The Republican nomination race in the United States has given the world a new term: Trumpism. Obviously, Trumpism is linked to the person Donald Trump but its roots run much deeper, intertwining contemporary and traditional political trends in such a way that makes it both uniquely American and of the 21st century, distinct from the European Fascism of the last century.
The four characteristics that define Trumpism are distillations of much more complicated phenomena but provide a brief explanation of its surprising appeal. Whatever the outcome of GOP primaries, the success of Trumpism demands more serious thinking about its origins and future.
Whether movie stars running for office or candidates appearing on late-night talk shows, celebrity has long played a role in American presidential politics.
But, celebrity has empowered Trumpism in two unique ways. First, unlike other politicians that seek to frame or reframe their image through positive media coverage during a campaign, Trump’s celebrity persona as a CEO and tough decision-maker was already cemented and well-suited to his desired political image. With this tremendous advantage over his rivals, and despite his many blunders on the campaign trail, this image has endured even under withering criticism that would destroy any other candidate.
Second, the celebrity character of Trumpism appeals to citizens that would otherwise be disengaged from politics, with Trump serving as a placeholder for their unsatisfied wants and dreams. The ability to translate the cultural capital of celebrity into political capital seems also to mean that one-time spectators can be similarly transformed into motivated voters.
Trumpism is also defined by nativism. This movement reaches back to the mid-19th century Know-Nothing agitation and short-lived American Party that combined anti-immigrant sentiment with conspiracy theories about foreigners.
Following in the same tradition, Trumpism first emerged as part of the birther movement. While already debunked in the mainstream, Trump’s 2011 public and calculated demand that the President release his full birth certificate, kept him in the media spotlight for well over a year and greatly helped him to develop an initial base of support. Notably, in the late summer of last year, Public Policy Polling released a national survey that showed 61 percent of Trump supporters still identify as birthers.
Under the triumphalist banner “Make America Great Again,” this same conspiratorial fear of foreigners explains the broad approval for Trump’s impractical pledges to build a wall along the Mexican border and deport all illegal immigrants as well as his unworkable plan to ban all Muslim immigration.
3. The Outsider
Normally, anti-establishment politicians must convince political supporters that they stand in opposition to the entrenched power structure. Ronald Reagan did this very well during his first campaign for Governor of California in 1967. “I am not a politician,” he was fond of saying. “I am an ordinary citizen with a deep-seated belief that much of what troubles us has been brought about by politicians; and it’s high time that more ordinary citizens brought the fresh air of common-sense thinking to bear on these problems.”
But, Trumpism finds strength from the unusual position of the insider-outsider. Trump, the archetypal billionaire insider, often brags that he has turned down millions of dollars from lobbyists and calls his opponents “puppets” of big donors like the Koch Brothers.
Even though he has never run for office, he is too rich and knows the establishment too well to have to curry favour from elites, including the leaders of the Republican Party.
Trumpism appeals to a large group of anti-intellectual, conspiracy minded and alienated malcontents, the same type of voter that backed third party Presidential candidates Ross Perot and George Wallace as well as Senator Joseph McCarthy. It embodies a particular kind of American populism composed of a mish-mash of overt patriotism, economic nationalism, along with a vague commitment to the middle class and an aggressive but indefinite foreign policy.
Like all populism, Trumpism relies on the rhetoric of resentment but is thin on specifics. To the thorny issue of race and police brutality, Trump responds to the chant “Black Lives Matter” by saying “All Lives Matter”; an easy applause line on the campaign trail. Unrestrained by any ideological limitations, Trump is also able to defend some form of universal healthcare “Because the insurance companies are making a fortune because they have control of the politicians.”
Attacks by the mainstream media, his political opponents, and even bona-fide conservatives only serve the narrative that Trumpism threatens the established power structure, further framing Trump as the saviour of the disenfranchised.
These four characteristics of Trumpism make it a unique political phenomenon that has surprising appeal across the political spectrum that also extends beyond Trump himself. Much to the consternation of Republican elites, it also stands well outside of conservative political ideology. The remaining question of whether it has enough appeal to win the GOP nomination and go on to the White House will be answered soon.
Tabachnick is a professor of Political Science at Nipissing University, who has published books and articles in the areas of global politics and political philosophy.