In the weeks following the presidential election and preceding his departure from office, Donald Trump managed to do what his enemies, as hard as they tried, could not do in four years: He thoroughly disgraced, discredited and marginalized himself.
By persisting in challenging the election, and then inciting a riot, and thus assaulting American liberal democracy itself, which no president has ever done, Trump destroyed his own legacy.
Whether that means he is finished politically no one can know. But he has surely sealed his fate with the historians. The last days will overshadow everything else, and the Never Trumpers — Republicans who said “I like many of his policies and some of his appointments, but the man is an authoritarian nutcase” — will be vindicated.
But, is it possible to separate Donald Trump from the movement he led, the instincts and impulses he expressed, the yearnings of the people he both inspired and exploited — the “deplorables” and their many silent kin?
The bumper sticker credo of Trumpism can be summarized in four slogan-like notions:
— America first.
— Bring back manufacturing.
— Represent rural and flyover America.
— Disturb, if you cannot dismantle, the elites and their norms of governance and political engagement.
Is there any good in any of that? Anything worth keeping? Or is it all half-baked crankery, or worse?
Again, the historians will have their say on a presidency unlike any other and a social movement populated by people who do not join movements.
But what we can say is that there are some solid instincts in Trumpism, mixed with a fair amount of crankery.
For example, an aggressive trade policy, in which trade is managed and there is reciprocity between trading partners, and American interests and workers are put first, makes great sense. But promising to bring back coal is an empty promise.
Or: Having a secure southern border is simply necessary. But the “wall” was over the top, just as separating children from parents was morally repugnant.
One key flaw in Trumpism is that it is a reaction. It is not a doctrine but a corrective, at best, and a mere posture, at worse.
Trumpism contains no ideal or a worldview from which one can glean a game plan, only those gut precepts.
Still, as a reaction it is a legitimate, even profound, one. Trumpism is a reaction to the rather stupendous failure of our elites these last 50 or 60 years. They have given us unwinnable wars and sent our best kids abroad to die in them. They also sent our best jobs — making things — abroad.
It’s a pretty wretched record.
No one asked the people of Lima or Youngstown, Ohio, or Scranton, Pennsylvania, where Joe Biden spent his early years, if they wanted “free trade” and a “global economy.” No one asked them about keeping troops in Germany for 80 years after World War II.
Without developing a counter-elite, however — people good at government and thinking about government — the Trumpian reaction was often reduced to the president’s tweets and Barnum-like behavior or Huey Long-style rallies, with the traditional remedies of Republican politicians and think tanks as an add-on.
It was the Republican establishment that gave us three originalists on the Supreme Court and the better people who passed through the Trump national security team, many of whom were later fired by the president. The Trump presidency gave us new rhetoric but no new public policy ideas to flesh out the instincts, except on trade.
Trump did change the debate on trade. Everyone is a managed trader now. When we are out of the storm, and the after-storm, of COVID-19, expect everyone from Mike Pence to Elizabeth Warren to be for managed trade.
Ironically, GOP dogma on trade is now what, for generations, was the position of the labor movement and Roosevelt liberals in the Democratic Party.
In many ways, Trump blew it. His movement met its moment, but he wore us out before it could take hold.
A Marshall Plan for small-town America, for example, cannot happen any time soon. For we have already spent the money we don’t have on COVID-19 bailouts, tax cuts and the border wall.
It is impossible to see how more national debt — we are at $27 trillion-plus — is sustainable.
But the other part of Trumpism that will surely remain predates him and was merely co-opted by him — the conservative pushback in the cultural wars.
As the left continues to press its attacks on free thought and speech, its hostility to traditional values and life choices, its hostility to capitalism, organized religion, history, tradition, the police and the family, more and more Americans are likely to be repulsed.
Cultural conservatism is ever renewed by the coarseness of our culture and the bullying of the political left.
Trump was the unlikely tribune of cultural conservatism. (He absurdly stood in front of a D.C. church holding up a Bible after a military guard paved his way — never thinking to go into the church and pray.) But that does not mean a better champion will not come along.
A loud “no” to statism and the dominant culture resonates with a great many Americans — roughly 71 million Americans.
If the alternatives are cultural conservatism, or libertarian populism with respect for law, or the smug, controlling PC fascism of the left, many Americans will pick the closest approximation to one of the first two. And that means Republicans and/or Trumpist Republicans. Not feeling the benefits of the supercilious and censorious Twitter mob, many voters will opt for being left alone — with their “guns or religion,” and their many other un-woke thoughts.
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