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Trumpism is US

Trumpism is not the same as Trump. America contains multiple traditions typically named after some of its famous presidents including Madison, Jefferson, Wilson and Jackson. Rarely does the good of any one tradition appear without a dose of the bad of another. And vice-versa.

Focusing excessively on the flaws of President Trump – his ignorance, vulgarity, crudeness and authoritarianism – and on his political genius – to divide, fabricate, destabilize and corrupt – implies that voting him out of office will return America to its normal and better self. Not so.  Trumpism is part of America. To quote Walt Whitman’s poem Song of Myself: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes).”

Trumpism is not an abnormality but a contemporary offshoot of America’s Jacksonian tradition. Trump is easily stirred. Trumpism is not. It does not want to fight. Once it is aroused, however, it will fight ferociously. A product of the American heartland, it is anti-elitist, anti-urban and racist. Revived by Newt Gingrich and his 1994 Contract with America, in the last two decades American populism has grown on both sides of the political spectrum.  After 2012, the grassroots Tea Party created an insurgency inside the Republican camp that, with Trump at its helm, eventually took over the party. A spent political force, Reaganism, far from opposing this development, has benefitted from the mobilization of millions who had been excluded from the political process.  A populist surge mobilizing the Left of the Democratic party after 2016 yielded a landslide victory in the 2018 Congressional elections. Now a populist clash is looming for the 2020 Presidential election.

Trumpism has pushed aside both mainstream conservatives and intellectual neoconservatives. Thus it has changed the American conservative movement. Some parts of the Reaganist script endure: tax cuts, small government, strong military, ready acceptance of growing inequality, inaction on or outright opposition to environmental issues, and bulging deficits. New items have been added: misogyny, racial prejudice, and xenophobia.

The Three Pillars of Trumpism: 1) Ethnonationalism

Trumpism rests on three pillars: ethnonationalism, religion, and race. Andrew Jackson was a nineteenth-century ethnonationalist and a creator of a political revolution for the common man. Common, that is, as long as s/he was white.  Ethnonationalism was rooted among white Scottish-Irish settlers and white slave-owning Southerners. It was virulent along the American frontier where Jackson fought a genocidal war against American-Indians. He followed the strategy of settler imperialists everywhere: Occupy land claimed to be empty and then empty the land of its occupants.

Since the end of World War II Jacksonianism has reappeared three times in American politics. Joe MacCarthy’s anti-Communist witch hunt in the early 1950s sprung from the American heartland and targeted the liberal east-coast Establishment. In the 1990s Pat Buchanan ran three times for President and enjoyed a high-profile career as a sought-after pundit espousing protectionist and nationalist ideas. Ross Perot, a business tycoon, made NAFTA and the “sucking sound” of jobs leaving for Canada and Mexico the signature issue of his Presidential campaign in 1992. His third-party candidacy drained away so many votes from George H.W. Bush the elder that the upstart Bill Clinton was elected President. After 2016 these strands of 1950s Protestant nativism and 1990s nationalist populism have merged in Trumpism.

2) Religion and the Christian Right

Besides ethnonationalism, religion is a second pillar of Trumpism. Donald Trump himself wears his religion lightly. He prefers golf courses to church pews. For better and for worse, his personal conduct has introduced a French flair into the puritanical public code of American politics. In the Republican primaries the Christian Right was opposed to this profane, thrice-married, adulterous, self-admitted pussy-grabbing, 10-times-sexual-harassment-accused, former owner of a strip club. In the general election, however, more than 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. Since then, with few exceptions, the Christian Right has covered the President’s back and become a strong pillar of Trumpism inside the Republican party. In putting together his political team Donald Trump has honored his bargain with the Christian Right. A number of his top-level appointments (including Vice President Pence, Carson, DeVos, Perry and Pompeo) are reported to have formed a cabinet-level bible study group.

For Europeans it is easy to underestimate the political and social force of organized religion in American life. Since 1945 the rise of suburban churches, religious mass movements and the religious Right have defied the pressures of secularization. Furthermore, American churches have maintained the dense associational life of civil society that Tocqueville admired almost two centuries ago. In local politics, churches compensate for the weakness of the American state. In national affairs, since the 1970s, the Christian Right has become a formidable conservative force that has rallied in support of Israel, developed strong anti-Islamic sentiments, and, more recently, cultivated an affinity with Russia’s orthodox, Christianity. 

3) Race

Race is a third pillar of Trumpism. Decades ago, conservative racism in American shed Teddy Roosevelt’s infatuation with Europe’s brutal, imperialist racism. Conservative racism has been influenced instead by a liberal Wilsonianism that is implicated in America’s indigenous racist tradition. Wilson was a man of the South. His views on race shaped the U.S. approach to world politics. To the consternation of the Japanese delegates, for example, Wilson vetoed the racial equality clause at the Treaty of Versailles. Similarly, after 1945, the liberal international order that the U.S. built was supported by a domestic coalition of internationalist Democrats from the Northeast and segregationist Democrats from the South. German and European reconstruction were thus made possible by American domestic political arrangements that kept African-Americans down and out.

During the 1950s and 1960s the civil rights movement, court decisions and legislation changed those arrangements. The Democrats lost the South and turned to “multiculturalism.” The Republicans gained the South and criticized “political correctness.” The American political dictionary thus acquired two terms denoting “non-white” – America’s inescapable demographic future. For now, illegal immigration and illegal voting have become two hotly contested issues, and so has the Republican strategy of vote suppression. Appeals to the issue of race are a staple of contemporary American politics as all politicians seek to mobilize voters who do not consider themselves to be racist. Trump’s campaign and Trumpism have been very open in making race a political issue by, among others, spreading doubts about President Obama’s birth certificate, labelling Mexicans as “murderers” and “rapists,” and equating Islam with ISIS.

America the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Trump and Trumpism have been activated by the precarious economic conditions that many Americans experience while living in a society marked by growing inequality. Forgotten by both parties for decades, Hillary Clinton’s “economic deplorables” took revenge by voting in large numbers for a political outsider in 2016. Their support of the President has not wavered: despite the depth of the swamp that he has brought to Washington; despite a tax cut that overwhelmingly favored corporations and the rich; despite conspicuous failures or lack of progress on any of his foreign policy issues; and despite political inaction on most issues that might improve their lives. Despite these disappointments, the Jacksonian tradition that Trumpism stands for has a strong grip on his supporters.

Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, tells the story of three gunslingers searching for a buried cache of Confederate gold during the chaos of the Civil War. Clint Eastwoood’s bounty hunter takes lives only in self-defense. He wants to get rich. Lee Van Cleef’s sadistic US Army sergeant, murders, tortures and robs. Greed devours him. Eli Wallach’s racially inferior Mexamerican is motivated only by short-term interest. American political debates have traditionally centered on the two competing images of America the Good (the U.S as a reluctant superpower), and America the Bad (America’s limitless expansion). Trumpism and Trump focus our attention on America the Ugly. Bypassing both conservative “democratic realism” and liberal “interventionist realism,” America the Ugly favors a “transactional realism” motivated by short-term bargains concluded in the interest of “national greatness.”

Nobody can predict how long and in which form ugliness will continue to shape American politics and policy. For widespread anxiety, disgust, and fury feed a powerful anti-Trump and anti-Trumpism political mobilization. But it is safe to venture one guess. The enduring power of America’s multiple traditions will compel us to look beyond America the ugly to also take a full measure of the bad and the good America.  Trumpism as an indelible part of America’s multiple resonates, at least to me, with these words Samuel Beckett penned in 1953:

It is grey we need –

Made of bright and black,

Able to shed the former

Or the latter,

And be the latter

Or the former -

Alone.

 

March 20, 2019.

Bild
Peter J. Katzenstein (Filmstill: konzept.autoren.de)
Peter J. Katzenstein (Filmstill: konzept.autoren.de)

About the Author

Peter J. Katzenstein is Professor of International Studies at Cornell University. From 2019 to 2023, he holds a visiting research professorship at the WZB's Global Politics unit.

WZB-Mitteilungen

A German translation of this text was published in the June 2019 edition of the WZB-Mitteilungen. Click here to download it.