Wither the Trump Administration, Enter the Age of Trumpism
By: Michael Cuenco
The lame duck period of an American presidency in which there is an incoming commander-in-chief and an outgoing one is conventionally a period of reflection on what the incumbent president’s legacy is going to be.
However, the current occupant of the White House is anything but conventional. Rather than thoughtful self-reflection, Donald Trump is engaged in a scorched earth battle to sow doubt in the legitimacy of the election through increasingly desperate attempts to overturn the results.
But if Donald Trump stopped to consider what exactly he had “accomplished,” if only indirectly, in five years of electoral politics, he would realize just how much he can take credit for.
First, the president can rest assured that his name will outlive his time in office. Over time, the Republican Party will become less and less the party of Reaganism, as it had been for the last forty years, and it will more and more complete its transformation into the party of Trumpism.
What is Trumpism? Aside from being used as a synonym for nativism and authoritarianism by his many critics, Trumpism can refer to the new working-class coalition and political style that came into being during the Trump years.
From the rural and exurban white working-class voters of the Midwest who gave Trump his 2016 victory to the diverse Latino working-class voters that kept states like Florida and Texas from turning blue, these voters are now the future of the Republican Party, and they are markedly different from the white-collar suburban base of the Reagan-era party, who are in turn moving in the direction of the increasingly more educated, upscale and professional Biden Democrats. If this indeed is the political future of the American right, how might this new coalition affect the Republican policy playbook – which is, after all, still stuck in the small government fixation of the 1980s? Hardly the stuff of a working-class revolution. Critics of the president are right to note that underneath his economic nationalist and pro-worker rhetoric, his administration’s policy record was that of a fairly conventional Republican: corporate tax cuts, deregulation and supply-side economics all around.
Trumpism is, however, making its way in Republican policy circles. Most notably, Oren Cass, a former Mitt Romney adviser has set up American Compass, a think tank dedicated to fighting “free market fundamentalism” within the Republican right. This can help drive out the nuts-and-bolts public policy solutions needed to forge a truly working-class conservatism revolving around such previously verboten “big government” ideas as family allowances and industrial planning.
Another place to look is the policy journal American Affairs, which was founded originally as a forum for an “intellectual Trumpism” before its editor Julius Krein disavowed Donald Trump after the events of Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.
What is notable is that even though Cass and Krein have largely disavowed Trump and reject him personally, they and their organizations continue to flesh out an increasingly sophisticated public policy program that hews closely to the economic nationalist message that Trump ran on in 2016. In other words, it is a “Trumpism without Trump” that rejects the vulgar tweets and inflammatory gestures, but which still embraces the compelling economic critique that Trump levelled against the excesses of neoliberal globalization four years ago.
The intellectual civil war for the soul of conservatism will outlive Trump, but Americans may have to wait until the next generation of Republican leaders – young Senators like Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton - before a genuine policy shift is truly discernable.
Second, and just as consequential, are the changes that Trump has inspired on the opposite side of the aisle in the Democratic Party. The mark of a consequential president is when the other party adopts their political and ideological priorities. Franklin Roosevelt pushed the post-war Republican Party left by forcing them to accept the tenets of the New Deal, while Ronald Reagan pushed the Clinton-era Democratic Party of the 1990s to the right by getting them to embrace his free market, small government ethos.
An analogous shift is underway in the post-Trump Democratic Party, as Joe Biden has shifted his party platform’s emphasis from the pro-globalization “Third Way” policies of the Clinton and Obama years, into a more robustly interventionist direction under the slogan “Build Back Better.” A similar change is happening with respect to the Democrats’ attitude on China. Biden was part of the old forty-year bipartisan foreign policy consensus that treated Beijing as a partner on the international stage, which paved the way to the inclusion of China into the WTO in 1999. Now, however, Biden has struck a more forceful and defiant tone toward the Chinese, promising to be tougher on the rising Asian power than Trump ever was. He has called Xi Jinping a “thug” and referred to Beijing’s treatment of Muslim Uighurs as “genocide”, a term Trump has not used publicly. However, the Biden administration is expected to take a more calculated approach grounded in “strategic competition” rather than the raw bluster that Trump so often employed.
The Democratic platform appears then to be changing just as significantly as the Republican one and this development would likely not have happened so swiftly had Hillary Clinton won in 2016. The pressure and the incentive to change in response to Trump was the deciding factor. The lurch toward interventionism will also likely have the effect of empowering the ascendant socialist left, whose arguments for structural economic change will only be vindicated. Looking back at the Trump years, it is easy to get lost in the outrageous rhetorical provocations of the forty-fifth president. It is harder to hone in on the substantive and longer-lasting changes to American politics and bipartisan policymaking that his presidency has unleashed.
Donald Trump and his administration may now be consigned to the past, but the era of Trumpism, for good or ill, has only just begun.
Michael Cuenco is a recent graduate of the Master of Global Affairs program at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. He has written on public policy issues in Policy Options, American Affairs, National Post, The Monitor and The American Conservative.