathartic release of pent-up mob energy, with a promise that salvation is at hand because there is a powerful leader who will deliver the nation back to its former glory.
This three-part pattern was first identified in 1932 by Roger Money-Kyrle and later published in his Psychology of Propaganda. A constant barrage of sensationalistic rhetoric serves to rivet media attention while achieving multiple political objectives, not the least of which is that it serves to obscure actions such as profound neoliberal deregulation. One study gives the example that significant environmental deregulation occurred, but escaped much media attention, during the first year of the Trump administration due to its concurrent use of spectacular racist rhetoric. According to the authors, this served political objectives of dehumanizing its targets, eroding democratic norms, and consolidating power by emotionally connecting with and inflaming resentments among the base of followers, but most importantly it served to distract media attention from deregulatory policymaking by igniting intense media coverage of the distractions, precisely due to their radically transgressive nature.
Reporting on the crowd dynamics of Trumpist rallies has documented expressions of the Money-Kyrle pattern and associated stagecraft, with some comparing the symbiotic dynamics of crowd pleasing to that of the sports entertainment style of events which Trump was involved with since the 1980s. Connolly thinks that the performance draws energy from the crowd's anger as it channels it, drawing it into a collage of anxieties, frustrations and resentments about malaise themes, such as deindustrialisation, outsourcing, race, political correctness, a more humble position for the US in global security and economics, and so on. He observes that animated gestures, pantomiming, facial expressions, strutting and finger pointing are incorporated as part of the theater, transforming the anxiety into anger directed at particular targets, concluding that "each element in a Trump performance flows and folds into the others until an aggressive resonance machine is formed that is more intense than its parts."
Some academics point out that the narrative common in the popular press describing the psychology of such crowds is a repetition of a 19th-century theory by Gustave Le Bon when organized crowds were seen by political elites as potentially anarchic threats to the social order. In his book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895), Le Bon described a sort of collective contagion uniting a crowd into a near religious frenzy, reducing members to barbaric, if not subhuman levels of consciousness with mindless anarchic goals. Since such a description depersonalizes supporters, the criticism is that the would-be defenders of liberal democracy employing the Le Bon narrative simultaneously dodge responsibility for investigating grievances while also unwittingly accepting the same us vs. them framing of illiberalism. Connolly acknowledges the risks but considers it more risky to ignore that Trumpian persuasion is successful due to deliberate use of techniques evoking more mild forms of affective contagion.
The absolutist rhetoric employed heavily favors crowd reaction over veracity with a large number of false or at least misleading statements which Trump presents as facts. Unlike conventional lies of politicians exaggerating their accomplishments, Trump's lies are egregious, making lies about easily verifiable facts. At the end of his first year in office, Trump stated he had signed more legislation than any other administration, when in fact he ranks last among all other post-World War II presidents in their first year. He lies about the trivial, claiming that there was no rain on the day of his inauguration when in fact it did rain. He makes the grandiose Big Lies, such as claiming that Obama founded ISIS, or promoting the birther movement, a conspiracy theory believing Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii. Connolly points to the similarities of such reality bending statements with fascist and post Soviet techniques of propaganda including Kompromat (scandalous material), stating that "Trumpian persuasion draws significantly upon the repetition of Big Lies." Scholar of psychohistory and authority on the nature of cults Robert Jay Lifton emphasizes the importance of understanding Trumpism "as an assault on reality." The leader has more power if he is in any part successful at making truth irrelevant to his followers Trump biographer Timothy L. O'Brien agrees, stating that "[i]t is a core operating principle of Trumpism. If you constantly attack objective reality, you are left as the only trustworthy source of information, which is one of his goals for his relationship with his supporters — that they should believe no one else but him."
Social psychology research into the Trump movement, such as that of Bob Altemeyer, Thomas Pettigrew, and Karen Stenner, views the Trump movement as primarily being driven by the psychological predispositions of its followers. Altemeyer and other researchers such as Pettigrew emphasize that no claim is made that these factors provide a complete explanation. Important political and historical factors such as those mentioned elsewhere in this article are obviously involved. In a non-academic book which he co-authored with John Dean entitled Authoritarian Nightmare: Trump and His Followers, Altemeyer describes research which demonstrates that Trump followers have a distinguishing preference for strongly hierarchical and ethnocentric social orders that favor their in-group. Despite disparate and inconsistent beliefs and ideologies, a coalition of such followers can become cohesive and broad in part because each individual "compartmentalizes" their thoughts and they are free to define their sense of the threatened tribal in-group in their own terms, whether it is predominantly related to their cultural or religious views (e.g. the mystery of evangelical support for Trump), nationalism (e.g. the Make America Great Again slogan), or their race (maintaining a white majority).
Altemeyer, Macwilliams, Feldman, Choma, Hancock, Van Assche and Pettigrew claim that instead of directly attempting to measure such ideological, racial or policy views, supporters of such movements can be reliably predicted by using two social psychology scales (singly or in combination), namely right-wing authoritarian (RWA) measures which were developed in the 1980s by Altemeyer and other authoritarian personality researchers, and the social dominance orientation (SDO) scale developed in the 1990s by social dominance theorists. In May 2019, Monmouth University Polling Institute conducted a study in collaboration with Altemeyer in order to empirically test the hypothesis using the SDO and RWA measures. The finding was that social dominance orientation and affinity for authoritarian leadership are indeed highly correlated with followers of Trumpism. Altemeyer's perspective and his use of an authoritarian scale and SDO to identify Trump followers is not uncommon. His study was a further confirmation of the earlier mentioned studies discussed in MacWilliams (2016), Feldman (2020), Choma and Hancock (2017), and Van Assche & Pettigrew (2016).
The research does not imply that the followers always behave in an authoritarian manner but that expression is contingent, which means that there is reduced influence if it is not triggered by fear and threats. The research is global and similar social psychological techniques for analyzing Trumpism have demonstrated their effectiveness at identifying adherents of similar movements in Europe, including those Belgium and France (Lubbers & Scheepers, 2002; Swyngedouw & Giles, 2007; Van Hiel & Mervielde, 2002; Van Hiel, 2012), the Netherlands (Cornelis & Van Hiel, 2014) and Italy (Leone, Desimoni & Chirumbolo, 2014). Quoting comments from participants in a series of focus groups made up of people who had voted for Democrat Obama in 2012 but flipped to Trump in 2016, pollster Diane Feldman noted the anti-government, anti-costal-élite anger: "'They think they're better than us, they're P.C., they're virtue-signallers.' '[Trump] doesn't come across as one of those people who think they're better than us and are screwing us.' 'They lecture us.' 'They don't even go to church.' 'They're in charge, and they're ripping us off.'"
American historian Robert Paxton poses the question as to whether Trumpism is fascism or not. Instead, Paxton believes that it bears a greater resemblance to a plutocracy, a government which is controlled by a wealthy elite. Sociology professor Dylan John Riley calls Trumpism "neo-Bonapartist patrimonialism". British historian Roger Griffin considers the definition of fascism unfulfilled because Trump does not question the politics of the United States and he also does not want to outright abolish its democratic institutions.
Argentine historian Federico Finchelstein believes that significant intersections exist between Peronism and Trumpism because their mutual disregard for the contemporary political system (both in the area of domestic and foreign policy) is discernible. American historian Christopher Browning considers the long-term consequences of Trump's policies and the support which he receives for them from the Republican Party to be potentially dangerous for democracy. In the German-speaking debate, the term has so far only appeared sporadically, mostly in connection with the crisis of confidence in politics and the media. It then describes the strategy of mostly right-wing political actors who wish to stir up this crisis in order to profit from it. The British Collins English Dictionary named Trumpism, after Brexit, one of its "Words of the Year 2016"; the term, in their definition, denotes both Trump's ideology and his characteristic way of speaking.
In How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship, Turkish author Ece Temelkuran describes Trumpism as echoing a number of views and tactics which were expressed and used by the Turkish politician Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during his rise to power. Some of these tactics and views are right-wing populism; demonization of the press; subversion of well-established and proven facts (both historical and scientific); dismantling judicial and political mechanisms; portraying systematic issues such as sexism or racism as isolated incidents; and crafting an "ideal" citizen.
Political sciencist Mark Blyth and his colleague Jonathan Hopkin believe that strong similarities exist between Trumpism and similar movements towards illiberal democracies worldwide, but they do not believe that Trumpism is a movement which is merely being driven by revulsion, loss, and racism. Hopkin and Blyth argue that on both the right and the left the global economy is driving the growth of neo-nationalist coalitions which find followers who want to be free of the constraints which are being placed on them by establishment elites whose members advocate neoliberal economics and globalism. Others emphasize the lack of interest in finding real solutions to the social malaise which have been identified, and they also believe that those individuals and groups who are executing policy are actually following a pattern which has been identified by sociology researchers like Leo Löwenthal and Norbert Guterman as originating in the post-World War II work of the Frankfurt School of social theory. Based on this perspective, books such as Löwenthal and Guterman's Prophets of Deceit offer the best insights into how movements like Trumpism dupe their followers by perpetuating their misery and preparing them to move further towards an illiberal form of government.
Controversy over the definition or existence of Trumpism
The public at large and the mainstream media do not agree on a single, clear definition for Trumpism. In a 2017 Vox article, senior political editor Jane Coaston asserted that Trumpism does not exist but only Trump does. Coaston wrote:
Trumpism was made out of whole cloth, by his supporters and by his detractors, cobbled together from an amalgamation of The Art of the Deal and divinations of Trump's innermost thoughts based on his staffing decisions and tweets. Trumpism was less an interpretation of another language than a wholly invented phrasebook for a language that was never real in the first place. Trump's genius was in letting millions of people largely believe what they wanted to believe about his policies and preferences and refusing to get in the way.
Subsequently, Vox has published numerous articles using the term. In 2017, National Review also printed an opinion piece by Coaston stating that "Trumpism doesn't exist", but printed six articles in 2020 alone employing it as a meaningful term.
- America First policy under the presidency of Donald Trump
- American nationalism in the Donald Trump presidency
- Civil rights movement
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- Republican Voters Against Trump
- Veracity of statements by Donald Trump
- Plott covers the Republican Party and conservatism as a national political reporter for The New York Times. In her in-depth article on how Trump has remade the Republican Party, Plott interviewed thirty or so Republican officials.
- In contrast, the Democratic Party "adopted a 91-page document with headings such as 'Healing the Soul of America' and 'Restoring and Strengthening Our Democracy'", with disputes over the lack of "language endorsing universal healthcare or the 'Green New Deal' environmental plan."
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Money-Kyle describes not a rhetorical pattern of problem–conflict–resolution, but a progression of psychoanalytic states of mind in the three steps: 1) melancholia, 2) paranoia and 3) megalomania.
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Trump is not Hitler and Trumpism is not Nazism, but regardless of how the Trump presidency concludes, this is a story unlikely to have a happy ending.
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